Some days, the poll-manufactured drama of the long and laborious 2016 campaign is presented as though it’s the only development in the life of the planet that’s current and newsworthy. We lose the larger picture. In truth, a super-rich guy’s affront to American values is not really newsworthy, and its currency is equally debatable. Furthermore, despite what you’ve heard, the coming presidential contest is not about one-upmanship; it’s not about little things at all.
As historians, we’ll go so far as to suggest that the culture-warring drums that daily beat are but reverberations of the 18th-century Enlightenment and 19th-century struggles to define America’s moral position in the world. That’s how not far we’ve come in 2016. We are not independent of our cultural inheritance. Americans were always idealists. And always good haters.
Historians are taught to see the present through a long lens. To take one hot-button issue of the here and now--perceptions of immigrants from Mexico and the Islamic world--a student of the past knows that the visceral language used to tar new arrivals as pollutants and regard them en masse as objects of suspicion is as old as our country. In colonial Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin had no patience for Germans who refused to abandon their native language. The Irish, across generations, were despised as simple-minded, argumentative drunks and rabble-rousers. Swarthy southern Europeans and Jews were “filthy”; Chinese were “loathsome” and legislatively prohibited from entering the country.
The list is long. The anti-foreign types in today’s GOP who court the votes of bigots and xenophobes reflect American history. And yet, the story we are taught is that of the Statue of Liberty, and the poor immigrant who saw America as an asylum from persecution. So many politicians credit their honest, hardworking immigrant parents for pointing the way. But what are they leaving out? Answer: historical perspective. Without even knowing it, here is what they are professing: that the United States of America was the one place in the world that enacted the admirable ideals of the Enlightenment. This one statement underlies all claims of American exceptionalism. It is who we wish we were.
The Enlightenment, first and foremost, was a movement conceived for the broad betterment of the human condition, promulgated in an age when the civilized world, so-called, regularly wrought destruction through military adventure. The technology is vastly improved, but that’s where we still are in terms of the ethical dilemmas we confront. War is constant.
A second, highly charged aspect of the Age of Enlightenment was an intellectualization of the reactionary tendencies inherent in organized religion. Traditionally, ministers retained influence and obtained preferential treatment by allying with royal power and the warrior class of aristocrats attached to the authoritarian state. Ordinary people were kept from thinking for themselves, kept from challenging aristocratic prerogatives and the royally sanctioned power structure. In short, popular ignorance kept the powerful safe.
So you see, we’re pretty much in the same place as we debate the role of government and rights of the individual today.
Philosophes challenged existing authority by holding that religion was but one branch of knowledge, imperfectly understood, and subject to science and the law of nature. Miracles and biblical authority belonged to ancient superstition, and had no place in the modern world. The divine right of kings, as a concept, was overthrown. When Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Almighty God hath created the mind free,” he was reflecting at least a century of Enlightenment philosophy emanating from the works of Baruch Spinoza, John Locke and others decrying the willfully blind, self-promoting clerics who ran from rationality and logic.
In the eighteenth century, religious conservatives who resisted the Enlightenment stood against humanistic progress that they insisted was illusory. They felt the rise of the individual conscience in human affairs would bring on chaos and the collapse of moral civilization (as symbolized by the sturdy pillars of church and the royal state). Thus, the grasping leaders who profess belief in abject submission to an all-powerful deity--a deity whose implicit message for humanity such men arrogate to the gyrations of their own minds--have always been able to subordinate worshippers to their “received” message. Why wouldn’t they be comfortable with a tough-talking strongman who courts their bloc of votes? It should come as no surprise that leaders of today’s fundamentalists (in more than one religious sect, mind you) ally themselves with the pro-war/apocalyptic message of the political right wherever they are. They retell stories about the need to smite mortal enemies, so as to better worship God.
In the grandest terms, the Enlightenment contested imperial dominion. Adopting that liberating spirit, progressives of 2016 have effectively reconstituted the moral-intellectual energy of the Enlightenment. They express pride in possibility, in the idea of applying scientific knowledge to the existential challenges of our century; they protest the oppressive power of the large banks and corporations that pay millions to influence government; they place trust in global institutions and cooperative bodies to engage in high-level negotiation, using calm reasoning and respect for difference in order to reduce conflict and minimize the chances of economic catastrophe or world war.
And the reactionaries? Who adopts the role of the unenlightened war-making kings and the ministerial cohort of old? Why, those who have no respect for the liberal intellectual class and their dreams of a world built on collaborative, multi-state organs aimed at a peace-seeking balance of global forces. They prefer a Social Darwinian order, in which the strongest prevail by force of arms. They want Andrew Jackson to be in charge.
He was the epitome of reaction. Everything about Jackson (as a soldier, politician and president) revolved around character assassination. Name calling was his specialty. When he rejected a perspective, he would (in vague terms) recommend punishment at the hands of the people; in opposing a decision, he’d call the decision maker “base and vindictive,” but he never acknowledged himself as vindictive. Retributive justice was his mantra. He demanded “redress” of whatever injuries he felt, and decried every man he saw as a “petty tyrant.” Every political enemy was a “villain.” Defending a coarse vocabulary, he insisted it was the language of “freemen” who know their rights. He made it a habit to judge others’ character while asserting his own virtues with an unshakable self-confidence. And people loved it. He threw caution to the wind. He preferred, as much as possible, to dictate terms. He made good on his threats when he fired his entire cabinet. He most assuredly did not accept criticism. He did not admit mistakes. He regularly promoted yes men. In 1824 and 1828, Jackson’s vocal supporters declared their candidate a man of active energy, and the over-educated President John Quincy Adams a “sedentary” executive--in Trumpian parlance, a low-energy bureaucrat. This week, President Obama remarked that the Trump phenomenon was “nothing new” in American history. He’s right.
