"We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience." -John Dewey
As the 2016 U.S. presidential election approaches, debates, gaffes and email debacles loom larger in the media. With more voters actively supporting non-establishment candidates and relative outsiders, the tone of U.S. politics shows popular frustration with business-as-usual. Just which aspects of the status quo raise so much ire, though, is a matter of opinion.
For conservatives, key issues include immigration and commitments to social welfare and other government programs they deem wrong-headed or inefficient. Progressives say they want to peel back economic policies that favor only the wealthy and address climate change and the spiraling cost of education. These groups, of course, are not made up of people with identical beliefs. They also do not span the gamut of political opinion in this country. Still, they’re useful constructs for piecing together the different world views that shape U.S. elections.
Interestingly, in the United States, historical narratives about the nation are often at the heart of some of these political views. Members of the conservative party often stress the views and opinions of the Founding Fathers, and they reference the Constitution as a hallowed document imbued with common sense and democratic values. Their view of history, however, can be questioned, and there’s plenty of verifiable evidence from history to back up a progressive political bias.
Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States (first published in 1980) inspired the following post, in particular chapters 1-5 that deal with colonial times and the split with Great Britain.
Zinn points out a typical sin of conventional historians and textbook writers: they help form and spread an illusion of the nation-state as a more or less unified entity defined in part by a common purpose. This is a myth. At the heart of things, nations are more or less:
– the activities
– and territories
– set apart by borders negotiated by elites during a particular period in history
Nations are no more the sites of a culturally or even economically integrated population than any other landmass (a continent, an island, a shoreline) defined by its geographical borders and hosting a flurry of human activity.
But no, this is not to say that for a nation to be legitimate, every single individual must conform to a cultural narrative and be intimately involved in the country’s economic infrastructure. I’m not prepared to comment on the legitimacy or illegitimacy of nation states; instead, I’d like to see greater nuance in understanding what is a nation(?).
Of course, you could make a case that nations sometimes organize massive, coordinated action (as in China’s centrally planned agricultural and economic programs and its Cultural Revolution) or that some nations are marked by broad cultural traditions and a less diverse population (like Japan). You could even argue that some diverse nations are integrated by virtue of their democratic systems, which are said to mitigate internal differences by allowing every person to contribute equally by voting.
But these arguments are not nearly as defensible as the observations that:
1. Nations are generally considered distinct from one another by virtue of which people occupy institutions in power, i.e., their respective elites. When a historian or a journalist refers to Germany’s stance on an issue, or the U.S. approach to foreign aid, you better believe they refer to the administration in control at that time and not some mythical nation-wide consensus.
2. Nations are more genuinely understood to be sites of conflict: different groups struggling to achieve goals relative to the prevailing power structure. Groups may attempt this by dominating the power structure, by reforming it to be more inclusive, or even by attempting to live outside the power apparatus.
By approaching a “people’s history” with this understanding, Zinn not only wants to represent the past with more intellectual honesty; he also believes that traditional histories can distort our thinking about the world we live in. For one, genuine historical atrocities (the genocide of native populations, for example) are literally minimized when textbooks set them alongside a slew of other facts about less disturbing things (e.g., the courage of an explorer seeking a western passage to India). Minimizing the genocide distorts its true importance in understanding why the world looks like it does today. More distressingly, glossing over facts like genocide suggests a tacit approval of such atrocities; of course, not a whole-hearted “pro-genocide!” sort of approval, but the more subtle idea that things had to happen in the way they did so that progress could take hold.
Progress, of course, is not some specific thing. Progress is in the eye of the beholder, and for the writers of popular history texts, Zinn implies that their definition of progress involves the spread and evolution of European political ideas, laws, technologies, and cultural domination. If so many European settlers* were not so motivated to commit genocide (as is clearly documented), perhaps our history textbooks would put forth a different view of progress — one defined by the complexities of cross-civilizational diplomacy and sharing resources.
Howard Zinn says:
“My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is different: that we must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.”
So what does The People’s History of the United States have to do with Bernie Sanders’ campaign for president?
Well, for starters, most of us are aware of the cliche that “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Let’s give this tired truism some teeth, because Bernie Sanders’ position on the issues not only addresses a state of affairs that exists today. His social democratic position on ending corporate welfare and the dominance of elites speaks to the very core of what the U.S. is and what it has always been. This goes deeper than the colonists’ violent distrust of Native Americans, deeper even than the horrors of slavery.
First, a whirlwind survey of some of Sanders’ policy proposals:
-Overturning Citizens United, which made corporations legal persons who may contribute financially to political campaigns (i.e., exercise their right to “free speech”) without any restrictions
-Breaking up financial institutions so they are no longer “too big to fail”
-Counteracting corporate tax-evasion (via companies moving overseas)
-Reversing international trade pacts like NAFTA, CAFTA and PNTR that allow corporations to up profits by getting rid of jobs in the U.S. and relocating to developing countries.
-Instituting a progressive estate tax on the top 0.3% of Americans
-Signing the Paycheck Fairness Act, ensuring women are paid equally for equal work
Of course, I’ve left out plenty of exciting proposals, like single-payer healthcare, free tuition at public colleges and universities, New Deal-type investment in rebuilding public infrastructure and more. I’ve highlighted the above initiatives for a reason: They are all directly aimed at challenging a status quo that benefits a privileged elite and leaves others behind.
