President Obama’s recent speech laying out his plan to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State in Syria (or in the Levant as he prefers to call it) hasn’t drawn that much rhetorical analysis. But some have noted its strong appeal to American exceptionalism.
Back in September, Russian President Vladimir Putin called out President Barack Obama for carrying out a foreign policy based in American exceptionalism. Around the same time conservatives in the GOP argued that President Obama was abandoning American exceptionalism, pushing a secular and even socialist agenda that leads him to apologize for American greatness. According to Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru, “The survival of American exceptionalism as we have known it is at the heart of the debate over Obama’s program. It is why that debate is so charged.” Mitt Romney repeated this same line during his failed bid to unseat the President, arguing that President Obama “doesn't have the same feelings about American exceptionalism that we do.” American exceptionalism—long a sociological concept used to describe qualities that distinguished American cultural and political institutions—has become a political truncheon.
Now comes Peter Beinart who writes in the National Journal that the conservatives are half correct. It is true that American exceptionalism is threatened and in decline. But the cause is not President Obama. Beinart argues that the real cause of the decline of exceptionalist feeling in the United States is conservatism itself.
The core of the first part of Beinart’s argument concerns a generational shift regarding the place of religion in American society. That younger Americans are fundamentally changing their attitudes toward religious life is a theme Beinart has written about often. In short, one pillar of American exceptionalism has been its religiosity. America has long been the most religious of the western democracies. But the current younger generation is an exception.
For centuries, observers have seen America as an exception to the European assumption that modernity brings secularism. “There is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America,” de Tocqueville wrote. In his 1996 book, American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword, Seymour Martin Lipset quoted Karl Marx as calling America “preeminently the country of religiosity,” and then argued that Marx was still correct. America, wrote Lipset, remained “the most religious country in Christendom.” But in important ways, the exceptional American religiosity that Gingrich wants to defend is an artifact of the past. The share of Americans who refuse any religious affiliation has risen from one in 20 in 1972 to one in five today. Among Americans under 30, it's one in three. According to the Pew Research Center, millennials—Americans born after 1980—are more than 30 percentage points less likely than seniors to say that "religious faith and values are very important to America's success." And young Americans don't merely attend church far less frequently than their elders. They also attend far less than young people did in the past. "Americans," Pew notes, "do not generally become more [religiously] affiliated as they move through the life cycle"—which means it's unlikely that America's decline in religious affiliation will reverse itself simply as millennials age. In 1970, according to the World Religion Database, Europeans were over 16 percentage points more likely than Americans to eschew any religious identification. By 2010, the gap was less than half of 1 percentage point. According to Pew, while Americans are today more likely to affirm a religious affiliation than people in Germany or France, they are actually less likely to do so than Italians and Danes.
Beinart’s point is that the younger generation is less religious and thus less tied to one of the core components of American exceptionalism than previous generations of Americans. That he is right is apparently beyond dispute. And it is not unimportant.
The deflation of religion removes one of the pillars that has long-distinguished American life. For Tocqueville, religiosity was necessary in a democratic country, as it gave the people a moral language to restrict the unimpeded longings of individualism. Religion also feeds the confidence and sense of purpose lends to the American project its jeremiad-like quality. And this is nowhere better illustrated than in Philip Freneau’s 1795 poem “On Mr. Paine’s Rights of Man:”
So shall our nation, formed on Virtue’s plan,
Remain the guardian of the Rights of Man,
A vast republic, famed through every clime,
Without a kind, to see the end of time.
The religious roots of American exceptionalism are well established and form the central argument of Deborah Madsen’s book American Exceptionalism. Madsen traces the doctrine to 17th century Puritan sermons and poetry, including Peter Buckley’s famous “Gospel-Covenant sermon” that proclaims,
We are as a city set upon an hill, in the open view of all the earth; the eyes of the world are upon us because we profess ourselves to be a people in covenant with God, and therefore not only the Lord our God, with whom we have made covenant, but heaven and earth, angels and men, that are witnesses of our profession, will cry shame upon us, if we walk contrary to the covenant which we have professed and promised to walk in.
According to Madsen, this religious sense of distinction and purpose translated easily to a rationalist project as well. Benjamin Franklin embraced the exceptionalist rhetoric but covered it in a rationalist patina, arguing the “providence” is a “rational principle that controls the operation of the world.” For Franklin, American newness meant that it was “unhampered by the complexities of European history and unburdened by a sophisticated class system and structure of inheritance.” Thus, Madsen writes, America “offered an unrivalled opportunity for the establishment of a democratic society based on rational principles…. Franklin represents the American errand as the creation of a secular state that is purified of the corruption of European politics and a social structure based on inherited title.”
By the time Abraham Lincoln addressed the nation on the battlefield at Gettysburg, the vision of the United States as a unique and exemplary democracy marked by a distinct approach to freedom and equality had established itself in the nation’s psyche.
The United States of America was understood not simply to be one country amongst many, but it was “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The survival and success of the United States was hardly a local matter, but was a grand experiment testing whether “any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” Americans understood that America mattered as an example for the world.
Seymour Lipset summed up the idea of American exceptionalism in his 1996 book American Excptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword.
The United States is exceptional in starting from a revolutionary event, in being “the first new nation,” the first colony, other than Iceland, to become independent. It has defined its raison d’être ideologically. As historian Richard Hofstadter has noted, “It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies, but to be one.” In saying this, Hofstadter reiterated Ralph Waldo Emerson and Abraham Lincoln’s emphases on the country’s “political religion.”