Since the Tea Party triumph of 2010, fanatics have shouted obscenities at the industrious thinkers and project engineers whom they associate with the amorphous enemy known as “big government.” In the eighteenth century, the equivalent enemy was “Philosophy.” The question that reactionaries could not effectively answer then or now is: how does blind adherence (dishonestly called “personal freedom” today, when it’s really fear-based tribalism) make things better for anyone?
Even in the lumbering age of sail, a promoter of the Enlightenment was a global citizen, someone who dreamt big. Education and self-cultivation, engines of gentility, were synonymous with personal opposition to dogma. Their idea was that critical thinking among a literary public produces societal change, advancing a community-wide sense of decency. It remains part of the Obama way of thinking too: that thoughtful engagement is not weakness but the definition of responsible republican governance, and preferable to the language of “attack and subdue.”
The countervailing Jacksonian model came with heroic imagery associated with westward expansion. Jackson embraced warfare initiated by the state and violence initiated by the armed individual--both as a proper function of conscience when one anticipated a possible attack. His populist message was laden with bellicosity, if not cruelty. But it resonated because it was predicated on a belief in the essential goodness and innocence underlying the “true” American identity. The Hollywood myth of the frontier hero, forced to commit violent acts to save the world from unreasoning evil, is as alive today as it was when the Indian fighter Andrew Jackson came of age. That America has to protect itself at all costs, using any and all means.
Supporters of Trump, Cruz, Rubio and those who see threats to the homeland coming from all directions are the inheritors of this Jacksonian mindset. They lead with threats. Jackson did so because it came naturally to him as a hardened frontiersman. His language was more than bluster; that of today’s GOP candidates is nothing but. Though they have never been to war or courted danger in any appreciable way, they pretend that their political competitors are weaker than they, and that they know how best to contend with existential threats. Such irresponsible, pandering phoniness is the military equivalent of a preacher insisting that God has instructed him in charting a moral course for society at large.
For those who are responsive to the pandering candidates, the world today is relatable to the lawless Wild West of myth, where the good guy out-shoots the bad guy. It is a useful myth. (And on occasion, it’s true.) Jackson, the first president to arise from outside the elite world of college-educated sons of relative privilege, made America strong, whereas--the way the story went--his predecessors, frilly bewigged eggheads, merely cogitated. The Jacksonian of today promotes conflict, believes in winning at all costs, and insists on peace that is best sustained in social Darwinian terms by retaining preponderant power. And in that world view, those who don’t belong--immigrants who don’t readily appear assimilable--are necessarily suspect.
While the Enlightenment exposed faulty beliefs, it did not preach pacifism but reason. The so-called conservative candidate of today may label the empathetic progressive as weak, but progressives are not utopians either. A Bernie Sanders would not unilaterally disarm, because that defies reason. (No one can talk sense to the irrational dictator of North Korea.) So if the history of the post-Enlightenment teaches anything, it is that peace is sought not by wishing for enlightened communion among culturally distinct states, as desirable as that might be to all who owe their sense of humanity to Enlightenment values; rather, coexistence is based on rationally applied leverage, balances of forces.
Yet even this approach is flawed. The United States, during the Cold War, befriended undemocratic governments, looked the other way at the backwardness and inhumanity of leaders, and rewarded them with arms in return for oil, air bases, etc. As a nation, we have been doing this for so long on the basis of realpolitik that we have to recognize that neither a Democratic or Republican presidency can reverse course easily.
So this is where we are. Where we still are, locked in a 300-year-old battle between fear and hope. For some, discredited forms of knowledge are still considered sacrosanct, because any threat to hallowed tradition is perceived as a threat to a protective order of the world without which the fires of anarchy will consume all. Enlightenment thinkers objected to tyranny over the mind. To consider Biblical stories timeless, universal, and somehow “the holy word of God,” was, they understood, to artificially construct a moment of uniform, universal truth. Rather, the “holy” Bible was a less than intelligible compilation of ideas that animated a narrowly positioned, long-dead people of one very limited part of the world.
An expansive, unfettered liberal arts education dictates against blind allegiance and uniformity, placing historical study for the sake of intellectual advancement alongside empirical energies directed toward improving humanity’s lot. Cross-cultural communication and the evidence-based questioning of old ways are the very definition of enlightened modernity, while an unquestioning acceptance of rigid ideologies only stands in the way of new possibilities.
We have the world we do today because the change we want happens very, very slowly and in select places only. The Enlightenment set the course for Obama-style hope and change. But in spite of the general, imperfect direction pursued by America’s founders, responsive to the Enlightenment, reactive forces continue to limit choice and promote authoritarianism. The suspicion-laden Jackson model (commanding obedience from lesser peoples) makes America’s delusive neo-populists appear in the eyes of others as hubristic, hypocritical, contemptuous, gun-toting moralists.