What Went Wrong with the American Experiment?





Jim Sleeper, a writer and teacher on American civic culture and politics and a lecturer in political science at Yale, is the author of "The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York" (W.W. Norton, 1990) and "Liberal Racism" (Viking, 1997, Rowman & Littlefield, 2002). More of his articles and commentary are available at jimsleeper.com. This article was first published on Open Democracy.


What so loudly we hailed
 

For centuries most Americans have believed that “the shot heard ‘round the world” in 1775 from Concord, Massachusetts heralded the Enlightenment’s entry into history. Early observers of America such as G.W.F. Hegel, EdwardGibbon, and Edmund Burke believed that, too. A new kind of republican citizenwas rising, amid and against adherents of theocracy, divine-right monarchy, aristocracy, and mercantilism. Republican citizens were quickening humanity’s stride toward horizons radiant with promises never before held and shared as widely as they were in America. 

The creation of the United States really was a Novus Ordo Seclorum, a New Order of the Ages, a society’s first self-aware, if fumbling and compromised effort to live by the liberal expectation that autonomous individuals could govern themselves together without having to impose religious doctrines or mystical narratives of tribal blood or soil. With barely a decorous nod to The Creator, the founders of the American republic conferred on one another the right to have rights, a distinguished group of them constituting the others as “We, the people.” 

That revolutionary effort is not just in trouble now, or endangered, or under attack, or reinventing itself. It’s in prison, with no prospect of parole, and many Americans, including me, who wring our hands or wave our arms about this are actually among the jailers. We haven’t yet understood the shots fired and heard ‘round the world from 74 American schools, colleges, and military bases since the Sandy Hook School massacre of December, 2012. 

These shots haven’t been fired by embattled farmers at invading armies. They haven’t been fired by terrorists who’ve penetrated our surveillance and security systems. With few exceptions, they haven’t been fired by aggrieved non-white Americans. They’ve been fired mostly by young, white American citizens at other white citizens, and by American soldiers at other American soldiers, inside the very institutions where republican virtues and beliefs are nurtured and defended. 

They’ve been fired from within a body politic so drained of candor and trust that, beneath our continuing lip-service to republican premises, practices, we’ve let a court conflate the free speech of flesh-and-blood citizens with the disembodied wealth of anonymous shareholders, and we’ve let lawmakers, bought or intimidated by gun peddlers and zealots, render us helpless against torrents of marketed fear and vengeance that are dissolving a distinctively American democratic ethos the literary historian Daniel Aaroncharacterized as “ethical and pragmatic, disciplined and free.” 

Many Americans are adapting to living with variants of force and fraud that erupt in road rage; lethal stampedes by shoppers on sale days; security precautions in their homes against the prospect of armed invasion; gladatorialization and corruption in sports; nihilism in entertainment that fetishizes violence without context and sex without attachment; the casino-like financing of utterly unproductive economic activities such as the entertainment I’ve just mentioned and the predatory lending that has tricked millions out of their homes; the commercial groping and goosing of private lives and public spaces, even in the marketing of ordinary consumer goods; and the huge, new prison industry that Americans have created to deter or punish broken, violent men, most of them non-white, only to find schools in even the whitest, “safest” neighborhoods imprisoned by fear of white gunmen who’ve often been students themselves.

Abroad, meanwhile, thousands more shots, fiendish and celebratory, are being fired into the corpses of American national-security and nation-building projects by terrorists and fanatics we were told had been decimated. These projects cost trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives, limbs, homes, and hopes, including those of American soldiers, contractors, and idealists. Their sacrifices can’t justify retroactively what shouldn’t have been undertaken in the first place. 

Stressed by all this republican derangement, millions are spending billions on palliatives, medications, addictions, and even surveillance designed to protect them from themselves. All those vials, syringes, security systems, and shootings reflect the introduction of what Gibbon called “a slow and secret poison into the vitals of the empire…” until Roman citizens “no longer possessed that public courage which is nourished by the love of independence, the sense of national honour, the presence of danger, and the habit of command. They received laws and governors from the will of their sovereign, and trusted for their defence to a mercenary army.” Only a few late-Roman republicans recalling their old freedoms, concluded, with Livy, that “We have become too ill to bear our sickness or their cures.” 

