“The Rising Waters” is even more salient now than when Carl Hassmann drew it in 1906. Then, as now, American society was in a desperate state, thanks to decades of the rich getting richer and leaving everyone else behind. The Gilded Age had created vast industrial wealth while consigning millions to exploitative working conditions and poverty. Landed security became more elusive as labor-saving machinery displaced rural folk and opportunities to homestead shrank with the “closing” of the American frontier. Cities became clogged with Americans seeking the respectability and comfort that came with new white-collar jobs. Continue reading
The colonies had been warring against the English crown for more than a year. Their taking up arms on the periphery of the great British empire had at first been defensive and spontaneous, when, in April 1775, they exchanged fire with the redcoats in Massachusetts at Lexington and Concord. Behind Americans’ resort to arms was a conviction that, if they did not make a stand, the monarchy would strip them of their political autonomy, the ways of being and governing that the colonies had built up over the years. Some began associating loyalty to King George with political servitude.
So they backed up into a nasty situation: with their dander up and their more moderate tactics exhausted, thirteen weakly affiliated colonies had plunged willy-nilly into a war against a mighty power. No one of them could last against the British: they could only prevail by acting as one, by organizing. So the quest to organize the future states into something like a nation began.
It wasn’t the simplest proposition, because at that time the American colonies, though contiguous along the eastern seaboard, were largely strangers to one another. Each colony had its own character and peculiarities, its own governing traditions. They were as distinct and alien to one another, claimed John Adams in 1775, as Indian tribes.
What is most remarkable about the Revolution, yet often taken for granted, is that private citizens in the various colonies voluntarily took on these outlandishly weighty and amorphous duties. As the pace of political instability quickened, leading merchants, journalists, lawyers, intellectuals, printers, and farmers found a way to communicate, to protest, to proselytize, and to bring an entire (formerly tranquil) society together around ambitious and previously unthinkable propositions.
As the colonies became more radicalized, their leadership became shrewder, more obsessive and voluble, spewing forth oratory and addresses and declarations of such variety and power as to unite an entire population around a set of mortally dangerous yet self-respecting demands.
For more than a year, the Continental Army under George Washington had managed to hold together and to keep the British forces busy. But a rebellion that was merely negative–that merely pushed back against the British status quo–scarcely afforded the miserable and fractious colonials with a compelling reason to stay in the field. The moment they grew tired of rebelling against, the British would win.
The passage of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, marks the moment when the various grievances and injuries the colonies suffered under King George were transmuted into one simple positive, practical, political goal. The colonies (now states) declared they were and would be INDEPENDENT. But they also declared themselves to be “the United States of America.” Their first stride toward becoming a true nation came when their leadership, meeting as a “Grand Council of America,” unanimously approved of and proclaimed this as a fait accompli.
What would have happened to the colonists if they had failed to unite? They would probably have been treated as traitors and hung, their fate not too different from what is happening to political dissidents today in Hong Kong.
Today we look back on the leaders of the Revolution and marvel at their sins. We blame them for the political sins of generations of American leaders who came after them. How could they be so narrow-minded, so selfish and blind? Yet without their flawed vision, without their imperfect realization of a universal dream, without their amazing skills as political strategists and activists, where would you and I be today? What language would we be speaking? What narrow confines would shape our political dreams?
Image: “The Battle at Bunker’s Hill,”
from this source.
This is the very picture of American politics: two parties playing for points, often in view of spectators, in an environment closed off from the ordinary world.
Individual lawmakers lack the autonomy that statesmen enjoyed in earlier times. Most officials today are suited up for a game of party supremacy. For its sake, they have lumped themselves together in the cadres of two warring tribes. Personal stardom is the goal, but unfortunately it’s attainable only by playing on one of these powerful teams. Fitting in with the pros is far more important to every politician than being true to the amateurish fans and mentors who gave them their start at playing back home.
The leading class in the US has gradually broken free of its traditional dependence on ordinary voters and local institutions. It’s no longer necessary to be personally known and liked, no longer essential to win the approval of veteran politicians to get in the game. Politicians no longer need friends. They can rise with the help of consultants. Using what is essentially a corporate model, they look for seed money, then hire and recruit and posture their way into office. It’s a grueling, strenuous affair, impossible without the right coaches, communications people, and above all statisticians. Using data and a bunch of sociological stereotypes, modern American politicians strive to make the right plays and garner the support needed to stay on in the brightly lit arena.
