Cultural Freedom, Legal Liberty

The following is more thoughts on the contrast between Germanic ‘freedom’ and Latin ‘liberty’ (see previous post: Libertarian Authoritarianism). The one is a non-legal construct of a more general culture, whereas the other is specifically a legal construct that was adapted to other ends, from philosophical ideal to spiritual otherworldliness as salvific emancipation. One important point is that liberty is specifically defined as not being a slave according to the law, but freedom is not directly or necessarily about slavery since freedom is more about what you are than what you are not. Though Germanic tribes had slaves, they weren’t fundamentally slave-based societies in the legal sense and economic structure of the Roman Empire.

Furthermore, the distinction is partly that ‘freedom’, as a word and a concept, developed in a pre-literate society of Germanic tribes, from which it was imported into England and carried to the American colonies. This freedom was expressed in informal practices of proto-democracy such as out-of-doors politics where people met on the commons to discuss important matters, a tradition that originated in northern Europe. Latin, on the other hand, was a language of literacy and the Roman Empire was one of the most literate societies in the ancient world. Our understanding of ‘liberty’ is strongly influenced by surviving ancient texts written by the literate elite, but the more common sense of ‘freedom’ was, in the past, mostly passed on by the custom of spoken language.

On a related note, Hanna Arendt was on the mind recently. She spent her early life in Germany, but, as a Jewish refugee from the Nazis, she had strong opinions about certain issues. By the time Arendt was growing up in 20th century Germany, I’m not sure how much of the premodern Germanic notion of freedom remained, but maybe the underlying culture persisted. It meant, as noted, belonging to a free people; and that was part of the problem, as the Jews were perceived as not belonging. The old cultural meaning of freedom was not part of formal laws of a large centralized nation-state with a court system. One was either free as being a member or not, as it was defined more by sociocultural relationships and identity.

What was lacking was the complex legalistic and political hierachy of the Roman Empire where there were all kinds of nuances, variations, and complexities involving one’s sociopolitical position. Being a Roman slave or a Roman citizen (or something in between), as a legal status, primarily was defined by one’s relationship to the state. Liberty was also an economic matter that signified one owned oneself, as opposed to being owned by another. The metaphor of ownership was not a defining feature of Germanic freedom.

The problem the Jewish people had with the Nazis was a legal issue. The civil rights they once possessed as German citizens suddenly were gone. The civil rights, Arendt argued, that the government gives could likewise be taken away by the government. Something else was required to guarantee and protect human value and dignity. Maybe that has to do with a culture of trust, what she felt was lacking or something related to it. The Nazis, though, were maybe all about a culture of trust, even if Jews were not in their circle of trust. Mere legalities such as civil rights were secondary as expressions of culture, rather than culture being shaped by a law system as part of legalistic traditions and mindset.

Arendt may never have considered the difference between liberty and freedom. It would’ve been interesting if she could have drawn upon the cultural history of the ancient Germanic tradition of freedom as community membership, which resonates with the older worldview of a commons. Liberty, as originating within a legalistic mindset, has no greater authority to proclaim outside of law, be it actual law (the state) or law as metaphor (natural law). Even invoking natural law, as Stoics did, can be of limited power; but it was used with greater force when wielded by radical-minded revolutionaries to challenge human law.

A deeper understanding of culture is what is missing, both the benefits and the harms. Maybe the Nazis were going by that culture of freedom and the Jews, as a perceived different culture, simply did not belong and so were deemed a threat. In a culture demanding a sense of belonging to a shared identity, difference could not be tolerated and diversity not allowed. Certain kinds of legalistic systems, on the other hand, can incorporate multiculturalism as seen with the Roman Empire and Napoleon’s French Empire, the military of the latter having consisted of soldiers that were primarily non-French. One can legally have citizenship and civil rights without having to share culture.

Also, it might be similar to how different ethnic groups can belong to the same larger Catholic Church, while Protestant traditions have more often been ethnic or nation specific. Catholicism, after all, developed directly out of Roman imperialism. It is true that Catholicism does have more of a legalistic structure to its hierarchy and practices. It was the legalistic view of buying indulgences as an economic contract with the Church as representative of a law-making God that was a major complaint in the Protestant Reformation. Protestants, concentrated in Northwestern Europe, preferred religion to have a more personal and communal expression that was concretely embodied in the congregation, not in a churchly institution of rules and rituals.

Like the Germans, the Scandinavians (and Japanese) have also emphasized the cultural approach. This common culture can allow for effective social democracies but also effective totalitarian regimes. Maybe that is why the American Midwest of Germanic and Scandinavian ancestry was the birthplace of the American Melting Pot, sometimes a cultural assimilation enforced by violent threat and punishment (English only laws, Second Klan, etc); and indeed some early Midwestern literature portrayed the homogenizing force of oppressive conformity. To the Midwestern mind, American identity too often became a hegemony (even making claims upon Standard American English), but at the same time anyone who assimilated (in being allowed to assimilate) was treated as equal. Some have noted that American-style assimilation has allowed immigration to be less of a problem than seen with the more common practice of housing segregation in Europe.

So, it might not be an accident that Southerners always were the most resistant to assimilate to mainstream American culture, while also being resistant to Northerner’s notions of equality. The hierarchical society of the South does to an extent allow populations to maintain their separate cultures and identities, but does so through a long history of enforced segregation and discrimination of racial laws. That is why there is still a separate black culture and Scots-Irish culture of the lower classes, as separate from the Cavalier culture of the ruling class — it’s separate and unequal; i.e. liberty. Assimilation is not an option, even if one wanted to, but the nature of the overall culture disinclines people from wanting it, as seen in how Southerners have continued to self-segregate themselves long after segregation laws ended.

The Southern emphasis on individual liberty is because it’s generally the individual who relates to the state and it’s laws. The communal aspect of life, in the South, is not found in governance so much as in kinship and church. That is the difference in how, particularly in the Midwest, the Northern attitude tends to more closely mix community and governance, as communal is more seen as cutting across all groups that are perceived as belonging (maybe why kinship and church is less central in the Midwest; and related to the emphasis on the nuclear family first promoted by the Quakers from the Scandinavian-settled English Midlands). Ethnic culture in the Midwest has disappeared more quickly than in the South. But this greater communal identity also defines individuality as more cultural than legal.

Legalistic individuality, in the modern world, is very capitalist in nature or otherwise expressed in material forms. Liberty-minded individualism is about self-ownership and the propertied self. To own oneself means to not be owned by another. That is why Thomas Jefferson saw individual freedom in terms of yeoman farming where an individual owned land, as property defined freedom. The more property one has, the more liberty one has as an individual; because one is independent by not being a dependent on others but rather to make others dependent. This relates to how, during the colonial era, the Southern governments gave more land based on their number of dependents (family, indentured servants, and slaves).

That is why a business owner and others in the propertied class have greater individuality in having the resources to act with less constraint, specifically in legal terms as money and power have always gone hand in hand, particularly in the South. A factory owner with hundreds of employees has more liberty-minded individuality, in the way did a plantation aristocrat with hundreds of slaves. Inequality before the legal system of power and privilege is what defines liberty. That explains how liberty has taken on such potent significance, as it has been tightly controlled as a rare commodity. Yet the state of dependence is more closely connected to liberty in general, as even aristocrats were trapped within societal expectations and obligations of social role. Liberty is primarily about one’s legal status and formal position, which can be a highly structured individuality — maybe why Stoics associated the ideal of liberty with the love of fate in denying free will.

As African-American culture was shaped in the South, this legalistic mentality might be why the black movement for freedom emphasized legal changes of civil rights, initially fighting for the negative freedom (i.e., liberty) of not being actively oppressed. They wanted equality before the law, not equality as assimilated cultural membership — besides, whites were more willing to assent to the former than the latter. This same legalistic mentality might go the heart of why Southerners are so offended by what they describe as illegal immigrants, whereas Northerners are more likely to speak of undocumented immigrants. This is typically described as being ideological, conservatism versus liberalism, but maybe it’s more having to do with the regional divide between the legalistic mind and the cultural mind where ideological identities have become shaped by regional cultures.

There is also a divide in the ideological perception of protest culture, a democratic phenomenon more common in the North than the South. To the Southern mind, there is an old fear about totalizing ideologies of the North, whereas their own way of life is thought of as a non-ideological tradition. Liberal rhetoric is more grounded in the culture of freedom as more all-encompassing ideological worldview than coherent ideological system as embodied in Southern legalism. This makes it more acceptable to challenge laws in the North because culture informs the legal system more than the other way around; that is to say, law is secondary (consider the living, as opposed to legalistic, interpretation of the Constitution that has it’s origins in Quaker constitutionalism; a constitution is a living agreement of a living generation, not the dead hand of law). That is maybe why there is the conservative pushback against a perceived cultural force that threatens their sense of liberty, as the culture of freedom is more vague and pervasive in its influence. The conspiracy theory of Cultural Marxism is maybe the conservative’s attempt to grasp this liberal-minded culture that feels alien to them.

Liberty and freedom is part of an old Anglo-American dialogue, a creative flux of ideas.To lop off one side would be to cripple American society, and yet the two remain uneasy and unresolved in their relationship. Sadly, it’s typically freedom (i.e., positive freedom and sociocultural freedom) that gets the short shrift in how both the left and right too often became caught up in political battles of legalistic conflicts over civil rights and court cases, even to the point that the democratic process becomes legalistic in design; with the culture of freedom and democracy being cast aside. Consider the power that has grown within the Supreme Court to decide not only political but also economic and social issues, cultural and moral issues (e.g., abortion). As democracy has weakened and legalism further taken hold, we’ve forgotten about how freedom and democracy always were first and foremost about culture with politics being the result, not the cause. The gut-level sense of freedom remains in the larger culture, but the liberty-minded legalism has come to rule the government, as well as the economy. That is why there can be such clashes between police and protesters, as each embodies a separate vision of America; and this is why property damage is always featured in the corporate media’s narrative about protests.

The ideal of freedom has such power over the mind. It harkens back to an earlier way of living, a simpler form of society. Freedom as culture is a shared experience of shared identity, maybe drawing upon faint memories of what Julian Jaynes called the bicameral mind. When the Bronze Age was coming to an end, a new kind of rule-based legalism emerged, including laws literally etched into stone as never before seen. But the mentality that preceded it didn’t entirely disappear. We know of it in ourselves from a sense of loss and nostalgia we have a hard time pinpointing. That is why freedom is such a vague concept, as opposed to liberty’s straightforward definition. We are haunted by the promise of freedom, but without quite knowing what it would mean to be free. Our heavy reliance on systems of liberty is, in a sense, a failure to protect and express some deep longing within us, the simple but undeniable need to belong.