What went wrong? 

You might argue, and quite rightly, that “We, the people” have always subverted the truths we’d held to be self-evident, beginning with slavery and continuing with plutocracy. Yet somehow the republic kept experiencing what Lincoln called “a new birth of freedom,” thanks only partly to the fortuitous confluence of two oceans’ protection, a vast continent’s ever-alluring frontier, and unending streams of aspiring immigrants: 

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame

With conquering limbs astride from land to land,

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates will stand

A mighty woman with a torch

Whose flame is the imprisoned lightning,

And her name: Mother of Exiles 


True enough, the republic thus limned by Emma Lazarus in “The New Colossus,” her poem for the Statue of Liberty, needed those exiles for its burgeoning labor market. And it still had a guiding aristocracy of sorts, but supposedly “an aristocracy of talent and virtue,” as Jefferson put it, and not one of blood and ill-gotten wealth. True, too, certain lingering Puritan beliefs had nourished in the embattled farmers (and, even long before 1775, in some of the Puritans themselves) a conviction that resistance to tyranny is obedience to God. That injunction to defy worldly power sometimes in the name of a Higher Power legitimated individual conscience and autonomy, right up through the non-violent defiance of the best of the civil-rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s. 

But the American emphasis on individual conscience and autonomy also gestated a liberal capitalist republic that has reduced individualism to market exchanges in ways that are now destroying both individuals and the society. A liberal capitalist republic has to rely on its citizens to uphold voluntarily certain public virtues and beliefs that neither the liberal state nor markets can nourish or defend. The liberal state isn’t supposed to judge between one way of life and another, after all; and markets reward you as a self-interested consumer and investor, not as a citizen who might put such interests aside at times to advance a greater good that self-interest alone can’t achieve. 

The moral silence and often bankruptcy of states and markets leaves citizen-leaders to be nourished and trained all the more intensively in institutions that stand somewhat apart from the state and markets. The Puritan founders of America’s oldest colleges understood this, but they expected that those colleges’ graduates would serve a theocratic state that would control markets and everything else. We’re right to dismiss the Puritans’ theocracy because it was repressive and hypocritical. But we’re wrong to have lost a side of its animating spirit that would have kept markets from controlling and devouring republican government and even our bodies and ourselves.  

Symptoms and scapegoating 

Having miscarried republican self-discipline and conviction so badly, we find ourselves scrambling to monitor, measure, and control the consequences, such as the proliferation of mental illness and the glorification and marketing of guns, as if these were causing our implosion. They aren’t. They’re symptoms, not causes — reactions to widespread heartbreak at the breakdown of what Tocqueville called republican habits of the heart that we used to cultivate. 

Equally symptomatic, not causal, are self-avowedly “deviant” and “transgressive” gyrations by people who imagine that the sunset of civic-republican order heralds a liberating, Dionysian dawn. Even our war-makers’ and mongers’ grand strategies and the growing militarization of our domestic police forces are more symptomatic than causal of the public derangement that’s rising all around us. 

But turning the bearers of such frightening symptoms into our primary villains or scapegoats would only deepen our blindness to the disease, which is as old as the biblical worship of the Golden Calf and as new as Goldman-Sachs. It runs deeper than anything that anyone but the Puritans and their Old Testament models tried to tackle. 

I’m not suggesting we can or should return to Puritanism! Anyone expecting to recover that faith and way of life is stumbling up dry streambeds toward wellsprings that have themselves run dry. But we do need wellsprings that could fortify us to take risks even more daunting than those taken by the embattled farmers. We’d somehow have to reconfigure or abandon empty comforts, escapes, and protections that both free-market conservatives and readers of Salon are accustomed to buying and selling, sometimes against our own best hopes and convictions. Sloughing off our bad old repressions, we’ve been swept up by swift market currents that turn countercultures into over-the-counter cultures and promote a free-for-all that’s a free-for-none as citizens become customers chasing “freedoms” for sale.  