For Lipset, the “American Creed can be described in five terms: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire.” Exceptionalism, he argues, doesn’t mean American is better than other countries. It means that America “is qualitatively different, that it is an outlier. Exceptionalism is a double-edged concept.”
There have always been opponents of what Godfrey Hodgson calls The Myth of American Exceptionalism. And there is the question of how fully different races and classes have embraced the idea of American exceptionalism. But overall, the myth has had some basis in sociological reality. Americans were more religious than other democratic and liberal states. Americans believed they had more economic mobility, and saw their country as the first truly multi-ethnic and multi-racial democracy; one that developed in fits and starts towards an ideal of equality over 200 years.
So what does it mean when this idea of American exceptionalism is in retreat? Beinart traces the increasingly suspicious attitudes of the young to traditional tenets of American exceptionalism in foreign affairs and also in economics.
When conservatives worry that America is not as economically exceptional anymore, they're right. A raft of studies suggests that upward mobility is now rarer in the United States than in much of Europe. But if America's exceptional economic mobility is largely a myth, it's a myth in which many older Americans still believe. Among the young, by contrast, attitudes are catching up to reality. According to a 2011 Pew poll, young Americans were 14 points more likely than older Americans to say that the wealthy in America got there mainly because "they know the right people or were born into wealthy families" rather than because of their "hard work, ambition, and education." And as young Americans internalize America's lack of economic mobility, they are developing the very class consciousness the United States is supposed to lack. In 2011, when Pew asked Americans to define themselves as either a "have" or a "have-not," older Americans chose "have" by 27 points. In contrast, young Americans, by a 4-point margin, chose "have-not." According to the exceptionalist story line, Americans are all supposed to consider themselves "middle class," regardless of their actual economic fortunes. For seniors, that's largely true. According to a 2012 Pew study, they were 43 points more likely to call themselves "middle" than "lower" class. Among young Americans, by contrast, the percentage calling themselves "middle" and "lower" class was virtually the same.
Perhaps the most interesting generational change Beinart identifies is what he calls the loss of American civilizational self-confidence, which he ties to our loss of religious feeling.
[A]s conservatives suspect, Americans' declining belief in our special virtue as a world power really is connected to our declining belief in our special virtue as a people. And the young are leading the way. A 2013 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that while almost two in three Americans over 65 call themselves "extremely proud to be American," among Americans under 30 it is fewer than two in five. According to a Pew study in 2011, millennials were a whopping 40 points less likely than people 75 and older to call America "the greatest country in the world."
Young Americans, in fact, are no more "civilizationally self-confident" than their European counterparts. When Pew asked respondents in 2011 whether "our culture is superior" to others, it found that Americans over the age of 50 were, on average, 15 points more likely to answer yes than their counterparts in Britain, France, Germany, and Spain. Americans under 30, by contrast, were actually less likely to agree than their peers in Britain, Germany, and Spain.
It is easy to worry about the effects of the loss of exceptionalism in America, but hard to deny the truth that America is, today, increasingly less exceptional than in the past. Beinart is worried and rightly so. For what would a country be that had no common ideals? It would be a geographic entity held together by fear and bureaucratic inertia.
So Beinart holds out the hope that, in the end, Americans will reinvigorate their mythic exceptionalism. His prescription is a war on inequality that will return our faith to America as the land of economic mobility. If we can break down the Republican coalition with the plutocratic one percent and between Republicans and religionists, we could re-inspire both religious and economic exceptionalism that have undergirded so much of the progress toward social and racial justice in American history.
What Beinart’s hoped for return of American exceptionalism forgets is that historically what most distinguished America from other nation-states in Europe and elsewhere was its uniquely federalist and decentralized and constitutional structure—something that has long been abandoned and is a distant memory in today’s national security state. Not only Tocqueville in the 19th century but also Hannah Arendt in the 20th century saw in the United States a unique and exceptional country, one that for Arendt was fundamentally different from all European countries. The difference, for Tocqueville, was in America’s incredible multiplication of distinct power centers at all levels of government and society. Arendt agrees, arguing,
The great and, in the long run, perhaps the greatest American innovation in politics as such was the consistent abolition of sovereignty within the body politics of the republic, the insight that in the realm of human affairs sovereignty and tyranny and the same.
Arendt understood that what truly made America exceptional was its decentralized system of power, that the states did not surrender their powers to the Federal government, but that that Federal government should check the powers of the states and the considerable powers that still remained with them. By multiplying power sources, the American constitutional republic created a system that both prevented one sovereign power from acquiring tyrannical power and, equally importantly, insured that local power structures would persist that would give individual citizens reason and incentive to engage in the American practice of democratic self-government.
Arendt’s love for America, as she expressed it in her last interview, was for a country that refused to be a nation-state. “America is not a nation-state and Europeans have a hell of a time understanding this simple fact.” As a country and not a nation, America was comprised of a plurality of persons and groups that each could found and support their own institutional bases of power. Politics in America had no center, but proceeded according to the contest of local and dispersed groups. And what unites all Americans is one thing: “citizens are united only by one thing, and that’s a lot: that is, you become a citizen of the United States by simple consent to the Constitution.” The Constitution in the United States is not just a scrap of paper. I it “a sacred document, it is the constant remembrance of one sacred act, and that is the act of foundation. And the foundation is to make a union out of wholly disparate ethnic minorities and regions, and still (a) have a union and (b) not assimilate or level down these differences.” It was this view of the United States as a country that did not require the assimilation or leveling down of meaningful differences that so impressed Arendt. It was American pluralism free from a nation-state that Arendt found so exceptional.
