Thursday, November 01, 2012

The Best Book I've Read This Political Season (About the Last One)

Writing a book on current events is a complicated crap-shoot. In an age of blogs, social media, and basically instantaneous communication, to write and get published a book that examines in depth a current trend and actually catches the wave of commentary which that trend generates must require not only great speed and acumen in researching and expressing arguments and ideas, but some real talent at prognostication as well. Michael Austin (who is both an old friend of mine, and the provost of a university which is located barely a mile away from my own) clearly has the former skill; as for the latter, I suppose he's about as good as anyone else I know. Damon Linker, another old friend, wrote an excellent book (though I had my own critical comments to make about it) on religion and American politics back in 2010, and it was perfectly timed to take advantage of all the controversy surrounding the religious positionings of Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Barack Obama, and others...during the presidential primaries of 2008. Which takes nothing away from the ideas and arguments which Damon advanced; it's just that he missed the wave. And now Mike's equally excellent, thoughtful book, That's Not What They Meant! Reclaiming the Founding Fathers from America's Right Wing, has hit the shelves--actually, it hit them about a month ago; I've been slow getting this written--and it carefully and thoroughly takes apart the loving-the-Founding-Fathers-equals-hating-government fetishism which powered so much of Glenn Beck's fan base and the Tea Party's political power...during the midterm elections of 2010.

Que sera, sera. So what about the book itself? Why do I think it's good?

It's good because Michael is, above all else, a close and omnivorous reader; he tracks down sources, then reads not just the whole quotation, but all the pages of context which precedes it, and all the pages of qualifications which follow it. He's a scholar of English and a university administrator, while I'm the one who teaches political science; yet he immerses himself, in this book, in documents and disputes between those individuals most instrumental to the framing of our system of government to such a degree that he comes up with stuff that, even after having received a PhD in politics and having taught American government for ten years, I still had never heard of. (Embarrassing truth: until I read this book, not only had I never read James Madison's Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments--his important defense of the idea that a liberal society needs to be, in certain key aspects, a secular one--but I think I'd even forgotten it existed.) Some might think that all this reading which he did amounts to shooting fish in a barrel; after all, as he makes clear from the outset, his goal is solely to challenge the "conservative extreme that . . . has constructed a simplistic and intellectually indefensible narrative of America's Founding" (p. 13)--and that is something which anyone who bothers to actually read a half-way reputable biography of any of these men, much less an even moderately decent history of their interactions, disagreements, and achievements, ought to already know how to do. Really, it's not difficult to show that the often-hysterical, borderline-libertarian, Christian-conservative, Tea-Party worship of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, and Franklin as authoritative guides to politics depends on asserting that they said and did and claimed a great deal which they never did. Still, someone needs to do it, and I'm glad that Michael did, succinctly demonstrating the ignorance, inaccuracy, and incoherence of the many right-wing talking heads (Glenn Beck most predominantly, but also Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, and many others) who have made their name in part by wielding the Founding Fathers as a club to try to pound their often paranoid and generally ahistorical notions about religious liberty, federalism, the commerce clause, taxation, judicial interpretation and power, and more into the head of the American public.

The heart of the book, and Michael's whole case against the abuse which some unknowingly (or knowingly!) do to the Founding Fathers, is contained in the book's second chapter, "Founderstein: How to Turn Six Dead White Guys into one Political Monster" (this was also the name of the blog which began Michael's whole involvement which this subject). Michael's pithy summary of the phenomenon he's attacking--namely, the way "the Founding Fathers" has become a reductive trope in so much Tea Party discourse, one which ridiculously insists upon viewing these highly opinionated and very different 18th-century men as all a single, uniform body of constitutional wisdom--deserves quotation:

"The Founding Fathers" were not all devout Christians who sought to limit the power of government any more than they were all slave-owning atheists who wanted to expand the federal mandate. They were actual human beings with insights and moral lapses, virtues and vices, and, perhaps most important, little ability to agree with each other about much of anything.

At the heart of the Founderstein phenomenon lies a rhetorical need for unanimity. All the authors mentioned at the opening of this chapter [Tea Party favorites like Utah Senator Mike Lee and Texas Governor Rick Perry] would have been on solid ground if they had claimed "some of the Founders" held the positions being presented as collective, and, with a little work, they could have identified which ones. But identifying with just some of the Founders blunts the real assertion of these arguments: that people who disagree with them are bad Americans. Rather than give up this point--and the righteous indignation it inspires--these authors present open questions as settled ones and disputed assertions as universal principles, and, in the process, they assert a higher level of agreement among the Founders than the Founders themselves believed to be possible in this world (p. 35).