Our cure would also require re-weaving a fabric of public candor and comity strong enough to resist the rise of ressentiment, a public psychopathology, once associated with the rise of fascism, in which insecurities, envy, and hatreds that many have been nursing in private converge in scary public eruptions that diminish their participants even in seeming to make them big. Ressentiment’s “little-big man” seeks easy targets for frustrations borne of exploitation by powers that he’s afraid to face and reckon with head-on. Blaming scapegoats warps his assessment of his hardships and options and drives him to wreak vengeance on them as soon as there are enough little-big men (and women, of course) to do so en masse under a Glenn Beck or a Sarah Palin. 

Whether ressentiment erupts in racist violence, sectarian fanaticism, anti-Communist witch hunts, totalitarian show trials, politically correct cultural revolutions, or sadistic escapism, its most telling symptoms are paranoia and routinized bursts of hysteria. Under the ministrations of gifted demagogues, its grievances and pain assume a fleeting brilliance that soon collapses, tragi-comically or catastrophically, on its own cowardice and lies. 

Its targets often shift. The 9/11 attacks brought a reprieve of sorts to African-Americans, the republic’s most enduring scapegoats, when the burden of white censure pivoted toward Muslims. Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam lost credibility, but so did whites such as the neoconservative Daniel Pipes, who kept on insisting years after 9/11 that the first black president was a Muslim and a friend of terrorists. 

The slipperiness of scapegoating became clear to me in 1993, as I wrote about a deranged black gunman, Colin Ferguson, who’d opened fire in a Long Island Rail Road car, killing six passengers. Even while holding him responsible, I saw him bearing symptoms far more widespread than his private demons. Noting Ferguson’s enthusiasm for a politics of rage, paranoia, and death threats then prominent on a black radio station and in demagogic street politics, I warned that even deranged loners are sometimes better attuned to our subconscious hatreds and fears than we care to admit. That was true, too, of Jared Loughner, the white paranoid-schizophrenic and anti-government fantasist who killed a U.S. District Court judge and six other people while trying to kill but severely wounding US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 13 others in 2011. 

While apocalyptic religious and racist ranting can provoke emotionally disturbed people, so can journalism and entertainment that massage hatreds too diffuse to be called racist, religious, or ideological. Some school shooters nursed the depictions of violence and lust that are pumped incessantly into young Americans’ horizons with the help of new technologies and investment strategies that ride reckless misreadings of the First Amendment. This hasn’t been done with malevolent intent as often as it’s been done in a kind of civic mindlessness by media corporations incentivized and indeed forced by market pressures to bypass our brains and hearts on the way to our lower viscera and wallets by exaggerating fears of armed home invasion, government takeover, and vengeful victory by gunplay. 

The invisible disease 

Relatively few young Americans follow these siren songs into acts of destruction. But the public fetishizing of sex and violence without context or caring dampens many others’ faith in society during their formative years. You don’t need to know a lot of developmental psychology or anthropology to know that children crave culturally coherent tests of prowess and loyalty in symbolic rites of passage that ratify their communal belonging. When such rites and symbols fail, some flail about, seeking order in private delusions, Dartmouth College fraternities, and public orchestrations of ressentiment. 

In 1775, most American communities still filtered such basic generational and human needs through traditions that encompassed kinship bonds and seasonal rhythms. In Common Sense, Thomas Paine could urge readers like them to take their recent experiences of monarchy “to the touchstones of nature” and decide whether they would abide the empire’s abuses. Today, those “touchstones of nature” – and with them, republican convictions about selfhood and society — have been torn up by runaway engines and developments in technology, communications, and even  intimate biology that would terrify Paine, Adam Smith and John Locke, not to mention those who fired the first shot at Concord. This time, we’re all in bed with the enemy. 

In The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism 40 years ago, Daniel Bell – no anti-capitalist, but prophetic enough about the worship of Golden Calves — argued that free markets no longer make free men because “economic liberalism has become… corporate oligopoly, and, in the pursuit of private wants, a hedonism that is destructive of social needs.” He warned that consumer capitalism displaces the needs that the early republic filtered through nature’s rhythms and kinship traditions. It displaces those needs with ginned-up “wants” that “by their nature, are unlimited and insatiable…. [T]he rational calculation of efficiency and return” displace “the principle of the public household,” strip-mining and selling off fragments of cultural narratives. 

