Where Does History Go From Here?

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Over at the Boston Review, historian and essayist Maximillian Alvarez argues that both pro-Trumpers and anti-Trumpers are still operating within Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” argument.  Here is a taste:

Fukuyama’s take on the “end of history,” to be fair, has been questioned for decades. And for a number of reasons: from its Eurocentrism to its unshakeable faith in the world-historical stability of a neoliberal apparatus securing and enforcing the global marriage of “free trade” and Western liberal democracy. The past decade alone would seem to pose as great a challenge as we have seen to the Fukuyaman conceit. From the 2008 global financial crash to the rise of authoritarian-minded, far- right, Trump-style “populism,” the neoliberal order has shown quite a lack of, well, stability. 

The very same empire that is supposed to lord over this end of history, forever and ever amen, can no longer seem to keep its story straight. Even as Donald Trump lauds himself as the very best president ever—an end-of-history sentiment if ever there was one—his presidency is nonetheless anchored to the message that the United States must be made great again. Something has slipped; the end of history has gone too far, and we must try to go back, it seems—to Reaganism, to the cradle of the Greatest Generation, to the Confederacy, to Jacksonianism, and on and on. 

It is no coincidence that, in response to the historical recidivism of the Trump-led right, all that the amassed forces of the Resistance™ have been able to muster is a Fukuyaman defense that, in many ways, mirrors that of their opponents. From Hillary Clinton’s proclamation that “America never stopped being great” to the milquetoast Democratic obsession with being on the “right side of history,” the essence of the great political slap-fight of our day seems to amount to a debate between Democrats and Republicans over when, exactly—not if—history ended, which parts of our society are still stuck “in history,” and what they need to do to catch up. Either way, the presumption is that, regardless of what happens over the next two to six years, the great historical edifice of neoliberal rule will hold.

This is why the Democratic and Never-Trump Republican resistance has been largely incapable of challenging Trump’s wrecking-ball presidency on any grounds that would directly implicate the neoliberal apparatus of which they, too, are a part. Instead, the horror and hysteria unleashed by the ascendancy of Trump has been couched in pearl-clutching fear over what “norms” and “traditions” the MAGA movement has destroyed and expunged from our social world. If the neoliberal world order remains the embodied truth of the “end of history,” then, for all its concerned showmanship, the neoliberal establishment has yet to demonstrate any widespread belief that history, as such, is at stake.

Read the entire piece here.

The “Fate of Pluralism” in America

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The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) has released a new study titled “American Democracy in Crisis: The Fate of Pluralism in a Divided Nation.”   Maxine Najle and Robert Jones are the authors.  Here are some of my quick takeaways:

  •  The number of white evangelicals who have a favorable view of Donald Trump was higher in 2018 than it was in 2016.  (It is, however, slightly down from 2017).
  • White evangelicals “remain the only major religious group in which a majority holds a favorable view of the president.”  For more on why I think this is the case, see my argument in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.
  • White Americans with a college degree (78%) are “substantially likelier than whites without a college degree (56%) to say they interact with someone who does not share their race or ethnicity at least once a week.”
  • “Fully half (50%) of religiously unaffiliated Americans say they interact with people who do not share their religious affiliation within their family, compared to 32% of white mainline Protestants, 30% of Catholics, 26% of nonwhite Protestants, and 25% of white evangelical Protestants.”  If I am reading this correctly, it appears that Protestants of all varieties (mainline, nonwhite and white evangelical) do not spend much time with family members who do not share their faith.   Religious faith trumps blood?
  • Americans are “most likely to view their interactions with people who do not share their political affiliation in a negative light.” There are “no significant differences between partisans on this question.”  This, of course, reveals the incivility of our political discourse in the United States.
  • Republicans are three times more likely as independents and Democrats “to say they would be unhappy if their child married someone of a different religious background.”  White evangelicals stand out among religious groups on this question by a significant margin over nonwhite Protestants, Catholics, and mainline white Protestants.
  • “When faced with the prospect of their child marrying someone who identifies with the opposite political party, Democrats are likelier than Republicans to say they would be unhappy.”  Interesting.
  • Nearly 30% of white evangelicals would “be unhappy if their son or daughter married a Democrat.”
  • 66% of white evangelicals would “be at least somewhat unhappy if their son or daughter married  someone of the same gender.”  Frankly, I thought this number would be higher.
  • 60% of white evangelicals prefer “a nation primarily made up of people who follow Christian faith.”  Only 8% of white evangelicals prefer a “nation made up of people belonging  to a wide variety of religions.”

