Cleburne Times-Review Article for 9 July, 2006
“Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, ‘Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand.”
Another Independence Day has come and gone and we are left to wonder what the Founding Fathers would make of their baby, two-hundred and thirty years later. Of course, first and foremost, it’s extremely unlikely that any of them would agree on whether we have been good or bad stewards of the Revolution, or what exactly we have gotten right or wrong. The Founders had widely disparate ideas about what America should be, which is why their greatest contribution was ultimately the creation of a political system that demands compromise in order to function. You have to remember that in the 18th Century, the very word “democracy” was synonymous with “anarchy” or “mob rule.” Just about every nation on Earth on July 4, 1776, was a monarchy, some slightly less tyrannical than others. Ancient Athens and the Roman Republic were seen as cautionary examples of how “democracy” eventually inevitably decays into dictatorship. Thirty years after the Declaration of Independence, the same fate would befall the American-inspired French Revolution at the hands of Napoleon. The very idea of a country led by people chosen in free elections based on merit, and not born to the job solely on the basis of their family tree, was radical in the extreme. Sadly, in the wake of the Cold War when the word “revolution” was considered tainted by connotations of communism, the American Revolution has been neutered, the radicalism of the Founders muted. It’s commonplace nowadays for some to claim that Washington, Jefferson and the gang were all Conservative Republicans who would feel right at home in the modern GOP (which, I suppose makes George III some kind of pinko socialist). This is, of course, bunk. During the Revolution, the “conservatives” were the Tories pledging their loyalty to the British Crown and throwing lavish tea parties for the Redcoats and their Hessian Mercenaries. In fact, more Americans fought for George III than against him. The “progressives” were the ones who picked up a musket (progressives had different views on gun control back then) and shivered through the winter at Valley Forge, risking capture and the grim and bloody fate of being hung, drawn, and quartered as traitors to God and King. Gordon Wood’s work, “The Radicalism of the American Revolution,” is an excellent, if sometimes ponderously academic view, of just how cutting edge the Revolutionaries were, and how much they overturned the existing world order. America has seen a “conservative revolution” in the Civil War, where the landed aristocracy of the South nearly destroyed the nation to preserve the status quo of medieval feudalism and an economy built on the backs of slaves. Like Rome before it, America in one country embodies all of the best and some of the worst impulses of mankind. America is a country founded on racism; worse, a cynical political deal over racism (i.e., slavery) to get the Declaration of Independence and later the Constitution ratified. And yet, no country on Earth has done more to liberate more human beings from despotism than America. And our nation very nearly, to use Lincoln’s phrase, died by suicide in order to expiate the sin of human bondage. America is a country founded on the brutal theft of land and the suppression and murder of the indigenous population. The Cherokee and Delaware were offered statehood by the Continental Congress, only to be cruelly betrayed when white people wanted their homelands. And yet, no country in the history of the planet has ever done more to champion oppressed minorities than America. Though we often fall short of the ideal (such as in Rwanda), the Kurds and the Bosnians survive today because of the sacrifice of American blood and treasure. In some respect, though, our flaws are part of the American character, as is our constant yearning to overcome them, to make ourselves better, to be more tomorrow than we are today. Most of the Founders were highly critical of “factionalism,” the rise of political parties which in the early days of the Republic were organized primarily around towering personalities like Hamilton or Jefferson. I think nearly all of them would be astonished at the level of factionalism that exists today. The two-party system in America (Democrats vs. Republicans) has existed more or less unchanged since 1856, a record almost unmatched by any other democracy. The reason for this is that both parties have traditionally been broad-based, “big tent” models, with Liberal Republicans and Conservative Democrats. Third Parties inevitably were absorbed by one major party or the other, sometimes both. That, however, is changing, and therein lies the danger of hyper-factionalism. With fewer and fewer people willing to participate in electoral politics at all, both parties are slowly being dominated by their most extreme wings. For the Republicans, this has degenerated into an all-out political war between the radical House and the more moderate Senate over the issue of immigration reform. On the Democratic side, their Senators fought with each other over the Iraq War, revealing how badly fractured the Party is on that issue, and we have seen the rise of new activists whose first, last and only concern is outdoing one another on who can despise George W. Bush more and louder, revealing a level of vitriol approaching the insane Right-Wing fixation on Bill Clinton. The problem with these extremists of both stripes is that they are more concerned with purging their ranks of those who are insufficiently pure in their ideology than they are in actually winning elections. Thus, Republicans engage in bizarre episodes like the Terri Schiavo fiasco; and liberal activists (particularly those whose primary political participation is behind their computer keyboards) are waging war against Joe Leiberman, a Senator with a voting record that would only be described as “moderate” instead of “liberal” in this day and age, primarily because he doesn’t seem to loathe Bush with sufficient vigor and has been seen to be polite and respectful of the President in public. This kind of “all or nothing, my way or the highway” rigid ideology leads to parties who are unable to make any compromise at all for fear of angering the fuming activists that make up their base. But without compromise, Constitutional government simply cannot function. By giving in to extremism, by hardening our hearts and stiffening our necks, we are turning our backs on the greatest gift of the American Revolution and we are betraying those who risked their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to liberate us all from tyranny.