Henry Adams on the Bundled Mind

Of all forms of pessimism, the metaphysical form was, for a historian, the least enticing. Of all studies, the one he would rather have avoided was that of his own mind. He knew no tragedy so heartrending as introspection, and the more, because-as Mephistopheles said of Marguerite–he was not the first. Nearly all the highest intelligence known to history had drowned itself in the reflection of its own thought, and the bovine survivors had rudely told the truth about it, without affecting the intelligent. One’s own time had not been exempt. Even since 1870 friends by scores had fallen victims to it. Within five-and-twenty years, a new library had grown out of it. Harvard College was a focus of the study; France supported hospitals for it; England published magazines of it. Nothing was easier than to take one’s mind in one’s hand, and ask one’s psychological friends what they made of it, and the more because it mattered so little to either party, since their minds, whatever they were, had pretty nearly ceased to reflect, and let them do what they liked with the small remnant, they could scarcely do anything very new with it. All one asked was to learn what they hoped to do.

Unfortunately the pursuit of ignorance in silence had, by this time, led the weary pilgrim [i.e., himself] into such mountains of ignorance that he could no longer see any path whatever, and could not even understand a signpost. He failed to fathom the depths of the new psychology, which proved to him that, on that side as on the mathematical side, his power of thought was atrophied, if, indeed, it ever existed. Since he could not fathom the science, he could only ask the simplest of questions: Did the new psychology hold that the νΧή–soul or mind–was or was not a unit? He gathered from the books that the psychologists had, in a few cases, distinguished several personalities in the same mind, each conscious and constant, individual and exclusive.

The fact seemed scarcely surprising, since it had been a habit of mind from earliest recorded time, and equally familiar to the last acquaintance who had taken a drug or caught a fever, or eaten a Welsh rarebit before bed; for surely no one could follow the action of a vivid dream, and still need to be told that the actors evoked by his mind were not himself, but quite unknown to all he had ever recognized as self. The new psychology went further, and seemed convinced that it had actually split personality not only into dualism, but also into complex groups, like telephonic centres and systems, that might be isolated and called up at will, and whose physical action might be occult in the sense of strangeness to any known form of force.

Dualism seemed to have become as common as binary stars. Alternating personalities turned up constantly, even among one’s friends. The facts seemed certain, or at least as certain as other facts; all they needed was explanation.

This was not the business of the searcher of ignorance, who felt himself in no way responsible for causes. To his mind, the compound νΧή took at once the form of a bicycle-rider, mechanically balancing himself by inhibiting all his inferior personalities, and sure to fall into the sub-conscious chaos below, if one of his inferior personalities got on top. The only absolute truth was the sub-conscious chaos below, which every one could feel when he sought it.

Whether the psychologists admitted it or not, mattered little to the student who, by the law of his profession, was engaged in studying his own mind. On him, the effect was surprising. He woke up with a shudder as though he had himself fallen off his bicycle. If his mind were really this sort of magnet, mechanically dispersing its lines of force when it went to sleep, and mechanically orienting them when it woke up–which was normal, the dispersion or orientation? The mind, like the body, kept its unity unless it happened to lose balance, but the professor of physics, who skipped on a pavement and hurt himself, knew no more than an idiot what knocked him down, though he did know–what the idiot could hardly do–that his normal condition was idiocy, or want of balance, and that his sanity was unstable artifice. His normal thought was dispersion, sleep, dream, inconsequence; the simultaneous action of different thought-centres without central control. His artificial balance was acquired habit. He was an acrobat, with a dwarf on his back, crossing a chasm on a slack-rope, and commonly breaking his neck.

By that path of newest science, one saw no unity ahead–nothing but a dissolving mind-and the historian felt himself driven back on thought as one continuous Force, without Race, Sex, School, Country, or Church.

The Education of Henry Adams
Chapter XXIX
“The Abyss of Ignorance” (1902)
pp. 432-434

(Credit to Ron Pavellas for bringing this passage to my notice.)

The Moral Axis of the Axial Age

Where is the world heading and upon what might it all be revolving? One would be unwise to speculate too much or offer strong predictions, but it must be noted that there has been a general trend that is well-established. Over time, Americans have been moving further and further to the political ‘left’. The majority of Americans are strongly liberal and progressive on nearly every major issue — political, social, economic, environmental, etc. But this is also happening on the political ‘right’, even among the religious. It’s interesting that as the elite have often pushed the Overton window to the ‘right’, the political ‘right’ has generally gone ‘left’ in following the rest of the American population. The whole spectrum shifts leftward.

Only a minority of right-wingers have become increasingly extreme in the other direction. The problem is this small demographic, what I call the ‘Ferengi‘ (overlap of Fox News viewers, white Evangelicals, and Republicans), has had an outsized voice in the corporate media and an outsized influence in corporatist politics. This ideological shift, to a large extent, is a generational divide or rather an age-related gradation. Each generation becomes steadily more liberal and progressive, sometimes outright left-wing on certain issues compared to how issues were perceived in the past.

This conflict of views has less relevance in the Democratic Party but is quite stark in the Republican Party. It’s also seen among Evangelicals. Old Evangelicals, at least among whites, are part of the Ferengi extremists. But young Evangelicals identify with the ‘progressive’ label and support such things as same sex marriage while no longer seeing abortion as an important issue, much less feeling drawn to polticized religiosity. The Ferengi are opposite of the majority of Americans, often opposite of a large number of moderate Republicans and conservatives, and definitely opposite of the young.

Yet the Ferengi are held up as an equivalent demographic to these much larger demographics in creating a false narrative of polariztion and division. The ideological gap, though, is in some sense real. The Ferengi fringe are disproportionately represented among those who are most politically active with high voter turnout, specifically as found among older conservatives with more money and influence. Even as they are a shrinking minority, they still strongly control or otherwise are overly represented by the Republican Party and right-wing media. The extremism of this minority emphasizes how far ‘left’ the rest of the population has gone.

This ongoing leftward pattern, what some might consider ‘progress’, isn’t exactly new. The shift hasn’t only happened over the decades and across the generations but, one might argue, goes back centuries or possibly even millennia. Being part of the political ‘left’ project has required saintly patience, prophetic vision, and heroic will. The impulse of egalitarianism and universalism initially were religious imperatives — born under the Axial Age, grew into childhood during the Middle Ages, and came to young adulthood in the Enligthenment Age, if still not yet having reached full maturity.

It was in the 1300s, when the moral vision of Jesus, as expressed in the orignal Christian creed, finally captured the populist imagination as something akin to class war and sociopolitical ideology. Some of those early proto-leftists sought to overthrow the hierarchy of fuedalism and church, to bring the equality of heaven down to earth. Their thinking on the matter was far from being rationally articulated as a coherent philosophy, but the demands they made were stated in no uncertain terms. They weren’t content with otherworldly ideals of rewards in the afterlife. Once imagined, those ideals inevitably became radical in their threat to worldly power.

Yet no one back then had any notion of a political ‘left’, per se. For most of the past two millennia, it remained a moral intuition bubbling up out of the collective psyche. Even so, it was a poweful moral intuition. Those peasants, in revolting, did rampage into the cities and killed more than a few of the elite. They nearly took the king hostage, although they weren’t quite sure what to do as the commoners had never previously gained the upper hand to that degree. It would require many more centuries for the dirty masses to figure out exactly what were their demands, what exactly did this moral intuition mean, but for damn sure it could not be denied and it would only grow stronger over time.

That ancient outrage of the commoners is what we have inherited. We’ve fancied it up with Englightenment thought and clothed it in modern respectability, while the political ‘right’ has sought to blame it on French Jacobins and postmodern neo-Marxists or whatever, but in essence it remains that crude beating heart of moral righteousness and divine judgment, the authority of God’s command brought down like a sledgehammer to level the towers of human pride, as with Jesus throwing the moneychangers out of the temple. It’s not an intellectual argument and so, in response to it, rationality is impotent. But equally impotent are the churchly claims of fundies and the delicate sensibilities of social conservatives.

Every single advance of society began as a never-before-thought idea that was imagined into existence but at first denied and attacked as heretical, dangerous, crazy, or impossible. So much of what has become established and normalized, so much of what even conservatives now accept and defend began as terrifying radicalism, fevered dream, and ranting jeremiad. Before written about in revolutionary pamphlets, scholarly tomes and left-wing analyses, these obstinate demands and unrealistic ideals were originally brought forth by prophets from the desert and peasants from the countryside, the uncouth and illiterate rabble who spoke with the moral certainty of faith and of God’s intimacy.

These initially incohate inklings and urgings of the Anglo-American moral imagination took so many unknown generations of struggle to take shape as we know them now. But we act like the revolutionary zeal of the late 18th century burst forth like Athena from Zeus’ head, as if intellectuals with too much time on their hands thought it all up while getting a bit tipsy in colonial taverns. More than a few of those rabblerousers and pamphlet scribblers began as religious dissenters, a tradition they inherited from their forefathers who fled to the colonies during the religious uprising and populist unrest of the English Civil War.

Thomas Paine, a man hated for claiming God was not an evil authoritarian ruling over humanity, has been largely forgotten in his later writing of Agrarian Justice in 1797. In offering a plan for land and tax reform, he spelled out ideas on an old age pension and basic income. The former took almost a century and half to finally get enacted as Social Security and the latter we’re still working toward. These kinds of radical proposals take a while to gain purchase in political action, even when they’ve been part of the political imaginary for many generations or longer. Paine himself was merely responding to an ongoing public debate that preceded him in the centuries before.

Even his criticisms of organized religion were largely his having repeated what others had already said. Some of those heretical thoughts were already being recorded in the ancient world. Jesus, after all, was one of the greatest heretics of them all, a detail that didn’t go without notice by so many heretics who followed his example. Such religious heresy always went hand in hand with political heresy. The early Christians were disliked because they refused to participate in poltical religion. And some of the first Christian communities set themselves apart by living in egalitarian communes where positions were decided through drawing lots. Their radical beliefs led to radical actions and radical social order.

So, it’s unsurprising that primitive communism, proto-socialism, and Marxist-like critiques began among religious dissenters, as heard during the Peasants’ Revolt and English Civil War. They took inspiration from Jesus and the original Christians, as those in the first century were themselves drawing upon the words written down over the half millennia before that. When the full-fledged socialists came along with their crazy dreams as implemented in Milwaukee’s sewer socialism, they were doing so as part of the Judeo-Christian tradition and in carrying forward ancient ideals.

Yet here we are. The radical notion of sewer socialism where everyone equally deserves clean water was once considered a threat to Western civilization by the respectable elite but now is considered an essential component of that very same ruling order. Conservatives no longer openly argue that poor people deserve to fall into horrific sickness and die from sewage and filthy water. What used to be radically left-wing has simply become the new unquestioned norm, the moral ground below which we won’t descend. Some might call that progress.

It’s the same thing with constitutional republicanism, civil rights, free markets, universal education, women’s suffrage, abolition of slavery, and on and on. In centuries past, these were dangerous notions to conservatives and traditionalists. They were condemned and violently suppressed. But now the modern right-winger has so fully embraced and become identified with this radicalism as to have forgotten it was ever radical. And this trend continues. As clean water is accepted as a universal right, in the near future, same sex marriage and basic income might be likewise brought into the fold of what defines civilization.

There is no reason to assume that this seismic shift that began so long ago is going to stop anytime soon, as long as this civilizational project continues its development. The aftershocks of an ancient cataclysm will likely continue to redefine the world from one age to the next. In a sense, we are still living in the Axial Age (“The Empire never ended!” PKD) and no one knows when it will finally come to a close nor what will be the final result, what world will have come to fruition from the seed that was planted in that fertile soil. The Axial Age is the moral axis upon which the world we know rotates. A revolution is a turning and returning, an eternal recurrence — and in a state of disorientation with no end in sight, around and around we go.