There is a lot more here.

Intellectualism and Anti-Intellectualism in the Age of Trump

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Richard Hofstadter still looms large in any discussion of anti-intellectualism in America

Here is a taste of Adam Water‘s and E.J. Dionne‘s recent piece at Dissent: “Is Anti-Intellectualism Ever Good for Democracy?

Intellectuals are not entitled to special privileges, and “intellectualism” should not be seen as a superior way of life. But the intellectual project, involving the search for truth and understanding with some independence from the pressures of both the state and the market, must be defended. And it is a project that citizens who do not have any formal status in the academy or think tanks can join.

Intellectuals are integral to the battle against falsehood, but they need to work as part of a broad democratic enterprise involving citizens of every background who are concerned about what Trump and his cronies’ systematic denigration of facts means for the vitality of our democracy. There is no magical political strategy for building this coalition, and in the range of priorities for progressives, this would not rank as a central cause.

Read the entire piece here.

Court Evangelical Robert Jeffress is Bad for America

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Jeffress is more concerned with his theocratic agenda–an approach to American culture driven by fear, the raw pursuit of power, and a nostalgic longing for an age that is long gone or may never have existed in the first place–than he is the good of the nation.  He is a cancer spreading over our democracy.

Why else would he describe the Kavanaugh nomination as an example of “good” triumphing over “evil?”  In Jeffress’s world view, “evil” is the product of Satan and his minions.  The Dallas pastor has no interest in finding common ground.  He only wants to demonize his opponents and divide the country.  This is what culture warriors do.  They claim to be patriots, but they are not.

Can Evangelicals and Secular Liberals Find Common Ground?

HandsAccording to J.J. Gould, the editor of The New Republic, the future of our democracy depends on it.  Here is a taste of his editorial, “Belief in Democracy“:

…Which means that as committed secular liberals and serious evangelicals, of the kind Bryan Mealer writes about for us this month, come to identify with each other politically, that’s a political identification between kinds of people who live in ways that are in some respects powerfully alien to one another. Mutual super-revulsion with Trump and elements of his base can only obscure this reality so much.

Which in turn represents a great hope for the still-tenuous future of liberal democracy in the United States: If you can sustain a common political identity despite such profoundly different beliefs about the nature of the universe and humanity’s place in it, you can sustain the promise of American life.

Read the entire piece here.

The Constitution as a “cudgel with which to attack their enemies”

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In The Atlantic‘s ongoing series on the state of American democracy, Yale Law School professors Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld argue that partisanship has “turned Americans against one another–and against the principles enshrined in our founding document.”  They call for a “constitutional patriotism.”  Here is a taste:

America is not an ethnic nation. Its citizens don’t have to choose between a national identity and multiculturalism. Americans can have both. But the key is constitutional patriotism. We have to remain united by and through the Constitution, regardless of our ideological disagreements.

There are lessons here for both the left and the right. The right needs to recognize that making good on the Constitution’s promises requires much more than flag-waving. If millions of people believe that, because of their skin color or religion, they are not treated equally, how can they be expected to see the Constitution’s resounding principles as anything but hollow?

