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 government strong enough and centralized enough 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).
Paine fought against American elites as strongly as he did British elites. The problem was elitism along with the corruption and cronyism that followed from it, no matter it’s source.
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.
Today, someone like Paine might be called a liberal or progressive. Conservatives, if they met him now, would likely call him a Marxist or something. And it is true Paine’s words even all these centuries later still has a left-wing resonance about them. After all, by the time he came to America, he no longer was seeking reform from within the system as a centrist, moderate liberal would do and for damn sure he wasn’t interested in conserving all things British simply because he was born an Englishman, as was conservative Burke’s main concern.
Whatever Paine was or how we now perceive him, he was a profound thinker who was capable of complex understanding and not afraid of hard questions. But what makes him most interesting is how ordinary he was, only coming to revolutionary thinking in what is now called middle age (in a society where most people never lived that long). The kind of ideas he gave voice to had been in the air at that point for generations or even centuries, slowly percolating. He was both a man of his times and yet, in seeing more clearly than those around him, he was far ahead of his times.
It was this that allowed him to simultaneously see the problems of British rule of the colonies and the necessity of a new kind of self-rule, which is to say government was both the problem and the solution. That said, it’s true that he differentiated society from government and saw society as the more fundamental. He wrote that,
“Society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best stage, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one.”
His point seems to have been that a necessary evil is still necessary. Also, what he meant is that government should serve society (i.e., the people), not the other way around. He came to this nuanced thinking because he realized there was no way to undo modern civilization without causing mass suffering. He agreed that the Native Americans had more basic liberty in their everyday lives, but the problem was that the colonial population was too large and growing to have that kind of lifestyle.
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.