In the same interview, however, Arendt expressed her fear that the exceptional American pluralism that she found in the country was coming to an end. And the culprit, she identified, was the rise of the national security state.
National security is a new word in the American vocabulary, and this, I think, you should know. National security is really, if I may already interpret a bit, a translation of “raison d’etat.” And “raison d’etat,” this whole notion of reason of state, never played a role in this country. This is a new import. National security now covers everything, and it covers, as you may know form the interrogation of Mr. Ehrlichman, all kinds of crimes. For instance, the president has a perfect right… the king can do no wrong; that is, he is like a monarch in a republic. He’s above the law, and his justification is always that whatever he does, he does for the sake of national security.
Arendt expressed a similar worry about the rise of a national security state in American in 1967, when she wrote:
There is no reason to doubt Mr. Allan W. Dulles’ statement that Intelligence in this country has enjoyed since 1947 “a more influential position in our government than Intelligence enjoys in any other government of the world,’ nor is there any reason to believe that this influence has decreased since he made this statement in 1958. The deadly danger of “invisible government” to the institutions of “visible government” has often been pointed out; what is perhaps less well known is the intimate traditional connection between imperialist policies and rule by “invisible government” and secret agents.
If American exceptionalism is about religious freedom and religious passion, if it is about equal rights to participate in government, if it is about populism, and if it is about a moral vision of a “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” then American exceptionalism is incompatible with the increasingly large, centralized, and bureaucratic security state that has emerged in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
Whether the security sought is national or economic security, the demand that a central government secure our freedoms lives in tension with the basic desire for freedom understood as self-government. It is the loss of that American tradition more than any other that underlies the waning belief of Americans in their exceptionalism. And for that loss, both parties are at fault.
While Beinart misses the connection between national security and the decline of American exceptionalism, his presentation of that decline is convincing, important, and troubling. His essay is well worth your time.
In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt asks after the “elements” of totalitarianism, those fundamental building blocks that made possible an altogether new and horrific form of government. The two structural elements she locates are the emergence of a new ideological form of Antisemitism and the rise of transnational imperialist movements, which gives the structure to her book: Part One (Antisemitism) and Part Two (Imperialism) lead into Part Three (Totalitarianism). Underlying both Antisemitism and Imperialism is what Arendt calls metaphysical rootlessness and metaphysical loneliness.
Totalitarian government, Arendt writes, “bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man.” The loneliness of modern humanity is multifaceted. It is “closely connected with uprootedness and superfluousness which have been the curse of modern masses since the beginning of the industrial revolution and have become acute with the rise of imperialism at the end of the last century and the breakdown of political institutions and social traditions in our own time.” The image of the factory worker laboring repetitively on a conveyor belt is forever associated with Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. In his 1950 classic The Lonely Crowd, David Reisman describes how middle class Americans had lost their meaningful connections to religion, to class, and to family. They take their values increasingly from a mass culture and they become malleable and subject to the influence of propaganda and advertising.
“Metaphysical rootlessness,” Arendt argues, is both the “basic experience” of modern society and also the generative impulse behind ideological racisms (which Arendt distinguishes from older non-scientific versions of racism). Without a core of personal and collective identity, the lonely mass man is “the common ground for terror, the essence of totalitarian government, and for ideology or logicality, the preparation of its executioners and victims.” Racism is based in hatred of a world in which lonely and rootless people are confronted with their meaninglessness, their belonging to no place, and their superfluousness. It is these masses that seek to build an imaginary and coherent togetherness based on race. Thus is rootlessness characteristic of all racism and all totalitarianism.
In her most pregnant attempt at a definition of totalitarianism, Arendt writes: “Totalitarian movements are mass organizations of atomized, isolated, individuals.” Totalitarianism depends upon “the masses [who] grew out of the fragments of a highly atomized society whose competitive structure and concomitant loneliness of the individual had been held in check only through membership in a class.” Shorn of family and national and class connection, the modern atomized individual becomes a mass man. “The chief characteristic of the mass man is not brutality and backwardness, but his isolation and lack of normal social relationships.”
The question underlying so much of Arendt’s work is how to respond to what she calls “the break in tradition,” the fact that the political, social, and intellectual traditions that bound people together in publically meaningful institutions and networks have frayed beyond repair. The customs and traditions that for millennia were the unspoken common sense of peoples can no longer be presumed. Stripped of these meaningful institutions of transcendence, mass men turn to racism or consumerism to give their lives meaning. Both are dangerous in different ways. Arendt ask repeatedly, how are we to make life meaningful, how are we to inure individuals from the seduction of ideological movements that lend weight to their meaningless lives?
If metaphysical loneliness is the basic experiences of modern life, then it is not surprising that great modern literature would struggle with the agony of such disconnection and seek to articulate paths of reconnection. That, indeed, is the thesis of Wyatt Mason’s essay “Make This Not True,” in this week’s New York Review of Books. Modern fiction, Mason argues, struggles to answer the question: How can we live and die and not be alone?
In the guise of a review of George Saunders Tenth of September (a 2012 finalist for the National Book Award), Mason suggests at least three paradigmatic answers to this question “How do I die?” The answers are represented alternatively by three of the greatest contemporary writers, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, and Saunders. In brief, Wallace combats the loneliness and inattention of the distracted masses by writing prose that is so seductively difficult that it demands attentiveness and thus membership in a community of readers. Franzen seeks the antidote to loneliness in palpable scenes of connection amidst the wreckages of modern relationships. For both Wallace and Franzen, connection is to be found in the cultivation of quintessentially modern relationships.