* * *

On the Cusp of Adulthood and Facing an Uncertain Future: What We Know About Gen Z So Far
by Kim Parker and Ruth Igielnik

Within the GOP, Gen Zers have sharp differences with their elders

Among Republicans and those who lean to the Republican Party, there are striking differences between Generation Z and older generations on social and political issues. In their views on race, Gen Z Republicans are more likely than older generations of Republicans to say blacks are treated less fairly than whites in the U.S. today. Fully 43% of Republican Gen Zers say this, compared with 30% of Millennial Republicans and roughly two-in-ten Gen X, Boomer and Silent Generation Republicans. Views are much more consistent across generations among Democrats and Democratic leaners.

Similarly, the youngest Republicans stand out in their views on the role of government and the causes of climate change. Gen Z Republicans are much more likely than older generations of Republicans to desire an increased government role in solving problems. About half (52%) of Republican Gen Zers say government should do more, compared with 38% of Millennials, 29% of Gen Xers and even smaller shares among older generations. And the youngest Republicans are less likely than their older counterparts to attribute the earth’s warming temperatures to natural patterns, as opposed to human activity (18% of Gen Z Republicans say this, compared with three-in-ten or more among older generations of Republicans).

Overall, members of Gen Z look similar to Millennials in their political preferences, particularly when it comes to the upcoming 2020 election. Among registered voters, a January Pew Research Center survey found that 61% of Gen Z voters (ages 18 to 23) said they were definitely or probably going to vote for the Democratic candidate for president in the 2020 election, while about a quarter (22%) said they were planning to vote for Trump. Millennial voters, similarly, were much more likely to say they plan to support a Democrat in November than Trump (58% vs. 25%). Larger shares of Gen X voters (37%), Boomers (44%) and Silents (53%) said they plan to support President Trump. […]

Generations differ in their familiarity and comfort with using gender-neutral pronouns

Ideas about gender identity are rapidly changing in the U.S., and Gen Z is at the front end of those changes. Gen Zers are much more likely than those in older generations to say they personally know someone who prefers to go by gender-neutral pronouns, with 35% saying so, compared with 25% of Millennials, 16% of Gen Xers, 12% of Boomers and just 7% of Silents. This generational pattern is evident among both Democrats and Republicans.

There are also stark generational differences in views of how gender options are presented on official documents. Gen Z is by far the most likely to say that when a form or online profile asks about a person’s gender it should include options other than “man” and “woman.” About six-in-ten Gen Zers (59%) say forms or online profiles should include additional gender options, compared with half of Millennials, about four-in-ten Gen Xers and Boomers (40% and 37%, respectively) and roughly a third of those in the Silent Generation (32%).

These views vary widely along partisan lines, and there are generational differences within each party coalition. But those differences are sharpest among Republicans: About four-in-ten Republican Gen Zers (41%) think forms should include additional gender options, compared with 27% of Republican Millennials, 17% of Gen Xers and Boomers and 16% of Silents. Among Democrats, half or more in all generations say this.

Gen Zers are similar to Millennials in their comfort with using gender-neutral pronouns. Both groups express somewhat higher levels of comfort than other generations, though generational differences on this question are fairly modest. Majorities of Gen Zers and Millennials say they would feel “very” or “somewhat” comfortable using a gender-neutral pronoun to refer to someone if asked to do so. By comparison, Gen Xers and Boomers are about evenly divided: About as many say they would feel at least somewhat comfortable (49% and 50%, respectively) as say they would be uncomfortable.

Members of Gen Z are also similar to Millennials in their views on society’s acceptance of those who do not identify as a man or a woman. Roughly half of Gen Zers (50%) and Millennials (47%) think that society is not accepting enough of these individuals. Smaller shares of Gen Xers (39%), Boomers (36%) and those in the Silent Generation (32%) say the same.

Here again there are large partisan gaps, and Gen Z Republicans stand apart from other generations of Republicans in their views. About three-in-ten Republican Gen Zers (28%) say that society is not accepting enough of people who don’t identify as a man or woman, compared with two-in-ten Millennials, 15% of Gen Xers, 13% of Boomers and 11% of Silents. Democrats’ views are nearly uniform across generations in saying that society is not accepting enough of people who don’t identify as a man or a woman.

Founding Visions of the Past and Progress

The foundng debate of Federalists and Anti-Federalists is always of interest. In perusng the writings, particularly the letters, of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Thomas Paine, there is a recurrent theme about land, property and taxation, which opens up onto a vista of other issues. The American colonists, before and after becoming revolutionaries, lived in a world of tumultuous change. And the world of their cultural kin in Europe, if far away across an ocean, presented a vision of further changes that posed a warning and felt too near for comfort.

From the beginning of the enclosure of the Commons centuries prior, the people’s relationship to the physical world around them had been the hinge upon which everything else turned. With the creation of landless peasants, there was the first waves of mass urbanization with industrialization and colonial imperialism soon following, not to mention social turmoil from the Peasant’s Revolt to the English Civil War. There was displacement as peasant villages were razed to the ground, creating a refugee crisis and mass movement of populations. What followed was widespread homelessness, poverty, starvation, malnutrition, disease, and death. That post-feudal crisis is what so many British had escaped in heading to the colonies beginning in the 1600s.

It was the greatest period of destabilization since the earlier wave of urbanization during post-Axial imperialism more than a millennia earlier. But in many ways it was simply a continuation of the long process of urbanization that was unleashed with the agricultural revolution at the dawn of civilization. The first agricultural people, often forming large villages and then city-states, went through a precipitous period of health decline, including regular plagues and famines. Even with advanced food systems and scientific-based healthcare, modern humans have still yet to regain the height, bone development, and brain size of paleolithic humans.

In the late 19th century heading into the next, moral panic took over American society as the majority became urbanized for the first time, something that had happened centuries earlier in Europe. There was the same pattern of worsening health that the American founders had previously seen in the burgeoning European cities. This stood out so clearly because early Americans, raised on rural life and food abundance with lots of wild game, were among the healthiest and tallest people in the Western world at the time. When those early Americans visited Europe, they towered over the locals. Some Europeans also noticed the changes in their own populations, such as one French writer stating that mental illness spread with the advance of civilization.

When Thomas Jefferson envisioned his agricultural ideal of the yeoman, he wasn’t merely proffering an ideological agenda of rural romanticism. He was a well-traveled man and he had seen many populations with which to compare. He worried that, if and when America became urbanized and industrialized, the same fate would await us. This was a prediction of the sense of societal decline that indeed took over not long after his death. Even before the American Civil War, there was the rise of large industrial cities with all of the culture war issues that have obsessed Americans ever since. But what is fascinating is that this worry and unease about modernity was such a pressing concern at the very foundation of the country.

In advocating for a democratic republic as did not exist in Europe where oppression and desperation prevailed, Jefferson wrote to Madison from Paris about his hopes for the new American experiment. There was the desire to learn from the mistakes of others and not repeat them. America held the promise of taking an entirely different path toward modernity and progress. He wrote that, in a letter to Madison (20 December 1787),

“After all, it is my principle that the will of the Majority should always prevail. If they approve the proposed Convention in all it’s parts, I shall concur in it chearfully, in hopes that they will amend it whenever they shall find it work wrong. I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries; as long as they are chiefly agricultural; and this will be as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America. When they get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe. Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to; convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty.”

Jefferson may have been an aristocrat, but he was a particular kind of rich white guy. Maybe it had to do with where he lived. The Virginia aristocracy, different than the Carolina aristocracy, lived and worked among their slaves year round. Slaves were spoken of as an extension of the family and the social structure was similar to the feudal villages that were quickly disappearing elsewhere. Jefferson became infamous for his close relations with his slaves with at least one supposedly having been his lover and several his children. He could play the role of an aristocrat, but he also knew how to associate with the poor, maybe why he was one of the only wealthy elite in the colonies who maintained a long-term relationship with the crude and low-class Thomas Paine.

When in France, Jefferson would dress in disguise to mingle among the dirt poor. He would visit with them, eat their food, and even sleep in their lice-infested beds. So, when he talked of the problems of poverty, he drew upon firsthand experience. The poverty of Europe went hand in hand with extreme concentration of wealth, land, and power. There were homeless and unemployed landless peasants living near the privatized Commons that had been turned into beautiful parks and hunting grounds for the wealthy elite. These poor were denied access to land to farm and upon which to hunt and gather, even as they went hungry and malnourished. This seemed like a horrific fate to the American mind where land and natural resources represented the foundation of freedom and liberty, the subsistence and economic independence that was necessary for self-governance and republican citizenship.

The same familiarity with the dirty masses was true of Benjamin Franklin who, like Paine, did not grow up in wealth. I doubt Franklin followed Jefferson’s example, but colonial life disallowed vast gulfs of class disparity, except in certain Deep South cities like Charleston where opulent wealth helped re-create more European-style urbanization and depradation. Most of the founders, including George Washington also of Virginia, were forced to live in close proximity not only the lower classes but also Native Americans. A number of the founders wrote high praise of the Native American lifestyle.

Franklin, a man who loved the good life of urban comfort, felt compelled to admit that Native American had a more natural, healthier, and happier way of living. He observed, as did many others, that Native Americans raised among the colonists often returned to their tribes the first chance they got, but Europeans raised among Native Americans rarely wanted to return to the dreary and oppressive burdens of colonial life. Observations were often made of the admirable examples of tribal freedom from oppression and republican self-governance, some of which was a direct inspiration to designing the new American government. This fed into the imagination of what was possible and desirable, the kinds of free societies that no European could have imagined existing prior to travel to the New World.

The American colonies, at the borderland of two worlds, was a place of stark contrasts. This drove home the vast differences of culture, social order, and economic systems. The agricultural colonies, to many early American thinkers, seemed like an optimal balance of rural health and the benefits of civilization, but it was also understood as a precarious balance that likely could not last. Someone like Jefferson hoped to restrain the worst elements of modernity while holding onto the best elements of the what came before. Other founders shared this aspiration and, with early American populations having been small, this aspiration didn’t appear unrealistic. Such a vast continent, argued Jefferson, could maintain an agricultural society for centuries. The forces of modernization, however, happened much more quickly than expected.

Nonetheless, this rural way of life held on longer in the South and it fed into the regional division that eventually split the nation in civil war. Southeners weren’t only fighting about racialized slavery but also fighting against what they perceived as the wage slavery of industrialization. Their fear wasn’t only of political dependence on a distant, centralized power but also fear of economic dependence on big biz, corporate capitalists, monied interests, and foreign investors. As an early indication of this mindset, Jefferson went so far as to advise including “restriction against monopolies” (equal to “protection against standing armies”) in the Bill of Rights, as it was understood that a private corporation like the British East India Company could be as oppressive and threatening as any government (letter to James Madison, 20 December 1787). In fact, corporations were sometimes referred to as governments or like governments. The rise of corporate capitalism and industrialized urbanization was seen with great trepidation.

