Bell Clement, Review of John D. Fairfield's "The Public and Its Possibilities: Triumphs and Tragedies in the American City" (Temple, 2010)
[Bell Clement is an attorney and public historian based in Washington, D.C. Her dissertation, “Measuring Liberalism: Creative Federalism, Empowered Citizens, and Shaping the Great Society City” explores interactions between federal policymakers and grassroots activists in efforts of the 1960s to establish new forms of governance for urban communities.]
John Fairfield is concerned about the health of the American body politic and the state of our national conversation. His new book, The Public and Its Possibilities: Triumphs and Tragedies in the American City (Temple University Press, 2010) aims to improve both, offering a synthesis of the secondary literature on the idea of the public in American life. An urban historian and director of the Institute for Politics and Public Life at Cincinnati’s Xavier University, Fairfield’s subtitle suggests that the American city is the hero of this story, but in fact it serves simply as scene-setting for the battles he describes.
The source of our public malaise, argues Fairfield, is in American liberalism itself. In celebrating the majesty of the human individual and making personal liberty its primary concern, liberalism forgets that the elevation of the individual can only occur within a culture that recognizes the reciprocal responsibilities that connect citizen and society. Failing to replenish the cultural resources which sustain it, liberal society starves itself. We eat our own seed corn.
Fairfield’s strategy is to bring the historian’s resources to bear on this failure of vision, retrieving traditions of cooperative action on behalf of public good from the American past in order to “rekindle our political imagination.” His goal is to redirect American efforts toward “the great unfinished tasks of American civilization . . . the construction of an economy and a culture that complement our civic aspirations.”
Alas, the retelling of the American past offered here is one of a more-or-less consistent decline from a less-than-promising beginning. In its founding, the Republic was based on “checks and balances,” not civic virtue; the Framers sought to distance, not engage, the mass of citizens. Through succeeding centuries, economic crises and imperial wars have provided opportunities for consolidating business interests, but somehow not for improving the lot of American workers.
Fairfield finds one bright patch in this dark picture in the early decades of the republic. In these years Americans still entertained the notion, embodied in “citizen proprietor” and “free labor” formulations, that they were connected to each other and to society by their participation as citizens rather than as cogs in a vast economy. But this brightness dimmed with the onslaught of the Gilded Age, and its reduction of the relationship between citizen and society to simple economics. The solitary hopeful glimmer offered by the twentieth century, in this telling, is the Progressive-era effort to revive the public sphere ideal as a counterweight to the laissez-faire rapacities of the industrializing age.
Fairfield’s stated intentions notwithstanding, there is little in his story on which present-day defenders of the public realm might build. Fairfield doesn’t grapple head-on with the question of why Americans have fallen short in attempts to build a robust public sphere, but some of the villains can be inferred from his tale.
For starters, it seems that Americans are easily gulled. Fairfield retells the story of how Jacksonian rhetoric seduced citizens into abandoning Henry Clay’s “American System” of public infrastructure investment. It is an inveiglement that has worked time and again: being persuaded that government economic intervention benefits only the privileged, citizens rally against it and succeed, handily, in preventing government action directed to the general welfare. Arrangements channeling federal resources to private benefit proceed unabated.
Fairfield argues that the people also fell victim to a cultural snookering. Reconstruction-era elites grew anxious over the possible impact of the great urban masses upon American governance. Having failed to restrict suffrage by statute, the nation’s privileged brought out the stealth weapons of cultural hegemony. A “cult of gentility” emerged, which discouraged boisterous challenge to authority, civic or otherwise. The rowdy delights of the Bowery theaters were replaced with sedate “museum culture,” raucous irreverence with a rule of “silence and deference.” The “cultural confidence of the people” was sapped and with it any sure sense that it is the people which rules by right in a democracy.
Then there were the forces of modernity to contend with. Industrialization, capitalism, and mass society overwhelmed civic effort. Fairfield cites the fate communications media as illustrative. Ever since Morse offered his telegraph patents to the federal government and was turned down, emerging communication technologies have begun as hopeful instruments of enhanced civic engagement only to meet the same sad fate. Privatized, the public airways are made profitable—and irrelevant to advancing civic discourse.
Finally, there is… let’s call it “false consciousness.” Wrestling with the complexities of democracy in the context of demographic diversity, Americans mistake their own self-interest. Fairfield points to the consequences of working people’s failure to rally to the anti-slavery cause. If the nation was to be defined as a civic polity, it would have to recognize the participation of all its citizens. The choice to exclude women and freedmen forced a retreat into a market definition of the republic: economic, not civic engagement would thenceforth define participation in the nation.
Perhaps Fairfield frames his story as he does in order to warn activists that they are up against much more powerful opponents than previously recognized, and should gird themselves accordingly. But why doesn’t he make a stronger case for his claim that there is a long tradition of American participation in defense of the public realm for these activists to draw on? A wealth of available evidence goes untouched. How is it, to name just one example, that populism, that model grassroots effort to redirect economic arrangements to the people’s service, goes unmentioned?
But the fundamental difficulty here is not with evidence omitted, but in how this “new narrative” is structured. Although in introducing his argument Fairfield recognizes liberalism’s self-destructive tendency to cut itself off from the reservoirs of community which alone sustain it, he nonetheless presents his story of the American battle for the public realm as if it were simply a class war, “The People” vs. “The Interests.” There are grounds for believing that it will require class war to fix what needs fixing in America. But civic engagement in defense of the public realm is not a weapon for that battle. If the question is rather how liberal society may be reinvigorated, then attention must be focused rather on how to better balance the tension inherent in liberalism between individual and polity—a tough problem on its own.
Fairfield’s book opens up this conversation. We have a lot to talk about.
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