Saunders is notable for pursing a different path through the wilderness of contemporary isolation. Instead of external connections, Saunders is a master of the inward journey we must make alone. For Mason, there is an important link between Saunder’s Buddhism and his writing:
In Buddhist practice, through sitting meditation, the mind may be schooled in the way of softness, openness, expansiveness. This imaginative feat—of being able to live these ideas—is one of enormous subtlety. What makes Saunders’s work unique is not its satirical verve or its fierce humor but its unfathomable capacity to dramatize, in story form, the life-altering teachings of such a practice. … [I]f fiction is to continue to exert an influence over a culture that finds it ever easier to connect, however frailly, to the world around them through technology, Saunders’s stories suggest that the ambition to connect outwardly isn’t the only path we can choose. Rather, his fiction shows us that the path to reconciliation with our condition is inward, a journey we must make alone.
Mason’s essay is subtle and profound. It is your weekend read. And if you have the time, read Saunders’ masterful short story, "The Falls", which Mason discusses at length in his essay. Best of all, order Tenth of December. I spent a few rapturous days reading Saunders’ stories this summer. They can warm your January as well.
“[T]o the extent that they had a positive notion of freedom which would transcend the idea of a successful liberation from tyrants and from necessity, this notion was identified with the act of foundation, that is, the framing of a constitution.”
-Hannah Arendt, "On Revolution"
The year just gone by marked the centenary of B.R. Ambedkar, the chairman of the drafting committee of the Indian Constitution, often referred to as the ‘father of the Indian Constitution’, even though it was a claim of paternity that he vigorously rejected in later years (for reasons we shall soon get to). Ambedkar is a remarkable, and in some ways paradoxical member of that exclusive club of great constitutional founders. The significance of his influence in the framing of the Indian Constitution is incontrovertible. Yet, he was in many ways an outsider to the class of political elites that assumed power at the moment of India’s independence from British colonial rule. Politically, he remained an opponent of the Congress Party, the party that dominated the anticolonial struggle as well as the postcolonial government for decades. More significantly, his status as an outsider was marked most starkly by him being a Dalit, an “untouchable” from one of the lowest rungs of India’s caste hierarchy. Unlike most of the members of the Constituent Assembly, Ambedkar experienced in his own life the degrading and dehumanizing aspects of caste oppression, and devoted his public life to the cause of eradicating the caste system. As an outsider in this double sense, both in terms of his opposition to the dominant political party, and hailing from the most marginalized and oppressed sections of the society, the story of Ambedkar’s relationship to the Constitution illuminate certain paradoxes of new beginnings that only those at the margins can illuminate.
Let us return to Arendt’s quote. There are three elements in the quote that reflect themes that run through "On Revolution." First, one finds here an elaboration of two concepts that engaged her for much of her life: freedom and beginnings, from an explicitly political standpoint. Freedom, as a political concept, is understood as the collective capacity of human beings to create a new political reality. Emerging in moments of revolution, what marks this political freedom is its ability to institute, to create a new and secure public space. It gives political actors the ability to author their own political world. It is, in that sense, world-making.
The quote then identifies this world-making act in a particular form – that of “framing of a constitution”. The fulfillment of the promise of freedom generated by the revolutionary moment is the making of a new constitution. What political freedom brings forth then is something specific – new institutions and constitutional structures, which acts as bricks and mortars for the new world that has been created, and creates the concrete space where freedom can become a political reality, and not an abstract concept. Lastly, it names ‘tyranny’ and ‘necessity’ as the two conditions from which freedom is marked, a point which we will return to later.
Ambedkar’s participation – especially in a central capacity as the Chairman of the Drafting Committee – in the making of the Indian Constitution was in itself an interesting fact. As a consistent opponent of the Congress, especially its leader M.K. Gandhi, and as one who was deeply weary of the upper caste leadership of the Congress, one can wonder why he accepted the position offered to him. One possible answer that could be gleaned from his extensive interventions during the constituent assembly debates is a cautious hope that the Constitution would succeed in creating a new institutional structure that could ameliorate, and even eliminate, the most pervasive forms of unfreedom experienced by Indians. That a constitution would succeed in not merely marking India’s liberation from colonial rule, but in creating a new political world free from the hierarchies and dominations of the past.
Ambedkar’s belief in the significance of this new possibility was evident in an extraordinary speech he made at the floor of the assembly, whereby he laid out a strong case as to why after the commencement of the constitution extra-constitutional political actions should be delegitimized. Now that free India has a constitution of its own, written and instituted in the name of “We the People”, extra-constitutional political mobilizations should be replaced with contestations through constitutional paths. This argument is especially significant given that one of those ‘extra-constitutional’ forms of actions Ambedkar mentioned in this speech was the Gandhian method of civil disobedience that had garnered wide prevalence during the struggle against colonial rule.
