The First Fourth of July

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.

The Costs of an Unresponsive Politics

A team of Democrats and a team of Republicans playing basketball.

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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The Democrats’ Winnowing Process

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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