For its part, the left needs to rethink its scorched-earth approach to American history and ideals. Exposing injustice, past and present, is important, but there’s a world of difference between saying that America has repeatedly failed to live up to its constitutional principles and saying that those principles are lies or smoke screens for oppression. Washington and Jefferson were slave owners. They were also political visionaries who helped give birth to what would become the most inclusive form of governance in world history.

Read the entire piece here.

What Would Madison Think?

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Over The Atlantic, Jeffrey Rosen offers a nice primer on how America is now living “James Madison’s worst nightmare.”  Here is a taste:

Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms have accelerated public discourse to warp speed, creating virtual versions of the mob. Inflammatory posts based on passion travel farther and faster than arguments based on reason. Rather than encouraging deliberation, mass media undermine it by creating bubbles and echo chambers in which citizens see only those opinions they already embrace.

We are living, in short, in a Madisonian nightmare. How did we get here, and how can we escape?

Rosen still has hope:

To combat the power of factions, the Founders believed the people had to be educated about the structures of government in particular. “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both,” Madison wrote in 1822, supporting the Kentucky legislature’s “Plan of Education embracing every class of Citizens.” In urging Congress to create a national university in 1796, George Washington said: “A primary object of such a national institution should be the education of our youth in the science of government.”

The civics half of the educational equation is crucial. Recent studies have suggested that higher education can polarize citizens rather than ensuring the rule of reason: Highly educated liberals become more liberal, and highly educated conservatives more conservative. At the same time, the National Assessment of Educational Progress has found that citizens, whether liberal or conservative, who are educated about constitutional checks on direct democracy, such as an independent judiciary, are more likely to express trust in the courts and less likely to call for judicial impeachment or for overturning unpopular Supreme Court decisions.

These are dangerous times: The percentage of people who say it is “essential” to live in a liberal democracy is plummeting, everywhere from the United States to the Netherlands. Support for autocratic alternatives to democracy is especially high among young people. In 1788, Madison wrote that the best argument for adopting a Bill of Rights would be its influence on public opinion. As “the political truths” declared in the Bill of Rights “become incorporated with the national sentiment,” he concluded, they would “counteract the impulses of interest and passion.” Today, passion has gotten the better of us. The preservation of the republic urgently requires imparting constitutional principles to a new generation and reviving Madisonian reason in an impetuous world.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Mark Cheathem

CoD Book Cover.jpgMark Cheathem is Professor of History and project director of the Papers of Martin Van Buren at Cumberland University. This interview is based on his new book The Coming Democracy (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write The Coming Democracy?

MC: Originally, I started out writing a book about the 1840 election for undergraduate students. As I researched the Log Cabin and Hard Cider Campaign of 1840, however, I saw a need for a more general book on presidential campaigning in the Jacksonian period. The closest one we had was Michael J. Heale’s The Presidential Quest: Candidates and Images in American Political Culture, 1787-1852. Heale’s book is excellent, but it was published in 1982 and did not address the new scholarship on Early Republic cultural politics. Having research and written extensively on Jacksonian politics, I thought I could provide a book that provided an interpretive framework for understanding this fascinating period.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Coming Democracy?

MC: This book argues that forms of cultural politics (e.g., political cartoons, political songs, etc.) were essential to engaging voters in presidential campaigns during the Jacksonian period. Not only were these political expressions increasingly used to engage voters between 1824 and 1840, they also played a critical role in making them a permanent part of presidential campaigning.

JF: Why do we need to read The Coming Democracy?

MC: This book is immensely relevant to today’s political culture. As I argue in the conclusion, while some forms of Jacksonian-era cultural politics have changed, all of them continue to exist in some form. For example, political cartoons may not be as relevant in today’s world of disappearing newspapers, but the popular memes on social media essentially serve the same purpose: providing a visual shorthand of a politician or issue that requires some level of political literacy on the part of consumers.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

MC: My undergraduate adviser, Monty Pope, knew that I wanted to teach history, and he convinced me to go to graduate school so I could teach at the college level. Monty’s course on Jacksonian Democracy and his encouragement to work at The Hermitage, Jackson’s home in Nashville, led me into the period I study.