Without civic wellsprings and narratives deep and compelling enough to strengthen a society’s adhesives and disciplines in the hearts of its young, neither free-market conservatives nor world-is-flat neoliberal cosmopolitans can reconcile their professed commitments to ordered, republican liberty with their knee-jerk obedience to riptides of destructive investment that are dissolving republican virtue and sovereignty before our eyes. 

No wonder we’re losing our vision, in both senses of the word: 

▪ Our business press was too blind to see that a tsunami of predatory lending would wreck the national economy and throw millions from their homes. ▪ Our market-addled Congressional committees and blue-ribbon commissions on national intelligence couldn’t discover, until Edward Snowden revealed it, that public surveillance had taken on an all-devouring life of its own. 

▪ Our foreign-policy savants across the ideological spectrum were too blind see that the Soviet Union was so much weaker than American Cold War propaganda and hysteria insisted that it imploded in 1989. The fabled “missile gap” that John F. Kennedy ran on in 1960 was as imaginary as Saddam Hussein’s WMD, but anyone who tried telling either of those truths was charged with a “failure of nerve” or worse by the blind war-mongers in our midst.  

▪ Neo-conservative and Vulcan conservative advocates of using American military force to spread democracy abroad couldn’t see that their strategy was doomed because democracy isn’t woven that way and because it was destroying democracy at home in ways that, if unchecked, will destroy the republic whose strengths they’ve so badly misconstrued and betrayed. 

▪ Our consumer society, addicted to cheap comforts and quick fixes, can’t see its own Orwellian ensnarement by commercial censors, and it couldn’t take Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” about global warming seriously enough to offset the onrushing damage with the serious sacrifices we have yet to make.  

▪ Our gilded political consultants, pollsters, and campaign donors were too blind to see the boiling undercurrents that have swept away House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Nor can they see that Cantor’s political demise presages an inflammation of ressentiment so wild that the coming, specious, “Who Lost Iraq?” debate will be accompanied by the shot that some military veteran who feels betrayed will fire at a politician who’s been left holding the empty bag of our civic-republican hopes. 

We are flying almost totally blind, punched bloody by a Hand we keep insisting is Invisible. We can see only the sickness of the gunmen and of the proliferation of their guns. Treatment of those symptoms is urgently needed, but it will be insufficient to curb the wrecking ball that global capitalism has become on our willfully blind watch, and triage won’t renew the civic fabric. 

Exemplary defiance 

Whenever republican candor and courage have seemed about to succumb like this to tribal and theocratic delusions or to force and fraud in the past, some citizens have roused others to fend off threats to republican premises and practices: 

▪ In 1776 a young schoolteacher named Nathan Hale was caught trying to track and expose the military and intelligence operations of the only established, legitimate government of his time. But just before his hanging he said, “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country” and became an incarnation of a nascent republic. 

▪ Hale’s dignity in adversity, unfathomable to many of us these days, anticipated that of Martin Luther King, Jr. and black churchgoers who walked unarmed and trembling toward armed men and dogs with nothing but their faith and their long-shot strategy to de-legitimate the seemingly impregnable segregationist establishment of their time by appealing to republican principles and an American civil religion whose theology was as vague as that of the founders. 

▪ Hale’s dignity also anticipated that of three Yale seniors I came upon one wintry morning in 1968 as they gave university chaplain William Sloane Coffin, Jr. their military draft cards to announce their resistance to the U. S. Government on behalf of the American republic.

“The government says we’re criminals, but we say the government is criminal for waging this war,” said one of the seniors, struggling to find his voice against a gusting wind and against fear. For all we knew, these guys were about to be arrested on the spot, and some of us felt arrested morally by their example because they were ready to pay the penalty of law in order to affirm their commitment to honest law itself. 