This fear of urbanization, industrialization, and modernization has never gone away. We Americans still think in terms of the divide between the rural and urban. And in the South, to this day, fairly large populations remain in rural areas. The Jeffersonian vision of yeoman independence and liberty still resonates for many Americans. It remains powerful both in experience and in rhetoric. Also, this isn’t mere nostalgia. The destruction of the small family farm and rural farm communities was systematically enacted through government agricultural policies and subsidization of big ag. Jefferson’s American Dream didn’t die of natural causes but was murdered, such that mass industrialization took over even farming. That happened within living memory.

The consequences of that decision of political power has made America into a greater and more oppressive empire than the British Empire that the American colonists sought to free themselves from. Europe has fully come to America. The anxiety continues to mount, as American health continues to decline over the generations, such that public health is becoming a crisis. The American founders were never opposed to modern civilization, but maybe they were wise in speaking of moderation and balance, of slow and careful change, in order to protect the ancient Anglo-Saxon memory of strong communities, proud freedom and republican virtue. A healthy, civic-minded society is hard to create but easy to destroy. The Anti-Federalists, more than any others, perceived this threat and correctly predicted what would happen if their warnings were not heeded.

They believed that the worst outcomes were not inevitable. Compromise would be necessary and no society was perfect, but their sense of promise was inspired by a glimpse of social democracy, something they did not yet have a term for. Ironically, some European countries, specifically in Scandinavia, better maintained the small-scale social order and responsive governance that many of the American founders dreamed of. Those countries have better managed the transition into modernity, have better regulated and compensated for the costs of urban industrialization, and better protected the public good from private harm. The American Dream, in one of its original forms, is nearly extinct in America. And what has replaced it does not match the once inspiring ideals of the American Revolution. Yet the promise lingers in the hearts and minds of Americans. Moral imagination remains potent, long after much of what supported it has disappeared and the memory fades.

American Citizens of the World

Patriotism has been lower in recent decades and it continues a steady decline in the United States. It’s even lower in some other Western countries, such as Britain and Germany. And of course, patriotism drops lower and lower as one looks down the generations. The youngest Americans, going back many years, are split on the issue. Many of them have a positive opinion of other countries. It isn’t that most of them believe America is a bad place but that they see it as one decent country among many other worthy countries. It’s less of an us-vs-them attitude. It’s a sign that Cold War dogmatism is fading away, while the older generations die off to be replaced by those who have little to no memory of the prior century of ideological conflict and imperialistic hyper-nationalism.

Much of this has to do with each new generation having increasing rates of immigration, a trend beginning with Generation X. A large number of young Americans are immigrants, have immigrant parents, have traveled internationally, regularly interact with foreigners/foreign-born, follow international news, and are well educated. The young simply have more knowledge and experience of the world outside of the United States and that experience is personal and often positive. They are less likely to see foreign lands as scary places and foreign people as threatening. In general, increasing diversity contributes to a worldview of social liberalism, particularly for the generations that grow up in that diversity as a normal experience. It’s simply the process of Americans growing familiar with the larger world they are part of. We are finally fulfilling the revolutionary promise of our country’s founding, in slowly coming to an identity as citizens of the world, something more than a few of the American founders espoused.

To help understand this shift, it might be useful to study Joseph Heinrich’s The WEIRDest People in the World. Also, a historical perspective might be needed to understand what patriotism has meant across the generations and centuries. Americans are among the most WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) and we have been the most patriotic of the WEIRD countries, often far more patriotic than non-WEIRD countries (particularly in Asia). That still majority-held patriotism, however declining, might seem odd in this context of a society born out of Enlightenment liberalism and revolutionary radicalism. We now associate patriotism with conservatism. But it’s easy to forget that large-scale nationalism was a modern invention. In its original form, the nation-state as an ideological power structure challenged the local authority of the feudal ruling elite. It helped overthrow the ancien regime and paved the way for democratic reforms and civil rights.

In the centuries prior to the rise of fascism and other regressive forms of statism, nationalism was linked to creating unity in divese multicultural societies. It sometimes was a force of tolerance, egalitarianism, and universalism. All citizens were equal, in theory. The modern nation-state emerged out of the colonial empires that had unleashed a mixing of populations like never before. Let’s look at the origins of American culture. Once a British government was created, a British identity had to be formed out of that immense mixture of people with their own separate cultural traditions (English, Irish, Scottish, Scots-Irish, Welsh, Palatine Germans, etc). One of the places that diversity took hold early on was in the American colonies, several of which had the ethnically English as a minority. The Pennsylvania Colony had so many non-English speakers that official announcements had to be printed in multiple languages. That diversity increased with mass immigration once America became a separate country. Without a shared tradition of ethnic culture, Americans too had to invent a new collective identity.

Patriotic nationalism was related to Whiggish progressivism that has a bit of a bad reputation now, but was extremely liberal for its time. The WEIRD forces, such as literacy, have typcally been associated with increasing liberalism and one might note that nationally-mandated public education was central to this process, often initially motivated by the radically new Protestant nation-states that promoted not only education and literacy but also individualism. A progressive impulse toward reform, in general, has long gone hand in hand with nationalism. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a devout nationalist and the New Deal was part of the patriotic fervor that fed into the Cold War vision of America as a societal project not only in defense of freedom but also committed to social responsibility. The Civil Rights movement was able to succeed because it tapped into this increasingly powerful progressive nationalism that held up the WEIRD ideals of egalitaranism, fairness, and justice.

The context has changed over time. In the past, traditionalists, conservatives, and reactionaries often were critics of nationalism in upholding more local identities of kinship, ethnicity, religion, community, and regionalism — even to the point of seeking to secede by attacking the federal government to start the American Civil War because they saw nationalism as a threat to local power, authority, and identity. Now the ideological descendants of those anti-nationalists have become the strongest nationalists. That is common. Much of what is considered conservative today was once radically liberal. And as the political right embraces what liberals fought for in the past, this opens a space for liberals to push further into unknown ideological territory. So, conservatives today are more liberal than liberals were a century ago. That is how nationalism became normalized and, through revisionist history, became an invented tradition of nostalgia. It was treated as if it had always existed, the living memory of its origins having disappeared from the public mind.

So, even though patriotic nationalism was once a liberalizing force, as it became established, it has since often been seen as a reactionary force. The liberal impulse of WEIRD societies pushes toward ever larger collective identities. Nationalism used to serve that purpose of creating a shared liberal identity in a liberal society. But now nationalism has come to be used for xenophobic reasons in attacking, rather than in welcoming, immigrants. As each following young generation embraces ever more liberalism, progressivism and social democracy (even socialism as well), the WEIRD mentality grows stronger and the desire for a greater universal identity ever more takes hold. People don’t lose the desire for group belonging nor feel less loyalty, but the shared identites grow larger and more inclusive over time.

Patriotic nationalism is still holding strong and yet quickly weakening as something else appears on the horizon. We are living in the equivalent of the late Middle Ages when the enclosure movement eroded the foundation of feudalism, but few could imagine that it would be replaced or with what. Such societal transformations caused anxiety for some and hope for others. It’s maybe unsurprising that the younger generations who are the least patriotic are also the most optimistic about the future, as they embrace what is new. The Amercan identity has always been vague and amorphous. It was constantly shifting right from the start. Some generations forget this history, but it has a way of forcing its way back into the public mind and, in doing so, inspiring radical imagination. If nothing else is certain, to be American has meant adapting to change. Young Americans don’t hate America. They just have a different and maybe larger sense of what they love.

The Drugged Up Birth of Modernity

Below is a passage from a book I got for my birthday. I was skimming through this tome and came across a note from one of the later chapters. It discusses a theory about how new substances, caffeine and sugar, helped cause changes in mentality during colonialism, early modernity, and industrialization. I first came across a version of this theory back in the late ’90s or early Aughts, in a book I no longer own and haven’t been able to track down since.

So, it was nice coming across this brief summary with references. But in the other version, the argument was that these substances (including nicotine, cocaine, etc; along with a different kind of drug like opium) were central to the Enlightenment Age and the post-Enlightenment world, something only suggested by this author. This is a supporting theory for my larger theory on addictive substances, including some thoughts on how they replaced psychedelics, as written about previously: Sugar is an Addictive Drug, The Agricultural Mind, Diets and Systems, and “Yes, tea banished the fairies.”. It has to do with what has built the rigid boundaries of modern egoic consciousness and hyper-individualism. It was a revolution of the mind.

Many have made arguments along these lines. It’s not hard to make the connection. Diverse leading figures over history have observed the importance changes that followed along as these substances were introduced and spread. In recent years, this line of thought has been catching on. Michael Pollan came out with an audiobook about the role coffee has played, “Caffeine: How Coffee and Tea Created the Modern World.” I haven’t listened to it because it’s only available through Audible and I don’t do business with Amazon, but reviews of it and interviews with Pollan about it make it sound fascinating. Pollan has many thoughts about psychedelics as well, although I’m not sure if he has talked about psychedelics in relation to stimulants. Steven Johnson has also written and talked about this.

As a side note, there is also an interesting point that connects rising drug addiction with an earlier era of moral panic, specifically a crisis of identity. There was a then new category of disease called neurasthenia, as first described by George Miller Beard. It replaced earlier notions of ‘nostalgia’ and ‘nerves’. In many ways, neurasthenia could be thought of as some kind of variant of mood disorder with some overlap with depression. But a passage from another work, also included below, indicates that drug addiction was closely linked in this developing ideology about the diseased mind and crippled self. At that stage, the relationship wasn’t entirely clear. All that was understood was that, in a fatigued and deficient state, increasing numbers turned to drugs as a coping mechanism.

Drugs may have helped to build modern civilization. But then they quickly came to be taken as a threat. This concern was implicitly understood and sometimes overtly applied right from the beginning. With the colonial trade, laws were often quickly put in place to make sugar and coffee controlled substances. Sugar for a long time was only sold in pharmacies. And a number of fearful rulers tried to ban coffee for fear of it, not unlike how psychedelics were perceived in the 1960s. It’s not only that these substances were radicalizing and revolutionary within the mind and society as seen in retrospect. Many at the time realized these addictive and often stimulating drugs (and one might even call sugar a drug) were powerful substances right from the beginning. That is what made them such profitable commodities requiring an emergent militaristic capitalism that was violently brutal in fulfilling this demand with forced labor.