JF: What is your next project?

MC: I am currently at work on the Papers of Martin Van Buren project, which is making the eighth president’s papers accessible in both digital and print editions. I am also writing a book on the 1844 presidential election for the University Press of Kansas’ American Presidential Elections series.

JF: Thanks, Mark!

How Trump Undermines Democracy

Framers CoupMichael Klarman is the Kirkland & Ellis Professor at Harvard Law School and the author of The Framers’ Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution. (See our Author’s Corners interview with Klarman here).

Check out his piece at Process: “Trump, Democracy, and the Constitution.”

Here is a taste:

At the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, Elbridge Gerry, a delegate from Massachusetts, warned against too much democracy. The people, he stated, were “the dupes of pretended patriots” and were “daily misled into the most baneful measures and opinions by the false reports circulated by designing men.” Two hundred and thirty years later, Gerry’s concerns—which most of the framers shared—were vindicated: the American people elected a president who disdains basic tenets of democracy.

Democracy depends on norms, some written into the Constitution, others implicit in it. Donald Trump regularly disparages or repudiates at least ten of these norms: (1) an independent judiciary; (2) the freedom of the press; (3) the presence and function of independent actors within government; (4) the peaceful resolution of political disputes rather than the encouragement of violence; (5) the acknowledgment of the legitimacy of election results and recognition of the sanctity of the right to vote; (6) a refusal to threaten legal prosecution against political opponents; (7) the condemnation of brutal foreign dictators; (8) a respect for transparency within government; (9) a sharp separation between the private and public interests of governmental officials; and (10) at least a minimal commitment to the truth. These norms are essential to American democracy, yet Trump routinely violates them.

Read the rest here.   I discuss some similar ideas in my forthcoming Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

Read the rest here.

Trump Echoed His Favorite President Last Night

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Andrew Jackson was a great defender of American democracy.  He was a president elected by the “common man.” He believed that the people gave him his mandate to rule.  “The people,” of course, were white men.  They deserved his loyalty and compassion.  They deserved Jackson’s protection.  Jackson promised to protect their access to the American dream.

One of Jackson’s most important democratic “reforms” was the The Indian Removal Act (1830).  This act gave the federal government authority to move southeastern native America groups (Choctow, Cherokee, Chickasaws, Creeks, and Seminoles, among others) to a designated Indian territory in present-day Oklahoma.  Tens of thousands of native Americans were sent to Indian territory on the “Trail of Tears.”

As a champion of democracy, it was essential that Jackson got the Indians out of the way so he could open-up native American lands for the “common men” who voted for him.  Let’s remember what Jackson’s idea of democracy was all about.  Here is Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Daniel Walker Howe:

Seeking the fundamental impulse behind Jacksonian Democracy, historians have variously pointed to free enterprise, manhood suffrage, the labor movement, and resistance to the market economy. But in its origins, Jacksonian Democracy (which contemporaries understood as a synonym for Jackson’s Democratic Party) was not primarily about any of these, though it came to intersect with all of them in due course. In the the first place, it was about the extension of white supremacy across the North American continent.

I thought about Jackson as I listened to Trump’s first State of the Union Address last night.  I am not sure if Jackson ever used the phrase “American first,” but as a populist he certainly embraced the idea.  Indian removal was his attempt to put American citizens “first.”  White men needed this land and Jackson was going to make sure he prioritized their needs.

Last night Trump said:

The United States is a compassionate nation. We are proud that we do more than any other country to help the needy, the struggling, and the underprivileged all over the world. But as President of the United States, my highest loyalty, my greatest compassion, and my constant concern is for America’s children, America’s struggling workers, and America’s forgotten communities. I want our youth to grow up to achieve great things. I want our poor to have their chance to rise.

