I’ve become aware of an inner conflict in the American psyche that goes back to even before the country was founded. This inner conflict includes those on both the left and the right, but it often seems the clearest on the right since the right has taken a more radical stance these past decades.
This inner conflict was expressed by Thomas Paine.
On one side, Paine advised that the only role of government was in punishing wickedness. So, he saw the role of government more in preventing the negative than in promoting the positive. He stated this in no uncertain terms.
On the other side, Paine perceived that all of civilization was built on certain core issues of wickedness which meant such wickedness was immense and pervasive. So, he saw the necessity of a strong, centralized government to counteract the strong, centralized private power that had come to form in the colonies from the lack of a strong, centralized government (for, in the early centuries of the British colonies, the British government had a hands-off approach).
It was Paine who first spoke of America in terms of being a united people. And it was Paine who most strongly spoke of economic and political inequality which led him to be the first American to describe in detail an early version of social security. Paine was a radical democrat, not an anarchist or a libertarian (his having placed fairness as being the necessary foundation for liberty). Paine believed in putting the power in the hands of the people, rather than in the hands of an elite. He believed a democratic government was the only way to accomplish this.
These two sides of Paine represent the two sides of the inner conflict that have haunted Americans ever since. Conservatives, in particular, find themselves in a tough spot in advocating one side of Paine while dismissing the other. Liberals, however, tend to agree more with Paine in emphasizing both sides. Still, both conservatives and liberals have failed in coming to terms with this inner conflict. The problem is that conservatives won’t even acknowledge the inner conflict. They’ll praise the side of Paine they like while ignoring the other side as if it didn’t exist.
Without Paine who inspired the masses to fight for democracy, the American Revolution wouldn’t have won. And if the American Revolution hadn’t been won, there would be no America in which the elite Founding Fathers could squash democracy by once again disenfranchising the majority. All that happened in early America is that we switched from one ruling elite to another. The problem of elites ruling politics was never dealt with.
Conservatives like to think that if we just had wise elites like in the past then all problems would be solved. They don’t mind having elites to rule over us like oligarchs, just as long as those oligarchs conform to conservative oligarchy. As for liberals, they’ve offered little in the way of a vision to counteract this belief in a conservative oligarchy, instead adding liberal reform to smooth out the sharp edges and cover up the uglier aspects. Liberal moderation and compromise has too often just meant weakness and complicity. Radical liberals like Paine no longer have the influence as was seen in early America.