Here we see a distance developing between Arendt and Ambedkar. Arendt despite the importance she accorded to domesticating the revolution through creation of institutions, remained skeptical of constitutional law emerging as the only acceptable language of political action. In ‘On Revolution’ itself she goes on to ask, in an uneasy tone, “if the end of revolution and the introduction of constitutional government spelled the end of public freedom, was it then desirable to end the revolution?” The moment of constitution making was identified by Arendt with the notion of a “positive idea of freedom” not in a transcendental but an immanent way. What made it special was not simply the institution of some higher order value system, but that it was a sublime expression of creative political act – a political world making par excellence. The freedom inheres not in the ideal form of ‘a constitution’, but in the act of constituting, which reveals the essential human agency for self-reflexively creating the world that one inhabits.
The resuscitation of this creative agency was at the heart of Arendt’s political thought. In the landscape of mid-twentieth century, in an increasingly bureaucratized space of human existence where collective action became dictated by the rationale of ‘necessity’ and the ‘tyranny’ of governmentalized calculations, Arendt sought in politics a space where human beings could collective reclaim their ability to make their own world from which they have been alienated. To this end (as Hanna Pitkin has pointed out) sets of binaries emerge in her work – freedom is contrasted with necessity, action with behavior, polis with oikos, and politics with ‘the social’.
She sought to recover that space, marked by the first half of those binaries, through thinking, speech and action in concert in the public realm. It was based on mutuality and reciprocity – captured in her well-known discussion of the faculty of ‘promising’ – conducted amongst human beings who spoke and acted towards each other as equals political beings. These words and deeds, properly political in nature, produced and maintained the space for freedom against ‘tyranny’ and ‘necessities’. She refused to seek foundation for this space in something outside of those words and deeds – either in a sovereign will, or in some form of desirable social condition achieved via analysis and transformation of social relations. The space was produced and maintained through the continual act of producing and maintaining it.
The most significant aspect of the ‘revolution’ that precedes the constitution – as Arendt showed through her stylized reconstruction of the American revolutionary experience – was therefore not any pure claim to an absolute break or fundamental change of a socio-economic fact, but the creation of a condition where human beings can collectively come together to self-reflexively create author their own political world. This was the great good fortune of the American revolutionaries that Arendt talked about. They had through their lived experience and associational forms generated the necessary praxis for this form of speech and action much before the revolutionary event or the constitutional moment came about. The condition for the realization of freedom in America according to Arendt was, as Bonnie Honig writes, “brought into being avant la lettre” so to speak. In that instance, the letters of the constitution reveal, express and institutionalize something whose conditions in a conceptual form was already conceived. The birth could not happen without conception.
One can say that for Arendt it created a space for political theory free from both political theology and social analysis. The constitution is the supreme achievement borne out of such a theory in praxis.
What was Ambedkar’s assessment of the possibility for such an achievement in India? In his concluding speech, he noted what he called the ‘contradictions’ inherent to the process of making a constitution. “On the 26th of January [the day the Constitution was adopted] we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we shall be recognizing the principle of one man, one vote, one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of economic structure continue to deny [this principle]. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradiction? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so by putting our democracy in peril.” Note the foreboding tone of the last line. Ambedkar here is not voicing a simple discomfort about the existence of inequities in the Indian social life. Rather, he voices a far deeper concern about the limits of political theory to accomplish the work of creating a space where freedom “is not a concept but a living reality” without the attendant work of social transformation. Despite the extraordinary achievement of liberation from colonial rule, and the constituting of a polity with full political rights, Ambedkar suggests that the path of becoming republican citizens, for Indians, cannot run through the terrain of political theory alone and eschew the treacherous field of social theory. One cannot meaningfully talk about the sphere of freedom without also at the same time dealing with the sphere of necessity – not because one shouldn’t, but because one cannot. Dealing with only one only ends up generating a “contradiction’ that would imperil the whole project. Given this predicament, the endeavor of making a constitution for India had to concern itself with the social question – with “necessities” – which Ambedkar supported. Nevertheless, in the subsequent years after the constitution was brought in force he became increasingly weary of the potential of the constitution-making project to create any meaningful condition of freedom for the people of India. As the preeminent leader of those who were the most marginalized in the Indian society, he was acutely aware of this limitation. In 1953, only three years after the Constitution came into force, he remarked: “My friends tell me that I have made the Constitution. But I am quiet prepared to say that I shall be the first person to burn it out.” It was a spectacular act of renunciation from a man still referred to as the father of the Indian Constitution. This renunciation, it must be underlined, was not of the nature of a Jeffersonian demand for generational renewal of the revolutionary moment. It was not a lament about the extinguishing of the revolutionary flame. Rather, it was an expression of the frustration with a social revolution that never happened, and the related disavowal of the faith he once held in the constituent moment to truly birth a new political reality.
The question worth thinking through here is not just about the specificities of the Indian history. Rather, it concerns the nature of political theory itself, and the enduring question that Arendt took as the central concern of that theoretical endeavor – freedom. In the context of the late twentieth century landscape, and what she took to be alienating and fatal encroachment of the ‘social question’ on the sphere of human collective action, Arendt was unwilling to ground her conception of freedom – and of politics – on an analysis of social conditions under which human beings live. Her response to the challenges of twentieth century political life was to draw upon the experience of late eighteenth century colonists who, in Tocqueville’s phrase, were ‘born equal’ rather than having to become so. The horizontal practice of concerted action and mutual promises, harnessed in town halls and churches, could show a way towards creating a space for practicing and theorizing politics free from the clutches of necessity, and its attendant social analysis and calculus. The supreme achievement of that late eighteenth century moment – making of the constitution – provided a template for a political and reflexive collective world making act, free from the technocratic calculus of social transformation. Yet Ambedkar’s own journey – as the preeminent constitution maker coming from the margins of the Indian ‘social’ as Arendt would call it – and its tragic denouement demonstrates the limits of that vision. It shows that in creating the space for agonistic political freedom, one cannot ignore the weapons being wielded through social power. Countering those weapons requires analyzing and addressing the condition that produces them. Finding the theory and praxis for such a move, without retreating into a technocratic calculus, remains the challenge for contemporary political thought, as much for our time as it was for Arendt’s.