* * *

The WEIRDest People in the World:
How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous
by Joseph Henrich
Ch. 13 “Escape Velocity”, section “More Inventive?”
p. 289, note 58

People’s industriousness may have been bolstered by new beverages: sugar mixed into caffeinated drinks—tea and coffee. These products only began arriving in Europe in large quantities after 1500, when overseas trade began to dramatically expand. The consumption of sugar, for example, rose 20-fold between 1663 and 1775. By the 18th century, sugary caffeinated beverages were not only becoming part of the daily consumption of the urban middle class, but they were also spreading into the working class. We know from his famous diary that Samuel Pepys was savoring coffee by 1660. The ability of these beverages to deliver quick energy—glucose and caffeine—may have provided innovators, industrialists, and laborers, as well as those engaged in intellectual exchanges at cafés (as opposed to taverns), with an extra edge in self-control, mental acuity, and productivity. While sugar, coffee, and tea had long been used elsewhere, no one had previously adopted the practice of mixing sugar into caffeinated drinks (Hersh and Voth, 2009; Nunn and Qian, 2010). Psychologists have linked the ingestion of glucose to greater self-control, though the mechanism is a matter of debate (Beedie and Lane, 2012; Gailliot and Baumeister, 2007; Inzlicht and Schmeichel, 2012; Sanders et al., 2012). The anthropologist Sidney Mintz (1986, p. 85) suggested that sugar helped create the industrial working class, writing that “by provisioning, sating—and, indeed, drugging—farm and factory workers, [sugar] sharply reduced the overall cost of creating and reproducing the metropolitan proletariat.”

“Mania Americana”: Narcotic Addiction and Modernity in the United States, 1870-1920
by Timothy A. Hickman

One such observer was George Miller Beard, the well-known physician who gave the name neurasthenia to the age’s most representative neurological disorder. In 1871 Beard wrote that drug use “has greatly extended and multiplied with the progress of civilization, and especially in modern times.” He found that drug use had spread through “the discovery and invention of new varieties [of narcotic], or new modifications of old varieties.” Alongside technological and scientific progress, Beard found another cause for the growth of drug use in “the influence of commerce, by which the products of each clime became the property of all.” He thus felt that a new economic interconnectedness had increased both the knowledge and the availability of the world’s regionally specific intoxicants. He wrote that “the ancient civilizations knew only of home made varieties; the moderns are content with nothing less than all of the best that the world produces.” Beard blamed modern progress for increased drug use, and he identified technological innovation and economic interconnectedness as the essence of modernity. Those were, of course, two central contributors to the modern cultural crisis. As we shall see, many experts believed that this particular form of (narcotic) interconnectedness produced a condition of interdependence, that it quite literally reduced those on the receiving end from even a nominal state of independence to an abject dependence on these chemical products and their suppliers.

There was probably no more influential authority on the relationship between a physical condition and its historical moment than George Miller Beard. In 1878 Beard used the term “neurasthenia” to define the “lack of nerve strength” that he believed was “a functional nervous disease of modern, and largely, though not entirely, of American origin.” He had made his vision of modern America clear two years earlier, writing that “three great inventions-the printing press, the steam engine, and the telegraph, are peculiar to our modern civilization, and they give it a character for which there is no precedent.” The direct consequence of these technological developments was that “the methods and incitements of brain-work have multiplied far in excess of average cerebral developments.” Neurasthenia was therefore “a malady that has developed mainly during the last half century.” It was, in short, “the cry of the system struggling with its environment.” Beard’s diagnosis is familiar, but less well known is his belief that a “susceptibility to stimulants and narcotics and various drugs” was among neurasthenia’s most attention-worthy symptoms. The new sensitivity to narcotics was “as unprecedented a fact as the telegraph, the railway, or the telephone.” Beard’s claim suggests that narcotic use might fruitfully be set alongside other diseases of “overcivilization,” including suicide, premarital sex (for women), and homosexuality. As Dr. W. E Waugh wrote in 1894, the reasons for the emergence of the drug habit “are to be found in the conditions of modern life, and consist of the causative factors of suicide and insanity.” Waugh saw those afflictions as “the price we pay for our modern civilization.”24

Though Beard was most concerned with decreased tolerance-people seemed more vulnerable to intoxication and its side effects than they once were-he also worried that the changing modern environment exacerbated the development of the drug habit. Beard explained that a person whose nervous system had become “enfeebled” by the demands of modern society would naturally turn wherever he could for support, and thus “anything that gives ease, sedation, oblivion, such as chloral, chloroform, opium or alcohol, may be resorted to at first as an incident, and finally as a habit.” Not merely to overcome physical discomfort, but to obtain “the relief of exhaustion, deeper and more distressing than pain, do both men and women resort to the drug shop.” Neurasthenia was brought on “under the press and stimulus of the telegraph and railway,” and Beard believed that it provided “the philosophy of many cases of opium or alcohol inebriety.”25

* * *

Also see:

The Age of Intoxication
by Benjamin Breen

Drugs, Labor and Colonial Expansion
ed. by William Jankowiak and Daniel Bradburd

How psychoactive drugs shape human culture
by Greg Wadley

Under the influence
by Ed Lake

The Enlightenment: Psychoactive Globalisation
from The Pendulum of Psychoactive Drug Use

Tea Tuesdays: How Tea + Sugar Reshaped The British Empire
by Maria Godoy

Some Notes On Sugar and the Evolution of Industrial Capitalism
by Peter Machen

Coffee, Tea and Colonialism
from The Wilson Quarterly

From Beer to Caffeine: The Birth of Innovation
by Peter Diamandis

How caffeine changed the world
by Colleen Walsh

The War On Coffee
by Adam Gopnik

Coffee: The drink of the enlightenment
by Jane Louise Kandur

Coffee and the Enlightenment
by Stephen Hicks

Coffee Enlightenment? – Does drinking my morning coffee lead to enlightenment?
from Coffee Enlightenment

The Enlightenment Coffeehouses
by David Gurteen

How Caffeine Accelerated The Scientific Enlightenment
by Drew Dennis

How Cafe Culture Helped Make Good Ideas Happen
from All Things Considered

Coffee & the Age of Reason (17th Century)
from The Coffee Brewers

Philosophers Drinking Coffee: The Excessive Habits of Kant, Voltaire & Kierkegaard
by Colin Marshall

Coffee Cultivation and Exchange, 1400-1800
from University of California, Santa Cruz

Biden’s Conservatism

I wouldn’t necessarily argue about Joe Biden’s campaign promises or anyone else’s campaign promises, not even those of Donald Trump. But what does concern me is the actual political record of each individual. And in the case of Biden on Social Security, it’s a very mixed and not reassuring political history. That shouldn’t be dismissed lightly nor rationalized away with nice-sounding rhetoric. 

That said, what the Democratic Party does during the next administration is not limited to Biden, as there could be other political actors and the public putting pressure the DNC elite. Even if Biden at this point still wanted to cut Social Security, he would have a hard time accomplishing this end, even with bipartisan support, because of the extreme unpopularity of doing so. I’m sure someone would pull him to the side and explain to him that Social Security shouldn’t be touched, but in the past he took pride in ignoring that warning by grabbing hold of that third rail. He could get sneaky about cuts as he did in the past.

His decades of interest and willingness toward cutting Social Security remains a concern, not only Social Security but also Medicare, Medicaid, veterans benefits, etc — everything will be on the table, he said in the past to emphasize this point. Biden and other corporatist Democrats will have to be watched carefully in the coming years. Fiscal hawks like Biden might go slightly left, if we force them to do so, but that is far from guaranteed. We have almost no way to force him to do anything, other than by threatening with protests, riots, and revolts.

Behind the scenes, the corporatist Democrats will find ways to work with corporatists Republicans, and the corporate media probably won’t report on it or else will spin a narrative to hide the truth. This means we’ll need to watch the alternative media closely to stay informed. That is a depressing thought. I’d rather leaders who would do the right thing on their own without constant threat and scrutiny from the public, but the sad fact is Biden is not such a leader. 

Even so, I understand the hope of leftists that the Biden administration could be pulled left, however naive is this expectation. There is nothing in the recent history of the Democratic Party to cause one to think it’s likely. Let’s take it as an interesting experiment. And I’d love to be proven wrong. As one critc put it, if Biden suddenly becomes the next FDR, I’ll become a Biden Bro cheering him on. But if I’m proven right, will the loyal Democratic partisans ever admit to once again failing? Of course not. It will be lesser evilism again next election leading to ever greater evil each time. That is how we ended up here. 

Think about Biden’s kind of politics. Back in the 1980s, he was sometimes to the right of Ronald Reagan on fiscal issues, such as about cutting Social Security. Biden was one of the strongest supporters of GOP policy during that time, from cutting taxes on the rich to increasing military spending that created our present permanent national debt, not to mention his advocacy of the balanced budget amendment which was code for slashing everything that helped Americans. 

By the way, the permanent debt was created on purpose. It was part of the Starve the Beast Strategy, combined with the Two Santa Claus Theory. Reaganonomics was a continuation of Jimmy Carter’s austerity politics, but the Republicans realized how unpopular it was under the Carter admistration. So, they sought to force austerity and cuts to social programs in an indirect way. The idea was that by creating a massive national debt it would create a financial crisis, but this failed and the debt growing. And no matter how much they cut social programs and taxes on the rich, as also happened under Bill Clinton, there was somehow always more money for big biz subsidies and more war.

Obviously, there is nothing about cutting taxes while increasing spending that is fiscally responsible, but that wasn’t the purpose. They were hoping to dismantle the New Deal and Biden was all on board. As a Reagan conservative, it was Democrats like Biden who ensured Reagan had a conservative majority, even when he didn’t have a Republican majority. Biden remained friendly with Republicans and kept working with them. He supported the far right 1998 Republican budget, at a time when the GOP were well on their way toward ever greater extremism. 

This has continued into recent politics. The Obama/Biden administration for several years kept trying to cut Social Security by ensuring payments wouldn’t keep up with US inflation, but the Tea Partiers in power were too dogmatic to accept the lopsided deal in their favor. And it goes on and on. There are plenty of signs that Biden has not changed his stripes. A 40 year long political record speaks loudly, no matter what rhetoric he has thrown out to gain votes and win the electiion. Don’t be distracted by his words. Look to his actions.

One of Biden’s top campaign advisors is Bruce Reed who is a far right economic conservative. Reed is being made the Head of the Office of Management and Budget, a powerful position. Put this in context. Reed ran the commission that pushed for Social Security cuts, something he has been pushing since the 1990s. This isn’t the only fiscal hawk, along with other kinds of right-wingers (war hawks, corporate lobbyists, anti-environmentlists, etc), that is being brought into the Biden administration. There is Janet Yellen, Antony Blinken, Cedric Richmond, etc.

Putting fiscal hawks and opponents of Social Security into power is probably not what a president does if they genuinely are seeking to protect, strengthen, and expand Social Security. Biden does not appear to be signalling that he will allow himself or his administration to be pushed left — quite the opposite. Why expect someone like Biden to suddenly reverse the course of his political career, no matter what he claims to get votes?

Biden is the spirit of the Clinton Democrats or what used to be called New Democrats, what now is a moderate Republican (the reason he gained support from conservative Republicans like Bill Kristol). He was promoting Third Way politics and triangulation before there was a name for it, before the Clintons were in Washington. This has meant pushing right while punching left. He built his career on demanding fiscal responsibility by cutting benefits to the average person while ensuring big spending continues for wars, corporate subsidies, bank bailouts, etc.

We the public will have to go to heroic efforts in trying to even nudge Biden an inch to the left (at least on economic issues) or simply keep him from going further right, as he likes to do, by working with Republicans to get things done. That is what centrism meant to Biden in the past. He likes to get things done, particularly when the left doesn’t like what he gets done. He has stated in no uncertain terms that he hates the left and prides himself on beating the ‘socialists’, what used to be considered standard liberalism and progressivism.