So tonight, I am extending an open hand to work with members of both parties — Democrats and Republicans — to protect our citizens of every background, color, religion, and creed. My duty, and the sacred duty of every elected official in this chamber, is to defend Americans — to protect their safety, their families, their communities, and their right to the American Dream. Because Americans are dreamers too.

White “Americans are dreamers too.” We need to protect them from the Indians immigrants who are threatening them.

As I argue briefly in Chapter Five of my forthcoming Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, the idea of “America first” has always been tied to racial division.

Episode 29: Libertarianism and Democracy

 

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Many voices in American politics have been sounding the alarm about the influence of the Koch brothers as a threat to voting rights, the direction of American conservatism, and the very sanctity of American democracy. But like all things, the Koch brothers have a history. In this episode, host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling discuss the rise and influence of American libertarianism within the conservative movement. They are joined by Nancy MacLean who discusses her book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, which was just nominated for the National Book Award.

The Roy Moore Case Offers a Glimpse into How Jerry Falwell Jr. Sees the World

In a piece at The Washington Post published back in July, I wrote:

Historians will write about this moment in terms of both continuity and change. On one hand, court evangelicals are part of a familiar story. For nearly half a century, evangelicals have sought to influence the direction of the country and its laws through politics. But Trump has forced them to embrace a pragmatism that could damage the gospel around the world, and force many Christians to rethink their religious identities and affiliations.

I think this Roy Moore mess is another example of the way that evangelical Christians are going to have to rethink their religious identities and affiliations.  I don’t recognize the evangelicalism of the so-called “Christian leaders” who are defending Moore right now.

For example, here is a taste of Emily McFarland’s Religion News Service piece on court evangelical Jerry Falwell Jr.’s response to the news that Judge Roy Moore allegedly molested teenage girls:

“It comes down to a question who is more credible in the eyes of the voters — the candidate or the accuser,” said Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of evangelical Liberty University who has endorsed Trump and Moore, both Republicans.

“The same thing happened to President Trump a few weeks before his election last year except it was several women making allegations,” Falwell told RNS in an email. “He denied that any of them were true and the American people believed him and elected him the 45th president of the United States.”

Wow! I don’t even know where to begin. Falwell Jr., the president of the largest evangelical university in the world, does not seem capable of addressing this issue from a moral perspective informed by his Christian faith.  No Jerry, what Roy Moore allegedly did to these young girls does not “come down to a question of who is more credible to the voters.”

I can’t believe a Christian college president would imply that the rightness or wrongness of Moore’s supposed actions comes down to what the majority of people in Alabama think.  Is Falwell implying that if Moore is elected to the Senate, and it turns out he did molest those girls, that his actions are somehow washed clean because the people of Alabama believed his denials and voted him into office?  This may be how right and wrong is defined in a democracy, but it is not how right and wrong is defined by people committed to Christian faith.

I seem to recall that in the first half of the 19th-century the people of Alabama believed that slavery was a “more credible” position “in the eyes of the voters” of the state.  By Falwell’s logic in the Moore case, this would make slavery a morally acceptable institution.

How Do We Fix American Democracy?

The Washington Post has collected thirty-eight thinkers to answer this question.  They are: Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein, Gish Jen, Yuval Levin, Katherine Mangu-Ward, Jessica Hische, Ann Patchett, R.R. Reno, Kristen Henderson, Alec MacGillis, Milton Glaser,  Amy Sullivan, Ibram X Kendi, Lanhee Chen, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Steve Penley, Avik Roy, Kareen Abdul-Jabbar, Francis Collins, Rita Dove, Nate Powell, Cathy Young, Dani Rodrik, Arlie Russell Hochschild, John McWhorter, Gail Anderson, Joan Williams, Elaine Kamarck, Farah Pandith, Eric Posner, George Lois, George Takei, Domingo Martinez, Suzy Hansen, Suzanne Nossel, Johnalynn Holland, Julian Krein, Moises Naim, and Carl Gershman.