-Sandipto Dasgupta, Lecturer in Social Studies, Harvard University
Federalism should not be a partisan issue. This has been forgotten as the Federalist Society has turned federalism into a rhetorical sledgehammer to bludgeon liberal policies. But rightly understood, federalism is about freedom.
Federalism promotes freedom for at least two reasons. First, because citizens will only act and speak in public when they believe their actions will be seen and heard.
The smaller the stage, the more likely is action to be meaningful. If freedom and action are the same, as Arendt writes, then we should be wary of the erosion of federalism. Only when local political institutions have meaningful power will they attract citizens to become politically involved. The danger in the loss of federalism today is the increasing sense that individual citizens have little if any power, which leads to cynicism and apathy.
We can see this cynicism and apathy, surprisingly, in Occupy Wall Street. The fact that Occupy Wall Street became a protest movement, and not an alternative locus of power, is at least partly the result of the fact that local power structures have been rendered increasingly impotent by the vampire squid of national power. As people rightly feel ever-more alienated from political institutions that can make a difference, they retreat from politics. Why did Occupy eschew local politics? Why did it seek a megaphone on the national stage instead of working in the pits of village, town, and state politics? Because everyone knows that the power of local institutions has been decimated. The result is a feeling of powerlessness and hopelessness; the present response is to embrace an ethic of permanent protest as the only meaningful way to personal empowerment. But the elevation of protest to the apogee of political action in Occupy Wall Street is, unfortunately, just another example of the vanishing of politics in our time.
The second way federalism promotes freedom is through constitutional structure. The best way to prevent government from attaining totalitarian or tyrannical power is, as Arendt argues, to multiply the sources of political power. Arendt credits the United States Constitution because it created not only the division of powers on the federal level, but also the constitutional federalism of the early Republic. By empowering states, counties, towns, and villages, the United States Constitution ensured that nearly every citizen would have both opportunity and reason to act in public and to engage in politics.
Arendt’s thoughts on the freedom found in federalism come to mind as I’ve been reading—at the urging of my colleague David Kettler—the classic Small Town in Mass Society, by Arthur J. Vidich and Joseph Bensman. Originally published in 1958, Small Town in Mass Society is still an important and now sadly forgotten book. The argument, in short, is that local towns and villages are losing their distinctiveness. Studying class, religion, power, and politics in small town America, Vidich and Bensman argue that local governments are voluntarily abandoning the political powers they constitutionally possess and thus emptying their lives of meaningful political engagement.
What Vidich and Bensman find is a fundamental contradiction between the way that small town culture sees itself and the way it actually exists in mass society. In their self-image, the residents of “Springdale”—the name for the town they study— think of themselves as a community. They distinguish themselves from “urban dwellers” who are anonymous. They imagine that “Here no man counts more than any other.” “It is unthinkable for anyone to pass a person on the street without exchanging greetings;”
“Almost all of rural life receives its justification on the basis of the direct and personal and human feelings that guide people’s relations with each other.” And, above all, the Springdale residents of rural New York see themselves as independent from urban-mass society:
While he realizes that machinery and factory products are essential to his standard of life and that taxation and agricultural policy are important, he feels that he is independent of other features of industrial and urban life, or, better, that he can choose and select only the best parts. The simple physical separation from the city and the open rural atmosphere make it possible to avoid the problems inherent in city life.
Against this feeling of independence, Vidich and Bensman argue that small towns are actually part of and integrated into mass society to an extent that their self-image cannot and will not admit. Against the view that Springdalers can choose those parts of mass society they want and reject the rest, Vidich and Bensman argue that they are more influenced and subjected to mass society.
In almost all aspects of culture, even to speech forms, and including technology, literature, fashions and fads, as well as patterns of consumption, to mention a few, the small town tends to reflect the contemporary mass society. Basically, a historically indigenous local culture does not seem to exist.
For our purposes, one telling section of Small Town in Mass Society is called “The Political Surrender to Mass Society.” While Springdale has a local government and possesses the power of taxation and governance, the authors argue that the town seeks at nearly every turn to abdicate self-governance. Examples include:
•“Solutions to the problem of fire protection are found in agreements with regionally organized fire districts.”
•The town prefers to have its road signs provided in standard form by state agencies “without cost to the taxpayer[s]” in Springdale.
•Springdale accepts the state’s rules and regulations on roads built and maintained by the state. It works with the foreman of the state highway maintenance crew to have his teams clear village roads, thus saving the expense of organizing and paying for this as a town.
• State construction programs “present local political agencies with the alternative of either accepting or rejecting proposed road plans and programs formulated by the state highway department.”
•The town at every point adjusts its actions to the regulations and laws defined by state and federal agencies; or they accede to the rule of these outside agencies because the agencies have the power to withhold subsidies.
What Springdale actually does in its own politics is forego self-governance and submit itself to outside control. It repeatedly accepts grants of aid offered by the state and subsidies by the state, even when such aid comes with strings and demands for control. The result is that the “village board in Springdale accepts few of the powers given to it. Instead, it orients its action to the facilities and subsidies controlled and dispensed by other agencies and, by virtue of this, forfeits its own political power.” What is more, this economic and political dependence leads to a “habituation to outside control to the point where the town and village governments find it hard to act even where they have the power.”