To be fair, he might throw a few bones to the left on social issues.

* * *

Videos about Social Security (the first few are footage of Biden over the decades):

Joe Biden’s Decades of Trying to Cut Social Security and Medicare
Biden Calls for Cuts to Social SecurityJoe Biden Brags about Trying to Cut Medicare, Social Security, & More while Bernie Defends ThemBiden’s Record on Social Security
Biden Can’t Outrun His Social Security RecordBiden Can’t Stop Lying About His Social Security RecordBernie Relentlessly HAMMERS Biden’s Social Security LiesHuff Post Reporter: Biden’s documented history of trying to cut social securityEven Biden’s Staff DISTRUSTS His Ability To Discuss Social SecurityDavid Sirota: Biden’s Reported Budget Pick Tried To CUT Social SecurityBernie CALLS OUT Joe Biden’s Huge Lies On Social SecurityBiden Lies Lies Lies About His Social Security Record
Joe Biden Would Go After Social SecurityDear Joe Biden’s Older Supporters, He Wants to Cut YOUR Social Security!Did Biden Endorse Cutting Social Security and Medicare? ft. Brandon Sutton (TMBS 91)Joe Biden Keeps Trying to Cut Social SecurityJoe Biden’s Indefensible Record

Also, see these videos and articles about Biden picks for his administration, as an early sign of which direction he will go:

Saagar Enjeti: Biden’s Cabinet Is FULL Of Deficit Hawks, War Lovers and GlobalistsBiden’s Cabinet A Who’s Who Of Corrupt Corporate Lobbyists
Joe Biden Punches Bernie Sanders Square In The Balls With Cabinet Appointments.
Under a Biden Administration Bush-era Neoconservatives Own the Democratic Party. Not the “far left”

It seems Joe Biden wants Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders in the Senate, not his Cabinet

Snubbing both Warren and Sanders for moderates won’t please the left-most wing of the party, especially when Biden’s transition team reportedly seems more interested in courting Republicans than progressives. During the NBC interview, Biden said he wasn’t opposed to nominating a Republican who voted for President Donald Trump to his administration, but that political watchers shouldn’t expect that kind of announcement.”

Joe Biden Is Freezing Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren Out of His Cabinet

“Though the summer months elicited a flurry of frenzied speculation about an ambitious liberal agenda on the near horizon, one only needed to take a cursory glance at Biden’s Wall Street donors, senior advisers, and public rhetoric to see what the character of his administration would almost certainly be. The appointment of figures from the likes of Uber, Lyft, Amazon, and JPMorgan to his transition team certainly does little to alter the general impression.

“Needless to say, the emerging character of the Democratic administration that will take office next year continues to give lie to the fable of a transformative, FDR-like agenda primary-fatigued liberals were so reassuringly offered throughout the late spring and summer. At this early stage, Biden could be using his transition to set the stage for a bullish one hundred days beginning in January. Instead, he’s surrounding himself with corporate operatives and freezing the Left out of his cabinet.”

Articles and quotes about Social Security cuts:

Social Security and Medicare Are Not Safe With Joe Biden

Did Biden Twice Vote To Tax Social Security While in the Senate?

“What’s True: While serving as a U.S. senator representing Delaware, Joe Biden voted for two pieces of legislation — once in 1983 and once in 1993 — that resulted in taxing some Social Security income of some recipients.

How Corporate Media ‘Factchecked’ Biden’s Calls for Social Security Cuts Into Oblivion

“Whatever clever dodges politicians propose for cutting Social Security, whether through “raising the retirement age,” “chained CPI” or “freezing” spending, it’s important for media outlets to cut through the jargon and inform citizens by accurately labeling what they want to impose on the US’s most successful anti-poverty program: cuts. Otherwise, these “guides” to Social Security debates should be understood by readers as apologies for austerity (Extra!, 5/99).”

Did Joe Biden Just Deny Calling for Social Security Cuts? There are videos of it.

Joe Biden, 1984 (Senate):

“So, when those of my friends in the Democratic and Republican Party say to me, ‘How do you expect me to vote for your proposal? Does it not freeze Social Security COLAs for one year? Are we not saying there will be no cost-of-living increases for one year?’ The answer to that is ‘Yes, that is what I am saying.'”

“Within the next 12 to 18 months this country will face an economic and political crisis of extraordinary proportions if Congress refuses to take decisive action on the deficits that we face.”

Joe Biden, 1995 (Senate):

“When I introduced the budget freeze years ago, the liberals in my party said, “It’s an awful thing you’re doing, Joe. You are… All the programs we care about, you’re freezing them. Money for the blind, the disabled, education…” And so on. And my argument then is the one I make now, which is the strongest, most compelling reason to be for this Bu…this amendment, or an amendment. And that is that, if we don’t do that, all the things I care most about are going to be gone.”

“I mean whatever happened to that old conservative discipline about paying for what you spend?”

“I’m up for re-election this year and I’m going to remind everybody what I did. At home, which is going to cost me politically. I… When I argued if we should freeze federal spending, I meant Social Security as well!I meant Medicare and Medicaid! I meant veterans’ benefits. I meant every single solitary thing in the government.And I not only tried it once, I tried it twice, I tried it a third time and I tried it a fourth time.

I introduced the Balanced Budget Amendment in 1984! It got nowhere. I’m one of those Democrats who voted for the Constitutional amendment to balance the budget. I introduced it on four occasions. Four occasions, entire plans to balance the budget, knowing I’m not president, and I’m not the leader. But for illustrative purposes. I tried with Senator Grassley back in the ’80s to freeze all government spending, including Social Security. Including everything.”

Joe Biden, 1988:

I introduced an amendment, notwithstanding my quote liberal credentials, of freezing the federal budget, absolute freeze. I did it for a simple reason: I sat on the Budget Committee for 11 years. And I’d find the same thing occur every time. We’d start off with grandiose ideas of how we’re going to cut the budget. We would never touch entitlements, we would never touch the defense budget, and we couldn’t touch the interest on the debt. Which meant that out of a trillion-dollar budget, that left us only $156 billion And what we would do each year is we would go out and cut out education, food stamps, Head Start, [welfare] payments, on down the line, everything that I cared about got cut, because at the very end, we’d say, ‘Well, we’ve gotta make some cuts.’ And that would be the path of least resistance.”

Joe Biden, 1995:

I am a Democrat that voted for the constitutional amendment to balance the budget. I have introduced on four occasions — four occasions — entire plans to balance a budget. I tried with Senator Grassley back in the 1980s to freeze all government spending, including Social Security, including everything.”

When I introduced my budget freeze proposal years ago, the liberals of my party said, ‘It’s an awful thing you are doing, Joe. All the programs we care about, you are freezing them — money for the blind, the disabled, education and so on. My argument then is one I make now, which is the strongest, most compelling reason to be for this amendment — or an amendment — that if we do not do that, all the things I care most about are going to be gone — gone.”

Joe Biden, 2007 (Meet the Press interview):

Tim Russert: “Senator, we have a deficit. We have Social Security and Medicare looming. The number of people on Social Security and Medicare is now 40 million people. It’s going to be 80 million in 15 years. Would you consider looking at those programs, age of eligibility, cost of living, put it all on the table?

Joe Biden: “The answer is absolutely. […] Social Security’s not the hard one to solve. Medicare, that is the gorilla in the room, and you’ve got to put all of it on the table.

Joe Biden, 2007 (Iowa’s Jefferson-Jackson Dinner):

The American people know we have to fix Social Security. They know we can’t grow our way to a solution. They know we’re going to have to make some tough decisions. They’re ready to make those decisions. They’re ready to step up. We have to be ready to straightforwardly tell them what we’re about to do.”

Joe Biden, 2018:

“Paul Ryan was correct when he did the tax code. What’s the first thing he decided we had to go after? Social Security and Medicare. We need to do something about Social Security and Medicare. That’s the only way you can find room to pay for it.”

FACT CHECK: JOE BIDEN HAS ADVOCATED CUTTING SOCIAL SECURITY FOR 40 YEARS

BIDEN’S FIXATION on cutting Social Security dates back to the Reagan era. One of Ronald Reagan’s first major moves as president was to implement a mammoth tax cut, tilted toward the wealthy, and to increase defense spending. Biden, a Delaware senator at the time, supported both moves. The heightened spending and reduced revenue focused public attention on the debt and deficit, giving fuel to a push for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.

In the midst of that debate, Biden teamed up with Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley to call for a freeze on federal spending, and insisted on including Social Security in that freeze, even as the Reagan administration fought to protect the program from cuts. It was part of the Democratic approach at the time not just to match Republicans, but to get to their right at times as well, as Biden also did on criminal justice policy. […]

“In 2014, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said at a conservative event that Biden had privately told him he was supporting of raising the retirement age and means-testing Social Security benefits. “I asked the vice president, don’t we have to raise the age? Wouldn’t means-testing and raising the age solve the problem?” Paul recounted, with Sens. Ted Cruz and Mike Lee on stage, adding that Biden said, “Yes in private, but will not say it in public.” Paul hadn’t been paying close enough attention.”

PolitiFact Wrongly Lets Biden Off the Hook: The Truth About Social Security Cuts

In the speech, Biden says, “we need to do something about Social Security and Medicare” and that Social Security “needs adjustments.” Biden did not elaborate on what these “adjustments” were, but a look at his long history on Social Security is telling.
“In the 1980s, Biden sponsored a plan to freeze all federal spending, including Social Security. In the 1990s, Biden was a leading supporter of a balanced budget amendment, a policy that the Center for American Progress and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (two center-left think tanks who are hardly in the tank for Bernie Sanders) agree would be a catastrophe for Social Security.

“More recently, Biden led “grand bargain” negotiations with Republicans during his time as vice president. This “grand bargain” would have given Republicans structural, permanent cuts to Social Security in return for tax increases on the wealthy that would be rolled back as soon as a Republican president got elected to office.

“Time and time again, Biden kept coming back to the negotiating table, insisting that Republicans were dealing in good faith. Ultimately, the grand bargain fell through only because of hardline House Republicans refusing to make even an incredibly lopsided deal. Biden was fully prepared to make a deal that included Social Security cuts, including reducing future cost-of-living increases by implementing a chained CPI.

When Washington politicians talk about Social Security cuts, they almost always use coded language, saying that they want to “change,” “adjust,” or even “save” the program. That’s because cutting Social Security is incredibly unpopular with voters of all political stripes. When corporate-friendly politicians like Biden use those words, they are trying to signal to elite media and billionaire donors that they are “very serious people” who are open to cutting Social Security benefits, without giving away the game to voters.”

Biden’s Advocacy for Social Security Cuts Has Had Real Consequences

Going back to 1984, Biden has expressed interest in deals that would cut Social Security. He proposed freezing Social Security spending and periodically highlighted that desire; he voted for a balanced-budget amendment even after failing to shield Social Security from it; and he demanded that Social Security be “put on the table” during his last presidential run. He associates himself with a crowd known for foregrounding deficit concerns and fully willing to make “tough choices” on earned benefits like Social Security. Bruce Reed, Biden’s vice presidential chief of staff from 2011 to 2013 and a top campaign aide, was executive director of the Bowles-Simpson commission, which pursued deficit reduction and proposed increases in the retirement age.