Some of the suggestions include:

“Cultivate National Gratefulness”

“Revive Human Decency”

“A Grass-Roots Revolt Against Fake News”

“End American Arrogance”

“Require Everyone to Vote”

“Stop Obsessing About White Privilege”

“Redefine the Flag”

“Push for Civil Rights Education”

“Teach Critical Thinking”

“A Constitutional Amendment on Equality”

“Ignore the Cultural Elite”

“One Month Without Social Media”

Read the entire piece here.

“The Closing of the American Mind” at 30

ClosingAllan Bloom‘s bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind, turns thirty this year.  Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education, cultural critic and New Left activist Todd Gitlin reflects:

“You can slam its young people into universities with their classrooms and laboratories, and when they come out all they can talk about is Babe Ruth. America is a hopeless country for intellectuals and thinking people.” Babe Ruth is the giveaway. These words were spoken in 1923, and the speaker was Theodore Dreiser, who had dropped out of Indiana University after one year.

So it is not a new thought that American universities are nests of self-betrayal and triviality where inquiring minds trade the nobility of their tradition for cheap trinkets and the promise of pieces of silver to come. Indeed, five years before Dreiser popped off, Thorstein Veblen was denouncing “the higher learning in America” for having surrendered to business domination, ditched the pure pursuit of knowledge, cultivated “conspicuous conformity to the popular taste,” and pandered to undergraduates by teaching them “ways and means of dissipation.” “The conduct of universities by business men,” to borrow from Veblen’s subtitle, had rendered university life “mechanistic.” Veblen anticipated that the academy would wallow in futility when it was not prostrating itself at the feet of the captains of finance. His original subtitle was A Study in Total Depravity. Veblen having dropped it, Allan Bloom should have picked it up.

Veblen thought the university had been seized by “pecuniary values.” To Bloom, whose bestselling book, The Closing of the American Mind, is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, something much worse had happened: The university had been seized by the absence of values. “The university now offers no distinctive visage to the young person. He finds a democracy of the disciplines. … This democracy is really an anarchy, because there are no recognized rules for citizenship and no legitimate titles to rule. In short there is no vision, nor is there a set of competing visions, of what an educated human being is.”

A horde of bêtes noires had stampeded through the gates, and the resulting noise had drowned out the proper study of both nature and humanity. Nihilism had conquered. Its chief forms were cultural relativism, historicism, and shopping-mall indifference, the humanities’ lame attempts at a holding action that “flatters popular democratic tastes.” Openness was the new closure; elitism had become the worst of all isms.

Read the rest here.

Does the “American Idea” Still Exist?

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Yoni Appelbaum, the Washington Bureau Chief of The Atlantic, believes there is still hope.  Here is a taste of his recent piece: “Is the American Idea Doomed?

So where does the American idea stand today? To some extent, it is a victim of its own success: Its spread to other nations has left America less distinctive than it once was. But the country has also failed to live up to its own ideals. In 1857, the United States was remarkable for its high levels of democratic participation and social equality. Recent reports rank the U.S. 28th out of 35 developed countries in the percentage of adults who vote in national elections, and 32nd in income equality. Its rates of intergenerational economic mobility are among the lowest in the developed world.

On opportunity, too, the United States now falls short. In its rate of new-business formation and in the percentage of jobs new businesses account for, it ranks in the lower half of nations tracked by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Today, Americans describe China as Europeans once described the United States—as an uncouth land of opportunity and rising economic might.

It is no surprise that younger Americans have lost faith in a system that no longer seems to deliver on its promise—and yet, the degree of their disillusionment is stunning. Nearly three-quarters of Americans born before the Second World War assign the highest value—10 out of 10—to living in a democracy; less than a third of those born since 1980 do the same. A quarter of the latter group say it’s unimportant to choose leaders in free elections; just shy of a third think civil rights are needed to protect people’s liberties. Americans are not alone; much of western Europe is similarly disillusioned.

Read the entire piece here.