Coffin, who held to a Calvinist theology that, like King’s, saw resistance to tyranny as obedience to God, was present to bless a courage that few national-security state conservatives understand, in the idiom of an American civil-religion few neoliberals and post-modern leftists understand. When he quoted Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night; rage, rage, against the dying of the light,” that civil religion seemed to awaken briefly from slumber and to walk and talk again, re-moralizing the state and the law, and the silent, wild confusion I was feeling gave way to something like awe. (I described this experience in The Washington Monthly in 2000, during the protracted “election” of George W. Bush.) 

▪ Hale’s courage also anticipated Edward Snowden’s. Both young men may have been impetuous and otherwise flawed in some respects, but they showed that resistance to corrupted power requires not only prowess, means, and will, but an elusive, republican sensibility that’s cultivated in civil society and confirmed in little daily interactions long before it emerges in demonstrations of civic courage that startle and move other citizens. 

With a wonderment somewhat like Hegel’s, the German political philosopher Jurgen Habermas marveled at this “constitutional patriotism” in American citizens who possessed what Gibbon described as “that public courage which is nourished by the love of independence, the sense of national honor, the presence of danger, and the habit of command.” 

When I tell young millennials these stories, though, many of them listen pretty much as they would to tales about knights in shining armor, long ago and far away. Much closer to them are the school shootings and internet mayhem that make brave citizenship seem archaic, implausible, and irrelevant to self-discovery and social change. 

Yet republican expectations do have ways of re-surfacing whenever “We, the people” begin to imagine what our lives would be like, singly and together, if we had to live without them. Not everyone can be seduced or intimidated away from them. But, with so many Americans are generations removed from any easily recoverable religious or ethno-racial identity or other adhesive, we have to ask: Where are the touchstones or narratives strong enough renew public virtues and beliefs that neither markets nor the liberal state do much to nourish or defend? 

Nourishing a new liberal order 

The question should prompt a quest for a political culture that isn’t too commercial and vapid and that isn’t held together only by demagoguery and delusion. No reconfiguration of today’s capitalism will be possible without something better than that. Yet no think tank, legislature, or foundation can carry that quest or that reconfiguration to a just conclusion. Nor can an Occupy Wall Street that isn’t grounded in something deeper than its own noble effort to be the change it wants us all to make. 

Nor can our “illness” be cured by champions of a new foreign-policy “realism” such as Robert Kagan, who urge us to face the inevitable challenges of a world where only willpower and force can sustain the liberal order that many Americans take for granted. That’s right as far as it goes, but it begs the question of where willpower comes from and what, within the liberal order itself, is sapping that willpower. 

Quoting Michael Ignatieff, Kagan speculates candidly that liberal civilization itself “runs deeply against the human grain and is achieved and sustained only by the most unremitting struggle against human nature.” Perhaps, Kagan adds, “this fragile democratic garden requires the protection of a liberal world order, with constant feeding, watering, weeding, and the fencing off of an ever-encroaching jungle.”  But he can’t seem to face the challenge posed by the new shots heard ‘round the world from America: the jungle and its encroachments begin not only abroad but within our own garden.  

What seems our greatest weakness could be one of our greatest strengths, although it, too, won’t be enough: even 150 years after the founding, the philosopher George Santayana wrote that Americans still heralded the Enlightenment’s entry into history precisely because they’d “all been uprooted from their several soils and ancestries and plunged together into one vortex, whirling irresistible in a space otherwise quite empty. To be an American is of itself almost a moral condition, an education and a career….” 

Although there’s plenty to regret and respect in the traditions we’ve lost, there’s no turning back from the “moral condition” and “career” we face as citizens. We have no choice but to keep faith with the republic and one another. If Americans have a manifest destiny now, it’s to lead in weaving a new republican fabric that markets can serve but not subvert. 

In 2008, Barack Obama seemed to incarnate so brilliantly the promise of weaving our diversity into a new republican discipline — he even invoked Puritan and biblical wellsprings in some of his speeches — that many people ‘round the world considered him a prophet who would satisfy their hunger for new narratives. Probably no national political leader ever can do that. The narratives the world needs will have to come from other prophets and leaders yet unsung. I do think that Americans will be strong among them, if only because we’ve had so much experience generating that hunger by generating the civic-republican-capitalist effort that has failed. 



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