For Vidich and Bensman, the loss of local power leads to a psychologically damaging sense of dependence on outside agencies, bureaucracies, and governments.
“State police, regionally organized fire districts, state welfare agencies, the state highway department, the state youth commission, the state conservation department—these agencies and others are central to the daily functioning of the village.” There is a “pattern of dependence,” according to which the “important decisions are made for Springdale by outside agencies.” On the one hand, Springdalers resent these services provided by outsiders because they negate the local villagers’ self image as independent. But the villagers accept these services “because they are free or because acceptance of them carries with it monetary grants-in-aid for the local community.”
The conclusion Vidich and Bensman reach is that the Springdale town government does increasingly little. It seeks whenever possible to avoid providing services itself—e.g. snow or garbage removal. Instead, it seeks to have these services provided by the state in order to avoid having to raise taxes. The ultimate result is the “avoidance of innovation and the minimization of decision.” The village “tends to limit its function to the conduct of routine “housekeeping” business.” “It is a common complaint among all groups in the community that the village board does nothing.”
This political irrelevance at the local level is radical change from the American tradition of citizen democracy. When Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in the 19th century, he was impressed by the active participation of citizens in local government. 100 years later, when Hannah Arendt arrived in the United States, she too was amazed by the sense of common citizens that their voice mattered in politics.
Shortly after Arendt’s arrival, she traveled to a provincial town in Massachusetts to live with a family as a way of learning everyday English and experiencing something of American mores. While she had little in common with this family whose puritanical ways clashed with her own, she was captivated by them and by what Antonia Grunenberg has called their republican self-consciousness.
Arendt described her host family to Karl Jaspers as "thoroughly average people—what would have been called 'petty bourgeoisie' in Germany." And yet, these average Americans embodied the American love of freedom that so impressed Arendt. As she wrote to Jaspers shortly after they resumed contact in 1946:
There is much I could say about America. There really is such a thing as freedom here and a strong feeling among many people that one cannot live without freedom. The republic is not a vapid illusion, and the fact that there is no national state and no truly national tradition creates an atmosphere of freedom or at least one not pervaded by fanaticism. (Because of the strong need the various immigrant groups feel to maintain their identity, the melting pot is in large part not even an ideal, much less a reality.) Then, too, people here feel themselves responsible for public life to an extent I have never seen in any European country. For example, when all Americans of Japanese descent were locked up willy-nilly in concentration camps at the beginning of the war, a genuine storm of protest that can still be felt today went through the country. I was visiting with an American family in New England at the time. They were thoroughly average people--what would have been called 'petty bourgeoisie' in Germany—and they had, I'm' sure, never laid eyes on a Japanese in their lives. As I later learned, they and many of their friends wrote immediately and spontaneously to their congressmen, insisted on the constitutional rights of all Americans regardless of national background, and declared that if something like that could happen, they no longer felt safe themselves (these people were of Anglo-Saxon background, and their families had been in this country for generations), etc.
The extraordinary embrace of political freedom in America had a flip side, namely social oppression: To allow people local rule and governance means that parochial and racist communities can oppress minorities and impose socially conservative mores. There is a fundamental tradeoff between political freedom and social oppression. But Arendt thought the choice was easy: social oppression is simply a cost of what she came to see as the miracle of America.
For Arendt, America embodied, in Leon Botstein’s words, "a federal system of government not based on race or designed to rectify social inequalities, but established to ensure political equality among all citizens, to maintain the freedom of the public realm, social differences notwithstanding."
America, in Arendt's writing and especially in her book On Revolution, is an enduring image of public freedom that so animates her life-long thinking.
Occupy Wall Street failed for many reasons. Above all, however, it failed because even at a time when our democratic and representative institutions are seen as corrupt and broken, OWS offered no meaningful alternative. It failed, therefore, in the basic requirement of any truly revolutionary political movement: to pick up power when it is lying the streets, as Arendt writes in On Violence. And one reason it did so is that we have all lost the basic experience of citizenship and freedom that Arendt so valued when she arrived in America. If we are to resurrect such a practice and habit of citizen-politics, we need to reinvigorate local politics. But we can only do that if we reclaim federalism as a matter of freedom outside of partisan debates.
One first step is to confront honestly and clearly the depth of the loss of political power in America. This has become difficult because federalism and local power have been politicized and polarized. We need to move beyond that. To do so, there are few better books that Small Town in Mass Society. It is your weekend read. And if you cannot get the book, take a look at their article The New Middle Classes: Their Cultures and Life Styles.
In this week's Chronicle of Higher Education, Richard D. Kahlenberg lifts (or rips) the band-aid off a wound that has been festering for decades. For much of the 20th century, class animated campus Marxists. Since the 1970s, race and gender have largely supplanted class as the source of youthful protest. But the pendulum is swinging back. Studies find that "being an underrepresented minority increased one's chances of admissions at selective colleges by almost 28 percentage points, but that being low-income provided no boost whatsoever." Will racial and gender politics give way to a renewed interest in class? Will there be a divide on the left between class and identity politics? In either case, the debate is beginning.
