I don’t seem to remember last year’s Messiah College American Democracy lecture being like this.
The speaker was Emory University historian Patrick Allitt and the venue was a large tiered classroom on campus that held 110 people. The hallways outside the campus were not swarming with campus police, high-level campus administrators, and college public relations staff. I did not have to sit in an “overflow” classroom where the lecture was shown on closed-circuit television.
Things were different this year because the speaker was Francis Fox Piven, a political scientist and activist who back in January was attacked by radio and television host Glenn Beck for her liberal views on a host of issues related to the voters rights, the alleviation of poverty, corporate America, health care, and civil disobedience. Her most significant article, written with her late husband Richard Cloward in 1966, proposed that, to quote the New York Times, “if people overwhelmed the welfare rolls, fiscal and political stress on the system could force reform and give rise to changes like guaranteed income.” Beck was also not happy with a January article in The Nation that encouraged unemployed people to stage mass protests.
Messiah College took a lot of heat for inviting Piven to speak. Conservative alumni could not understand why a Christian college would invite her to campus. Those who represent the college’s historic commitment to peace and non-violence could not understand why Messiah was inviting someone to campus who favors violent protest as a form of social change. And then, on the day before the event, which also happened to be an admissions open-house day in which the college was filled with hundreds of prospective students and their families, the college administration removed posters advertising Piven’s talk. This decision drew criticism from liberal students on campus and was featured on the front page of the local newspaper.
Frankly, I thought Piven’s lecture last night had some historical problems, but it was generally OK. Some of the things she said were controversial, and her gratuitous swipes at the Tea Party (she called them racist, susceptible to propaganda, and unable to cope with change) took something away from her argument, but in general she was trying to channel a vision of American life that has been around for a long time. If Glenn Beck had not made a big deal about her views, and if she did not get death threats from Beck’s followers, this event would have been similar to last year’s talk by Allitt.
Let’s look more deeply at what Piven said last night. She began by defining democracy. Democracy, she argued, requires universal suffrage, the right to organize and defend individual rights, a government that must respond to the voice of the people, and a commitment to all votes being equal regardless of race, class, gender, wealth, etc… I am not sure how anyone could understand this theoretical definition of democracy to be controversial.
Democracy, Piven said, is about “personhood.” For my Messiah College readers, this idea of “personhood” is quite compatible with the notion that we are all created in the image of God and thus have dignity and worth. In fact, Catholic social teaching uses very similar language to describe the “human person.” (Although they do not advocate violence to defend such personhood).
Piven then took us on a journey through American history, arguing that democracy has always been contested and has always posed a threat to propertied elites in power. While I don’t buy her progressive view of the American Revolution as an economic civil war (there were a few times where I thought I had gone back in time and was listening to Charles Beard giving a lecture on The Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States), she is right to state that many propertied elites at the time of the American Revolution feared democracy and did what they could to limit it. This is why John Adams called Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (which called for a democratic-republic) a “poor, ignorant, malicious short-sighted, crapulous mass.” In fact, Piven sounded a lot like Paine–America’s first true “radical.” (Pedagogically, her talk was wonderful! I had just taught Common Sense the day before!)
Piven’s interpretation of the relationship between the newly created states and the United States Constitution was lifted directly from Gordon Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic. (In fact, she cited Wood on at least one occasion). She mentioned the radical, democratic nature of the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 (although she failed to mention that this so-called “radical Constitution” also limited office-holding to those who were Protestant and believed in the divine inspiration of the Old and New Testament–a problem that progressive historians who sing the praises of the Constitution have yet to confront) and then showed how the framers of the United States Constitution attempted to squash the democratic fervor of the states by limiting the role that the “people” would play in electing Senators, choosing a president, and selecting Supreme Court justices. At times I thought Piven was stealing lines from my United States History survey course in which I make the exact the same argument. (I trust my job is still secure, although I hope that Glenn Beck is not reading this post).
She then argued that the election of 1896 was the turning point when the Republican Party joined the robber barons and leaders of industry to disenfranchise African-Americans and working-class ethnics. Echoing historians like Philip Foner, she suggested this unholy alliance between Republicans and industry was the reason why the United States was never able to establish a strong democratic-socialist or labor party. (Just before publishing this piece a colleague reminded me that it was actually the progressives themselves who did the disenfranchising).
In conclusion, Piven railed against corporate interests and the Tea Party. She challenged her audience not to be taken in by media propaganda. And she endorsed the Occupy Wall Street movement, of which she has participated. During the Q&A session she called for the elimination of the Electoral College, talked about the Tea Party’s “uneasiness” with demographic changes taking place in America, and claimed that she believed in non-violence but sympathized with mass movements that responded to the “violence” of losing their homes and being hungry.
At times she sounded like Thomas Jefferson, especially when she said that democracy required “eternal vigilance.” There were even some indirect references to Jefferson’s statement that every generation needs to engage in periodic revolution as a “medicine necessary for the sound health of government.”
In the end, Piven may be a “radical,” but there is nothing that she said last night that we cannot find somewhere in the American tradition. In fact, her talk was pretty predictable. In this sense, her ideas were not very new or radical at all.
You can agree or disagree with Piven’s politics, but a college campus–even a college campus like Messiah College–should be a place where her ideas should be discussed and engaged. I enjoyed being part of that process and I look forward to today’s “talk back session.”