“As a coup de grace, in 2012 and 2013 then-Vice President Biden helped lead a publicly advocated scheme to reduce future Social Security benefits as part of a “grand bargain” with Republicans. This cut did not reflect any of President Obama’s campaign promises, but it became part of a negotiation while in office—precisely the fear that liberals have with Biden, that he will revert back to dealmaking with Republicans that sells out core Democratic principles.

“Specifically, Obama-Biden sought to swap out the annual cost-of-living adjustment used to calculate benefits with the so-called “chained CPI,” which uses the concept of substitution. If the price of beef spikes, you could purchase lower-cost chicken instead to stay within your budget. This subsequently grows the inflation index more slowly than other government measures.

“Of course, no real substitute exists for the main drivers of elderly people’s budgets, namely housing, medical care, and prescription drugs, all of which typically rise faster than inflation. You can’t really substitute ham for arthritis medication. There’s a specific inflation calculation for the elderly, which takes this cohort’s higher costs into account, but for some reason it’s not used for Social Security benefits.

“The net effect of chained CPI would have been a Social Security benefit cut, which only makes sense if you think seniors get too sweet a deal with their $1,461 a month in average benefits. The average worker retiring at 65 would have seen a $650 reduction in benefits by age 75, and then $1,130 by age 85, according to economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Calling this a “more accurate” calculation of inflation masks the end goal of reducing future benefits (by about $230 billion over a decade, according to 2013 figures) and saving money within the system. […]

Chained CPI only dates back to 2002. It was an obscure concept mostly favored by deficit hawks and conservative ideologues until the Obama administration elevated itThe Obama-Biden proposal gave chained CPI the legitimacy needed for future administrations to implement it. It was not benign, not just a pose to show how extreme Republicans were. It was not just an ephemeral trial balloon in one negotiation in 2013. It has had long-lasting consequences for millions of Americans. And the vice president of the administration that set the trip wire causing chained CPI’s growth should be held accountable for his actions.

The World Is Ending Again!

“Whether the response is lashing out, turning inward, tuning out, or giving up, Americans are becoming increasingly paralyzed by disagreement, disillusionment, and despair. Indeed, many Americans seem to agree these days on only one thing: This is the worst of times.”

R. Putnam & S.R. Garett, The Upswing (excerpt)

Along with a revised edition of the classic Bowling Alone, a new book has come out by Robert Putnam. With his new work, Shaylyn Romney Garrett joins him as co-author. The title is The Upswing with the accompanying subtitle of “How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again.” The basic premise appears to be that the mood at present resonates with the complaints and fears of an earlier era when the mood soured in the decades following the Civil War. As Americans headed into the next century, many voices lamented the end of an age, as if a new age would not follow (John Higgs, Stranger Than We Can Imagine).

Based on their generations theory, William Strauss and Neil Howe would give a simple response. This pattern has repeated many times over. But living memory is so short. In fact, it’s the loss of living memory of the last cycle that drives it to swing back around again. The old is made new again, as if a foreign land never seen before. That is why it requires an historical awareness to realize we’ve been here before and what to expect as we move into the next phase. Even as we are in the Crisis that turns the wheel of the Fourth Turning, something else is emerging upon which different social institutions and collective identities will be built. 

This cyclical view of humanity and society is the most ancient of understandings. But in modernity we have falsely come to believe that there is endless linear progress into the unknown and unpredictable. That is the empty pride of modern Western civilization, that we are unique, that we have broken the chains of the past. Maybe not. Jeremiads of moral panic about decadence and decline usually presage moral revivals and rebirth (Jackson Lears, Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920). That has been the pattern, so some argue, for centuries now. Is there a reason to think this time will be different?

In every generation that reaches this point in the cycle, there are those who confidently declare this time will be different, that this time it will be permanent, that further change is now impossible, that further innovation has ended, that the vitalizing force of society has been lost, that the younger generations aren’t up to the task, maybe even that we’ve entered the end times. Yet, so far, these predictions have been disproven over and over again. We act out what we suppress from awareness. So the more we deny the reality of cycles the more we become trapped in them. Our historical amnesia dooms us to falling back into patterns we don’t see.

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‘The Upswing’ Review: Bowling Alone No More?
by Yuval Levin

“Drawing ingeniously on a vast array of data—economic, political, cultural, social and more—Mr. Putnam and Ms. Garrett persuasively demonstrate that Gilded Age America suffered from civic and social strains remarkably similar to our own. Then they explore how, from the final years of the 19th century until the end of the 1950s, an extraordinary range of forces in our national life, in their words, “shaped an America that was more equal, less contentious, more connected, and more conscious of shared values.” Finally they consider why, all of a sudden and without clear warning, “the diverse streams simultaneously reversed direction, and since the 1960s America has become steadily less equal, more polarized, more fragmented, and more individualistic.” 

“They chart this path from “I” to “we” and back again to “I” across essentially every facet of the American experience. Drawing some lessons from the Progressive Era, broadly understood, they suggest that a return toward a culture of “we” would need to involve a restoration of civic ambition directed toward pragmatic, concrete, incremental changes. That means building new institutions to address new problems, and it means paving paths from shared frustrations toward accommodations and reforms that could endure. It means devoting time to local service organizations and religious and professional groups, and talking less about how things got so bad and more about how to make them better where we are. It means fighting corruption and combating despair. And it means helping a rising generation think about its future, rather than drowning in debates about past feuds and divisions. 

“But the key, for Mr. Putnam and Ms. Garrett, is to move from broad categories of action like these to specific instances of practical organization and engagement. This is why the example of America in the first half of the 20th century can be so powerful. It is a positive answer to the question that threatens to debilitate anyone looking to turn things around in contemporary America: Is revival even possible? The authors make a strong case that a recovery of solidarity is achievable.”

Rate of Moral Panic
Technological Fears and Media Panics
The Crisis of Identity
The Disease of Nostalgia
Moral Panic and Physical Degeneration
Old Debates Forgotten

Whose Original Intent?

The political right talks of constitutional originalism, often in claiming the United States is a republic, not a democracy. It’s obvious bullshit, of course. No one who knows history can take seriously most originalist arguments. As with political correctness, radical right-wingers like to project their own historical revisionism onto their opponents. This is the fake nostalgia that is a defining feature of the reactionary mind, built as it is on historical amnesia, public ignorance, and invented traditions; and made possible through underfunded (mis-)education and failed journalism.

Original intent, really? Whose original intent? This oppressive and paternalistic elitism certainly wasn’t the original intent of the Sons of Liberty, the common revolutionaries, and the Anti-Federalist leaders inspired by the Spirit of ’76; not necessarily or entirely representative of the likes of:

Thomas Paine, Ethan Allen, Thomas Young, Levi Preston, St. George Tucker, Benjamin Edes, James Otis Jr., Joseph Warren, John Lamb, William Mackay, Alexander McDougall, Benjamin Rush, William Molineux, Isaac Sears, Haym Solomon, James Swan, Charles Thomson, Marinus Willett, Oliver Wolcott, Benjamin Church, Benjamin Kent, James Swan, Isaiah Thomas, Joseph Allicocke, Timothy Bigelow, John Brown, John Crane, Hercules Mulligan, Samuel Adams, Benedict Arnold, Patrick Henry, John Hancock, Joh, Mathew Phripp, Charles Wilson Peale, William Paca, Samuel Chase, Thomas Chase, Steven Cleverly, Joseph Field, George Trott, Henry Welles, John Scollay, John Rowe, William Phillips, Gabriel Johonnot, John Gill, Solomon Davis, William Cooper, Thomas Crafts, William Ellery, William Williams, Ebenezer Mackintosh, Henry Base, John Dickinson, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Wilson, and many others.

Also, don’t forget women who were radical and righteous, rebellious and revolutionary, or else simply vocal and opinionated, but sometimes directly involved in the revolutionary war and sometimes taking up arms on the battlefield (Margaret Cochran Corbin, Mary Ludwig Hays, Deborah Sampson/Samson, etc), while others worked as militia, scouts, spies, message carriers, and took action in other ways (Prudence Cummings Wright, Catherine Moore Barry, Patience Wright, Lydia Darragh, Sibyl Ludington, Nanye’hi/Nancy Ward, Sarah “Sally” Townsend, Anna Strong, Agent 355, etc).

And consider certain members of the Daughters of Liberty such as Sarah Bradlee Fulton, Deborah Sampson Gannett, and Elizabeth Nichols Dyar. There also was Annis Boudinot Stockton, a published poet and the only female member of the secretive American Whig Society, and the mother of Julia Stockton Rush and so mother-in-law to the radical Benjamin Rush. She held that the human soul knew no gender. Phillis Wheatley was likewise a poet at the time but, as a slave, far less privileged than the wealthy Stockton. Having written a poem about George Washington in the hope of influencing him to live up to revolutionary ideals, Wheatley had the opportunity to read it to him in person and it was also republished by Thomas Paine.

Then there is Mercy Otis Warren, brother of James Otis and husband of James Warren (both major political figures) and a visitor of George Washington’s military headquarters, who was a more full-throated radical and feminist writer, not to mention an Anti-Federalist and supporter of the French Revolution: “Her analyses of war, her concern for the Native American, and her warnings against an established military and aristocracy based on wealth” (Judith B. Markowitz, “Radical and Feminist: Mercy Otis Warren and the Historiographers”). Another feminist was Judith Sargeant Murray who believed there was no difference in the intellectual abilities of men and women, that girls should get an education equal to that given to boys. Similarly, the feminist playwright Susanna Rowson wrote on education as well, along with having written the first geography textbook, and the most popular best-selling American novel until Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published more than a half century later.

Men, women, and individuals of other groups — the point isn’t that it is known exactly what position each of these people would’ve had about every major issue, but one thing that is clear is the disagreement was loud and contentious. The fighting of the revolution, the founding of the country, and the framing of the founding documents was borne out of a clash of diverse views and motivations. Not even all rich, white males of the landed aristocracy and other colonial elites were socially conservative and anti-democratic. We should be talking about original intents, not original intent.

There was always heated debate over American values and principles going back to the colonial era, the debate having been particularly heated in the constitutional convention and having continued ever after — a large reason why the party system developed right from the beginning based on the never resolved conflict between Federalists (pseudo-Federalists) and Anti-Federalists (real Federalists), among other schisms. Opposition to unrepresentative elite rule in London (not to mention unelected elite rule in the British East India Company) was the whole motivation for the American Revolution, something that bothered the colonial elites as much as anyone else. Among the Signers of the (second) Constitution, many were signing under dissent and only with the promise of an Anti-Federalist Bill of Rights that expressed alternate and opposing original intents. The final document was a hodgepodge of clashing and conflicting original intents stitched together like Frankenstein’s monster.