Here is Kahlenberg:
Long hidden from view, economic status is emerging from the shadows, as once-taboo discussions are taking shape. The growing economic divide in America, and on American campuses, has given rise to new student organizations, and new dialogues, focused on raising awareness of class issues—and proposing solutions. With the U.S. Supreme Court likely to curtail the consideration of race in college admissions this year, the role of economic disadvantage as a basis for preferences could further raise the salience of class.
This interest represents a return to an earlier era. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, class concerns animated Marxists on campus and New Deal politicians in the public sphere. Both groups papered over important dimensions of race and gender to focus on the nation's economic divide. Programs like Federal Housing Administration-guaranteed loans and the GI Bill provided crucial opportunities for upward mobility to some working-class families and students.
Colleges, meanwhile, began using the SAT to identify talented working-class candidates for admission. But FHA loans, the GI Bill, and the SAT still left many African-Americans, Latinos, and women out in the cold.
In the 1960s and 70s, that narrow class focus was rightly challenged by civil-rights activists, feminists, and advocates of gay rights, who shined new light on racism, sexism and homophobia. Black studies, women's studies, and later gay studies took root on college campuses, along with affirmative-action programs in student admissions and faculty employment to correct for the lack of attention paid to marginalized groups by politicians and academics alike.
Somewhere along the way, however, the pendulum swung to the point that issues of class were submerged. Admissions officers, for example, paid close attention to racial and ethnic diversity, but little to economic diversity. William Bowen, a former president of Princeton University, and his colleagues reported in 2005 that being an underrepresented minority increased one's chances of admissions at selective colleges by almost 28 percentage points, but that being low-income provided no boost whatsoever. Campuses became more racially and ethnically diverse—and all-male colleges began admitting women—but students from the most advantaged socioeconomic quartile of the population came to outnumber students from the least advantaged quartile at selective colleges by 25 to 1, according to a 2004 study by the Century Foundation.
Read the whole article here.
Kahlenberg’s inquiry into the return of class to debates on campus cannot be seen outside the context of rising inequality in the U.S. Just this week Anne Lowrey reports in the New York Times that incomes are rising briskly for the top 1% but are actually stagnant or falling for everyone else:
Incomes rose more than 11 percent for the top 1 percent of earners during the economic recovery, but not at all for everybody else, according to new data.
It may be true that prices are declining and the middle class, despite its wage stagnation, is still living well. But we cannot ignore the increasing divide between the rich and the middle class. Not to mention the poor.
This was the topic of an op-ed essay in Monday’s New York Times by Nobel Laureate, Joseph Stiglitz, who writes, “The gap between aspiration and reality could hardly be wider.” Stiglitz, like Kahlenberg, sets the question of class inequality against increasing racial equality:
While racial segregation decreased, economic segregation increased. After 1980, the poor grew poorer, the middle stagnated, and the top did better and better. Disparities widened between those living in poor localities and those living in rich suburbs — or rich enough to send their kids to private schools. A result was a widening gap in educational performance — the achievement gap between rich and poor kids born in 2001 was 30 to 40 percent larger than it was for those born 25 years earlier, the Stanford sociologist Sean F. Reardon found.
Many on the left will respond that race and class are linked: minorities, who are poor, they say, suffer worst of all. That may be true. But race, gender, and identity have dominated the conversation about equality and oppression in this country for 50 years. That is changing. This will be hard for some to accept, and yet it makes sense. Poverty, more than race or gender, is increasingly the true mark of disadvantage in 21st century America.
You know that the problem of inequality has gone mainstream when even Charles Murray has written a book about it. Not only the Occupy movement and the Tea Party, but also Murray—the conservative force between The Bell Curve and other controversial contributions to the culture wars—is now loudly screaming about the dangers of inequality in America. But with Murray, there is a difference.
If the Occupy Wall Street movement focuses on the vast income inequality that divides the country into haves, have nots, and have-it-alls, and if the Tea Party divides the country into the self-sufficient and the governmental dependents, Murray points to yet another divide: the Cultural Divide.
Murray begins with a point that I take to be essential:
Life sequestered from anybody not like yourself tends to be self-limiting.
Americans (Murray means by this term always white Americans) are living increasingly amongst those like themselves. Murray means by this that American elites (both Republican and Democrat) have separated themselves from the rest of the country. Specifically, he is worried that wealthy white Americans live apart from and are ignorant of poor white Americans. And vice versa.
In his new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010, Murray argues that an enormous cultural divide has separated white Americans into classes that don't mix. While many liberals might welcome Murray's voice pointing to the rise of inequality in America, his analysis and prescriptions are radically different from those usually suggested by the left. For one thing, Murray focuses on white Americans between 30-49. Part of this focus is to support his argument that "Cultural inequality is not grounded in race or ethnicity." This itself will strike many on the left as an evasion, which it is. And yet, Murray's focus on the increasingly vast class divisions amongst white Americans points to the profound depths of the rising class and income inequality that pervades and divides American society.
Murray does not only point out the vast class divide in the United States. He points to solutions as well. His book is a call to action, but one that has little if nothing to say about the need for government to help the poor. No, for Murray, what both the lower and upper classes need are better values. The lower classes must learn from the upper classes the values of hard work, marriage, and family. The upper classes must learn from the lower classes the value of community, patriotism, and religion.
Whatever one thinks of Murray's analysis, he is right that we all need to do more to read and think and interact with others with whom we don't always agree. Those interested in and concerned by inequality in American can learn from Murray's book, and they should, even as they should wonder at his single-minded concern with white people. Problematic books can teach us much. Thus, for this week's weekend read, I suggest you take a look at Murray's latest essay on "The New American Divide."