Michael takes very seriously this charge against the Tea Party--that they are making an idol out of ideological agreement for the sake of being able to shut down ideas they consider (wrongly, as it happens) beyond the pale of America's political culture. His discomfort with this kind of rhetorical extremism and drive of unanimity is evidenced in other projects of his, like his Arguing as Friends project, which is attempting to demonstrate that there can be real civility even in the face of deep partisan disagreements over issues of both public policy and constitutional principle. It is also, I think, an unfortunate kind of limiting factor in his own presentation of the Founding Fathers and their ideas in all their complicated and diverse glory. Not a seriously limiting factor; I suspect that Michael's book will have a long life as, if nothing else, a pithy summary of the many appropriate responses which those who know and care about what the framers of our constitutional order actually said and did need to make to those who instead want to enlist Washington as a clear defender of Christian morality (he wasn't--pp. 69-70), or Madison as a promoter of states' rights (he wasn't--pp. 94-96), or make the claim that the Jefferson was the good guy of the American Revolution and Hamilton the bad (see pp. 127-132 for this complicated story), or say any number of other nonsensical things to bathe their conservative positions in the reflected glory of the Founding. No, the limit I see is one that is likely only apparent to academics and intellectuals like myself who are sympathetic to radical critiques of our system.

Whether he realizes it or not, Michael is a believer in that kind of political moderation and slowness that many critics and bloggers have long referred to as "High Broderism"--namely the idea, ripping on the late Washington Post columnist David Broder, that our constitutional system itself exhibits a kind of natural balancing genius, enabling our country to operate a democratic government that will both represent the will of people and achieve the common good...so long as no one abuses the responsible, moderate, political and economic establishment at its core. You can see his praise for trusting in how things are throughout the book--he begins his main analysis claiming that the Founding Fathers gave us a political system "that has kept democracy vibrant in America for more than two hundred years" (p. 32), and concludes his last chapter by stating that our constitutional order "remains as robust an engine for liberty and human progress as the world has ever seen" (p. 186). Michael is too smart to be sucked in by the often naive applause for "bipartisanship" (p. 183), recognizing instead that, of course, any democratic system is going to be a contentious one, and that moreover the logic of factions is built into our Constitution's very operating presumptions. And yet Michael's distaste for deep critique, and his preference for applauding moderate compromises rather than popular reform, repeats in every chapter. He dismisses the possible value of respecting popular majorities more than Madison did (pp. 99-101); he praises Hamilton's defense of the necessity for an economy of credit that respects first and foremost the claims of capital (pp. 114-116); he thinks it obvious that the judicial branch needs the undemocratic independence which our Constitution provides (and which Marshall expanded through his decisions on the court--pp. 162-168). But really, all this is just to say that Michael isn't a socialist or a radical democrat--he is, as he says in the book's Preface, a man who stands "squarely in the center of American political discourse," and who is critical "of extremists on both the left and the right" (p. 13). A more radical thinker, like myself, would like to argue that such a "pox of both houses!" anti-extremism ignores that some extreme critiques of the system may be correct, or at least worthy of consideration, as well as passing over without comment how these different extremisms may deserve different kinds of criticism, rather than just assuming that if they don't get the basics of the system right, then they just don't understand how the whole thing is supposed to work. But again, there's no reason why Michael's argument against a few influential Tea-Party fools needed to include that kind of perspective; from his moderate perch, he knocks them down just fine on his own.

In the end, books like this don't change any minds when it comes to voting; certainly not within the final weeks before an election, in any case. So perhaps it's just as well that Michael's book missed its perfect political moment. The unfortunate truth is that Americans have been abusing the Founding Fathers for as long as the term has been in use (and Michael's investigation of that question was one of my favorite parts of the whole book--p. 20), and many of the less informed and more passionate of our citizens will no doubt continue to abuse them as long as they can. Hopefully, Michael's work will make some of them a little less likely to slip simplistically into insisting that there is only one right way to understand Jefferson or Washington, etc.; failing that, his work will definitely make the work of those of us who feel obliged to correct them a whole lot easier. So thank you, Michael, for writing such a solid helpful book. The best book I've ever read on the Founding Fathers or our constitutional order? No. But it's the best book I've read on the subject since Glenn Beck (the poor, earnest, well-meaning, stupid guy that he may be) started dumbing down our conversations about the Constitution, and that's no small praise.

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