If you still think the American legacy is more about expanding opportunities than about the will of an entrenched elite, consider the following excerpts from A People’s History:
-“In the Carolinas, the Fundamental Constitutions were written in the 1660s by John Locke, who is often considered the philosophical father of the Founding Fathers and the American system. Locke’s constitution set up a feudal-type aristocracy, in which eight barons would own 40 percent of the colony’s land, and only a baron could be governor.”
-“From the testimony of the governor [William Berkeley, of Jamestown] himself, the rebellion against him had the overwhelming support of the Virginia population. A member of his Council reported that the defection was ‘almost general’ and laid it to ‘the Lewd dispositions of some Persons of desperate Fortunes’ who had ‘the Vaine hopes of takeing the Countrey wholley out of his Majesty’s handes into their owne.’”
-“Although colonial laws existed to stop excesses against [white, indentured] servants, they were not very well enforced … Servants did not participate in juries. Masters did. (And being propertyless, servants did not vote.)”
-“Under Governor Benjamin Fletcher, three-fourths of the land in New York was granted to about thirty people. He gave a friend a half million acres for a token annual payment of 30 shillings. Under Lord Cornbury in the early 1700s, one grant to a group of speculators was for 2 million acres.”
-“A historian who studied Boston tax lists in 1687 and 1771 found that in 1687 there were, out of a population of six thousand, about one thousand property owners, and that the top 5 percent — 1 percent of the population — consisted of fifty rich individuals who had 25 percent of the wealth. By 1770, the top 1 percent of property owners owned 44% of the wealth.”
-“Through this period, England was fighting a series of wars (Queen Anne’s War in the early 1700s, King George’s War in the 1730s). Some merchants made fortunes from these wars, but for most people they meant higher taxes, unemployment, poverty.”
So here we have an entrenched elite in early America, an insiders’ club of wealthy landowners who exclude non-landowners from participating in government, who enrich their friends, who tip the scales of justice in their favor, who control most of the wealth, and who profit from war. These examples, of course, pre-date the American Revolution — a “revolution” supposedly predicated on values like liberty and equality. So it stands to reason that the Founding Fathers would not have replicated unfair colonial systems, at least not for white males (which would still be some degree of progress). Right??:
-“What seems to have happened in Boston is that certain lawyers, editors, and merchants of the upper classes, but excluded from the ruling circles close to England — men like James Otis and Samuel Adams — organized a ‘Boston Caucus’ and through their oratory and their writing ‘molded laboring-class opinion, called the “mob” into action, and shaped its behavior.’”
-“Four days after the reading [of the Declaration of Independence], the Boston Committee of Correspondence ordered the townsmen to show up on the Common for a military draft. The rich, it turned out, could avoid the draft by paying for substitutes; the poor had to serve. This led to rioting, and shouting ‘Tyranny is Tyranny let it come from whom it may.’”
-“In Maryland … by the new constitution of 1776, to run for governor one had to own 5,000 pounds of property; to run for state senator, 1,000 pounds. Thus, 90 percent of the population were excluded from holding office.”
-Referencing historian Charles Beard’s work An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, “[Beard] wanted to make it clear that he did not think the Constitution was written merely to benefit the Founding Fathers personally, although one could not ignore the $150,000 fortune of Benjamin Franklin, the connections of Alexander Hamilton to wealthy interests through his father-in-law and brother-in-law, the great slave plantations of James Madison, the enormous landholdings of George Washington. Rather, it was to benefit the groups the Founders represented, the ‘economic interests they understood and felt in concrete, definite form through their own personal experience.’”
-Discussing the Federalist Papers, which formed the intellectual basis for the creation of distinct U.S. states and state governments, Zinn explains, “As part of his argument for a large republic to keep the peace, James Madison tells quite clearly, in Federalist #10, whose peace he wants to keep: ‘A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it.’”
So here we have, according to Zinn’s analysis, an American Revolution led by a successful group of elites seeking to supplant their competitors from Britain and to enhance and maintain their dominance in the political and economic sphere. Zinn, of course, has much more space in which to support this idea with still more substantial evidence, so I would refer you to his book if you want to learn more. The point I’m trying to make is that an honest and factual reading of history lends credence to the idea that, even from the very beginning, the United States has been a site of conflict between the entrenched “haves” and the sometimes repressed, sometimes rebellious “have-nots.” The fact that the elite have had some folks of modest beginnings join their ranks, and despite them having to continually make concessions to appease a disgruntled lower-class (ending slavery, child labor, women’s suffrage, and countless other strides) in no way disproves the overall continuity of a ruling class in America defined and protected by its wealth.
Bernie Sanders’ campaign, then, can be said to address essentially the same issues raised by the majority of people throughout America’s history — people who conveniently are largely silent in most readings of history and in most political debates. These issues have to do with equal opportunity and fairness in a society in which the elite often successfully recruit the poor to prop up their agenda, to fight their wars, and to assume a proportionately greater tax burden. So whether Sanders’ campaign has any hope of winning the Democratic party ticket or not, it should not be viewed as marginal and out of touch with the average American experience. On the contrary, his political views are sewn into the very fabric of the American people’s history.
*Even here, it’s best not to generalize about the European settlers, for some of the most moving accounts of atrocities against native populations were penned by people opposed to the slaughter.