So it happens that local constituencies have very little influence over their ostensible “representatives.” Their powers are amazingly puny when it comes to reining in politicians who forget about the people’s needs. Once in power, officials who like it there can harvest money from sympathetic backers and use the media to project the right image back to their harried, perplexed, or complacent base. As long as they do nothing objectionable, they may stay put longer than their achievements warrant.
George F. Will has rightly observed that there are two types of politician: the type that seeks office in order to do something, and the type that seeks office in order to be something. In the tumultuous weeks of the impeachment and since, we’ve seen that the latter type of politician prevails. As the Republicans, in particular, make an ever more desperate effort to maintain power and ignore inconvenient demands, the game drags on, as if it will produce what the nation needs.
Image: from this source.
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On Monday, a depleted Cory Booker dropped out of the presidential race, three weeks before the Iowa caucus. He had been running for president for nearly a year. The senator’s departure leaves a dozen Democrats still in the race. In the incredibly silly yet arduous process used to sift through presidential contenders, sixteen Democrats who were running have already failed.
Yes, they recruited campaign staffs, solicited donations, spoke at rallies, sought friends in wine caves, and pontificated on debate stages, only to gnash their teeth in despair over low statistics gathered through doubtful methods but taken as proof that they wouldn’t catch on. The reasons remain mysterious, but the polls “say” that these candidates are not what the American Tigger likes.
So Marianne Williamson, Kamala Harris, Julian Castro, Beto O’Rourke, Steve Bullock, Kirsten Gillibrand, Bill de Blasio, Eric Swalwell, Jay Inslee, John Hickenlooper, Tim Ryan, Joe Sestak, Richard Ojeda, Seth Moulton, Wayne Messam, and now Cory Booker, have all dropped out—beaten before even a single vote has been cast.
Meanwhile, likely voters (and donors) are being looked to determine what the Democratic Party needs. The Democratic National Committee is being decidedly hands-off when it comes to the all-important matter of picking a standard-bearer who can beat Trump. Given the divide that has opened up between progressives and moderates, the candidate who wins the nomination will fatefully determine the tilt of the entire party.
It’s left to the voters to judge the vast assemblage that has shown up in response to what is essentially an open casting call. The debate stage is an audition for the presidency (a crude test, given what being an effective president actually involves). Not surprisingly, many voters are holding off in picking a favorite, until they can see what other people think. Who is a winner? This is what ordinary voters expect someone else to decide.
Am I a typical voter, I who could imagine voting for Sanders, or Steyer, or Bullock, or Bloomberg? Even very well-informed voters may well yet be holding fire. Which makes me wonder about the meaning, at present, of those all-important opinion polls that sites like FiveThirtyEight and RealClearPolitics keep track of for us, and which have caused so many interesting Democratic talents to drop out.
Image: from this source.
Joseph Keppler’s 1884 “An Unpleasant Ride through the Presidential Haunted Forest,” shows Uncle Sam and Dame Democracy riding in terror through a woods haunted with the ghosts of some twenty “dead” presidential hopefuls. Click to enlarge.
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Janus is the Roman god of beginnings and endings; of gates, doors, and seasons; and all sorts of metaphorical passages. Associated with time and change, the two-faced god, whose gaze takes in both past and future, presides over all transitions, “whether abstract or concrete, sacred or profane.” He opens and shuts doors with his key, his staff (depicted above as a living branch heavy with fruit) symbolizing his power to determine what prospers. From this architect of the new, the month of January takes its name.
Where the past and future meet, Americans stand, wondering how “happy” or “new” 2019 can be. Given the dismal character of national politics, cries of “Happy New Year!” have a hollow ring. No need to be blithe, given that, in the manner of Janus, the new year will proceed from the year we’ve just had. An impotent Congress, two parties captive to an unproductive quest for partisan dominance, a president whose vulgarity and viciousness are infecting civil society: these conditions, in combination, are weakening and destabilizing one of the most prosperous and powerful nations in the world.
Underlying it all is a decline in social leadership and the dying off of what was formerly an effectively unifying civic culture. In 2018, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the late Senator John McCain, and the late President George H.W. Bush all pleaded for a renewal of civility, comity, and patriotic service, exhorting a new generation to assume the burdens of enlightened and disinterested leadership, in some cases pleading to us from beyond the grave. To my mind, motivating America’s “natural leaders” to resume their traditional role in promoting communal well-being and an enlightened politics is a crucial task that will determine whether this year improves upon a politically dismal 2018.
Image: from this source.