As for the original intent of the pseudo-Federalist framers who won the war of rhetoric and seized power through the coup of an unconstitutional constitutional convention, they exceeded and betrayed their public mandate as the unanimously-passed Articles of Confederation required a unanimity to change it, a requirement that was not met in initially passing the new constitution. Why does the original intent of only one minority faction count? What about the original intent of everyone else? Why don’t we instead heed the original intent of the actual founding documents, the far more democratic Declaration of Independence and Articles of Confederation? Or what about the original intent of the radical and rabblerousing tract Common Sense without which, John Adams argued, there would have been no successful revolution and hence no United States?

As for the United States Constitution, technically the second constitution, the original intent of the right-wing framers who took control of the constitutional convention was reactionary and counter-revolutionary. To that extent, present-day right-wingers are partly correct that the original intent of this narrow group of framers does conform to the authoritarian and social Darwinian aspirations of the present GOP. The fact of the matter is that the country was founded on slavery, plutocracy, violent oppression, and class war. Think about the continuing conflict of Shays’ Rebellion that led this particular elite to push for a constitutional convention.

At the time, there was no majority that agreed upon a lone original intent that was spelled out and isolated from all larger social, political, and historical context — and probably few, if any, had any expectation that there could or should be one original intent to rule them all. As such, what about the original intent behind the influences to the second constitution, such as the division of power in the Iroquois Confederacy or the anti-imperial republicanism of the Basque? And following the pre-revolutionary uprising against the British East India Company, what about the original intent of mistrust that so many founders and framers had toward the corrupting force of large corporate and banking interests, as they articulated in new laws restricting their power?

Original intent was never a specific set of claims conceived of and agreed upon by a consensus of unified leadership but a larger debate that extended and developed over time, shifting within American public debate and public opinion. If you could have asked a thousand Americans before, during, and after the American Revolution what was their original intent, they likely would have given you a thousand answers. The very idea of an original intent would have been contested, maybe dismissed and ridiculed by no small number of early Americans.

Many slaves, some having fought in the Continental Army, believed that revolution promised them the freedom espoused in the Declaration of Independence and, based on that original intent, many would continue to revolt long after the white man’s revolution ended, continuing after the last class war uprisings like the Whiskey Rebellion were put down. In the case of Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman, a slave in Massachusetts, she used access to legal representation to win her freedom in court. Other slaves, in taking seriously the ideals of the American Revolution, took freedom into their own hands and sought the direct path of escape. And we can’t forget how the living memory of the revolutionary era inspired many decades of slave revolts in the lead up to the American Civil War, what some call the Second American Revolution. Maybe the original intent took a while to more fully gain traction.

The promise of revolutionary rhetoric also incited feminist fervor, as Abigail Adams warned John Adams in telling him, “Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.” Still in the revolutionary era, there was the widely read and influential feminist texts by Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). That is a text, by the way, that Annis Boudinot Stockton would read and comment upon, combining criticism and praise.

Considering all of these Americans who made possible the creation of a new country, what about the original intent of those who continued to be oppressed, victimized, and silenced? In ignoring the original intent of the majority of citizens, revolutionaries, and Anti-Federalists (true Federalists); poor white men, women, blacks, and Native Americans; et cetera; and instead in exclusively (exclusionarily) prioritizing the original intent of one authoritarian and imperialistic segment of the plutocracy, today’s Republicans and other varieties of the radical right-wing fringe should, on principle, be openly and honestly advocating for slavery, aristocracy, plutocracy, paternalism, and imperialism while fighting against the basic democratic rights of most of their own supporters and followers, not to mention seeking to end the tyranny of their corporate funders and cronies.

Upon the passing of the second constitution, blacks and most minorities couldn’t vote or run for office. Neither could women or most white men who were poor and landless. Then again, corporations — not conflated with private business ownership at the time — also were left quite powerless in the post-revolutionary period or at least severely limited in scope as being legally limited to organizations that served the public good for short periods (building a bridge, establishing a hospital, etc). This was according to the original intent of one generation having no right to impose upon later generations, which is to say each generation was assumed by many to have their own separate original intents and, in the case of Thomas Jefferson, each generation was expected to have their own new constitutions.

By the way, there is nothing more contrary and alien to constitutional original intent than corporate personhood. Some of the worst founders may have been authoritarian and despotic, but one thing few of them could’ve been accused of was being corporatists. As horrific as was slave-based capitalism, it was not corporate capitalism. Such authoritarian oppression was much more personal and paternalistic, quite unlike the cold and distant corporatocratic political order that has since come to rule our society. Corporations were never intended to be treated as persons with civil rights. Heck, in early America, many actual humans weren’t treated as having legal personhood. The definition of legal personhood had severely limited application in the bad ol’ days, and that has everything to do with why democracy has always struggled to take hold in American society.

In fact, in the immediate aftermath of the constitutional coup, Americans had less voting rights than they had under the British Empire. Only about 3% of the population were represented in this supposedly representative republic that Republicans idealize. Many democratic reforms, including abolition of slavery, ironically happened more quickly in the British Empire than in the former American colonies. It required many generations of Americans fighting for their rights in opposition to an oppressive original intent that we have managed to get to the point of having the pretense of a half-assed democracy, if in reality it’s a banana republic.

Right now, Republicans are seeking to push originalist Amy Coney Barrett into the supreme court, and yet under the original intent of the misogynistic and patriarchal framers no woman would be allowed to vote, much less allowed to be nominated to the supreme court. If Barret is an originalist, she should immediately decline her appointment, step down from power, retire from her professional career, and become a housewife. The political right is being extremely selective about which original intents they praise and which they conveniently ignore or obfuscate. That is to say the entire originalist argument is disingenuous; i.e., bullshit.

The right-wing demagogues and corporatocratic social dominators are being blatantly dishonest in their seeking to seize power and maintain the status quo of a caste system of vast disparities. If they were honest about their intentions of authoritarian elitism and police state oppression, even most conservatives and Republicans wouldn’t support them. Without lies and deception, they could never win any election, no matter how much they control and manipulate our political system and electoral process through the anti-majoritarian constitution, senate, supreme court, gerrymandering, voter purges, dark money, lobbyists, revolving door politics, regulatory capture, etc. A genuine public debate and fair political contest over the legitimacy of such elite rule would end in defeat, if it wasn’t hidden behind false rhetoric of culture wars and stale Cold War propaganda.

Most Americans would not in full understanding agree to authoritarianism that operated out in the open, but that is the whole point of the anti-majoritarian agenda. It doesn’t require majority support and, in fact, must avoid it at all costs. There is no silent majority of Americans who are authoritarian followers demanding to be further silenced by an anti-majoritarian elite. The actual silenced majority is kept ignorant, cynical, and disenfranchised in order to prevent them from realizing the power they possess through their sheer numbers, the power through which they could claim their own freedom of self-governance, the original intent that inspired the revolutionary generation.

Whose original intent? Why should we care about, much less submit to, the desires and demands of our oppressors? Quo warranto. By what right? Besides, what power do the dead have over the freedom of the living? Or rather, what legitimacy does the present generation of self-proclaimed ruling class have to speak on behalf of a past generation of self-proclaimed ruling class, in their moving corpses about like grotesque puppets? Who has the audacity to declare the original intent of those no longer around to speak for themselves? And how can such presumptions take away our right and responsibility to decide for ourselves as a people, to organize and govern as we see fit?

A constitution, as Anti-Federalists and Quakers understood, is the living agreement of a people. There is only one question we must ask ourselves and only we can answer it. What is our intent? What are the hopes that inspire us and the aspirations that drive us, the ideals that sustain us and the visions that guide us? What are we willing to fight and die for as past generations did? We aren’t limited to the intents of our predecessors, but we might learn from their example in how they refused the intents of others over them. To put it in stark terms, do we intend to be enslaved or free?

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The Tyranny of the Minority, from Iowa Caucus to Electoral College
Corey Robin

Even with their acceptance of slavery and a highly restricted franchise, many of the Framers were uneasy about the notion that some people’s votes might count more than others. When one group of delegates proposed that each state, regardless of the size of its population, should have an equal vote in Congress, James Madison denounced the plan as “confessedly unjust,” comparing it to the scheme of “vicious representation in Great Britain.” State-based apportionment, claimed Pennsylvania’s James Wilson, would only reproduce the inequality of Britain’s rotten boroughs, where a nearly depopulated Old Sarum—described at the time as sixty acres without a home—had two representatives in Parliament, while London, with 750,000 to one million residents, had four.

Madison and Wilson lost that debate; the United States Senate is the result. Within a year of the ratification of the Constitution, the 50,000 free residents of Delaware, the least populous state in the nation, had the same number of senators as the 455,000 free residents of Virginia, the most populous state. That makes for a ratio of power of nine to one. Today, according to a recent report by the Roosevelt Institute, that ratio has expanded to sixty-seven to one. Wyoming’s 583,000 residents enjoy as much power in the Senate as the nearly 40 million residents of California. (In the Electoral College, the power ratio is four to one.)

Eighteen percent of the American population—on average, whiter and older than the rest of the population—can elect a majority of the Senate. If those senators are not united in their opposition to a piece of legislation, the filibuster enables an even smaller group of them, representing 10 percent of the population, to block it. Should legislation supported by a vast majority of the American people somehow make it past these hurdles, the Supreme Court, selected by a president representing a minority of the population and approved by senators representing an even smaller minority, can overturn it.

The problem of minority rule, in other words, isn’t Trumpian or temporary; it’s bipartisan and enduring. It cannot be overcome by getting rid of the filibuster or racist gerrymanders—neither of which have any basis in the Constitution—though both of these reforms would help. It’s not an isolated embarrassment of “our democracy,” restricted to newly problematic outliers like the Electoral College and the Iowa caucuses. Minority rule is a keystone of the constitutional order—and arguably, given the constitutional provision that “no state, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate,” not eliminable, at least not without a huge social upheaval.

Liberty, the Eternal Demand of Reactionary Privilege

The revolutionary generation’s problem was not in its conception of universal rights, as expressed in the declaration, but rather its inability to honor them.

“British writers, fellow inheritors of the Enlightenment, agreed. “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?” inquired England’s Samuel Johnson, a former schoolteacher and creator of A Dictionary of the English Language, the masterpiece that today still commands such encomiums as “a portrait of the language of the day in all its majesty, beauty, and marvelous confusion.” Johnson asked this question in 1775 in the context of his disapproval of American pretensions to independence, a position he spelled out piquantly in his Taxation No Tyranny, where he flummoxed American colonists by calling them selfish, ungrateful children—“these lords of themselves, these kings of Me, these demigods of independence.”14 John Lind, a British government writer equally eager to unmask American hypocrisy, put it as strongly: “It is their boast that they have taken up arms in support of these their own self-evident truths—that all men are created equal, that all men are endowed with the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” If so, why were they complaining to the world “of the offer of freedom held out to these wretched beings [by the British], of the offer of reinstating them in that equality which, in this very paper, is declared to be the gift of God to all; in those unalienable rights with which, in this very paper, God is declared to have endowed all mankind?”15

Notes:

  • 14. Simon Winchester, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 89-90; Samuel Johnson, Political Writings, ed. Donald J. Greene (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977), 454; last quote from David Waldstreicher, Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution (New York: Hill and Wang, 2004), 212.
  • 15. John Lind, An Answer to the Declaration of the American Congress (London, 1776), 107, quoted in Wills, Inventing America, 73.