Kearneysville, WV. Let’s begin with a question: What is American? A plausible list might include such iconic things as John Wayne, apple pie, county fairs, baseball, and of course, front porches. But pushing the question further, are there certain political and cultural touchstones that comprise the essence of America?

Some have argued that America is unique among nations because we were founded on a set of propositions, namely, those expressed in the Declaration of Independence: all men are created equal, each endowed with certain rights, governments derive their legitimacy from the consent of the governed, and so on. If these ideas serve to embody the idea of America, they are only a part and to mistake them for the whole is a serious error. There is a complex amalgam of ideas and practices embodied in American history and tradition, and if we are to ask “what is American” we need to bring these facets to light.

FPR has recently published a series in which the author defends the virtues of monarchy. First, I think it is clear that for practical purposes monarchy is a non-starter in America. We lack a nobility, we lack a history, and, which is more, we utterly lack the inclination to establish monarchical institutions. However, by considering some of the weaknesses in our current system from the vantage point of a tradition other than our own, it is possible to shed new light on our own affairs. This is an exercise in imagination that can help us better imagine changes necessary to preserve that which we have inherited.

So what is American? While monarchy does not fit the bill, it is surely true that something in our system is amiss. After two hundred years, our democracy appears beleaguered and in need of revitalization. It is expressly the magnitude of our problems that make it possible for some to long for apparently better systems that haven’t a prayer in America. However, revitalization, if it is to occur, must take advantage of resources native to our tradition and, what is just as important, to do so in a native idiom. What, then, are these resources? What are the political and cultural forms that are intrinsic to America?

If we consider the American Founding, it quickly becomes apparent that certain political ideas embodied the spirit of that time and therefore serve as a foundation for our political institutions.

1) Republicanism. This is a form of government in which the will of the people is expressed and moderated by representatives gathered in a deliberative body. Virtually all participants in the debates concerning the American founding were committed to the republican principle. Federalists and Anti-federalists, while disagreeing substantially on serious matters, were in agreement that the new nation would be a republic of laws. This was simply axiomatic.

2) Federalism. This is the belief that while the national government had certain powers expressly delegated to it and within the purview of those powers was supreme, the states (and the people) retained all powers not expressly granted to the national government. As such, the states were assumed to be sovereign entities within the limits established by the Constitution. Of course, the notion of limited or divided sovereignty presents a conceptual and practical problem right, and that tension was present from the very start. The steady attenuation of robust federalism has served to undercut the republican nature of our system, centralize power, and given rise to suggestions that the system is irreparably broken.

3) Separation of powers. The most quoted political theorist of the founding generation was the French philosopher Montesquieu. His book, The Spirit of the Laws (1748), exercised a powerful influence over the America’s leading thinkers. Montesquieu advocates republicanism and lays out the principle of the separation of powers that clearly emerges in our Constitution whereby the three branches of government are separate and the most powerful branch (according to Madison) was divided into two houses. Power separated is less dangerous for when all the powers of the executive, legislative, and judiciary are united in one person or body, this, according to Madison, constitutes tyranny.

4) Self-government. This ideal lies at the very heart of the American political tradition and is perhaps the most important of all. The separation of the thirteen colonies from Britain was an assertion of the right of Americans to govern themselves. The question of self-government is necessarily tied to the question of scale, for at some point, a political body becomes so large that the idea of self-government is lost in the centralizing impulse.

This question of scale—a central concern of FPR but largely forgotten in our age of centralization—was debated from the very beginning. According to Montesquieu, a republic can only survive if it is relatively small. A large republic, he argued, would soon devolve into something else. The Anti-federalists appealed to Montesquieu when arguing that the Constitution created a unitary power (not enough federalism) over a nation that was far too large to sustain a republican form of government (this even before the Louisiana Purchase and Manifest Destiny). In Federalist 10, Madison broke with Montesquieu and, in effect, turned him on his head. Madison argued that the problem of factions that so vexed small republics could be overcome by extending the size of the republic thus mitigating the chance that powerful factions could arise. Furthermore, if a faction did form, the size of the republic would hamper effective communication thus limiting its power and influence. Thus, a large republic is safer for liberty than a small one. Given the changes in transportation and communications technology since Madison’s day, we do well to wonder if an extended republic is still the effective buffer to faction that Madison thought. In the same light, we must ask what are the liabilities unique to a large republic. Those liabilities, whatever they are, must constitute a central part of our concern.

One aspect of self-government is, of course, secession. This idea ran aground in 1861, but a perusal of the various secessionist movements both before and since the Civil War (see Bill Kauffman’s book Bye Bye Miss American Empire) is enough to remind us that Americans have regularly and energetically embraced the idea even if implementing it has proven nigh impossible. In this regard, it is important to understand that while the Civil War was prompted by the secession of a group of states from the nation, there have been many movements in which one part of a state has attempted to severe ties from the state while remaining loyal to the nation. Kauffman muses that perhaps it’s time to add some new stars to an old flag. The union would be preserved but the idea of self-government might be better realized.

Kauffman argues that the people promoting separation by and large are motivate not by hatred of America but a deep affection for what makes the country lovely. In discussing the longing of many in upstate New York to separate themselves from New York City, Kauffman writes:

Secession may seem to be motivated by anger or frustration or asperity. Fact is, it flows from love. Love of one’s region, of one’s neighbors, of one’s ancestors and history and land and people. And love, of a different but palpable sort, for folks distant: for a man on Wall Street, a child in Harlem, a tree grower in Brooklyn. Love for these people demands that we let them live their lives as they see fit. That we stop meddling in their business. Secession insists on autonomy, on self-government. Secession is part and parcel of the American faith.

Kauffman, who has a knack for putting an idea in a succinct and compelling way, notes that the two ingredients necessary for secession are “a love of place and resentment of the capital.” Would the republic be revitalized by the addition of new states created by citizens claiming the right to governing themselves? It’s an intriguing thought.

In addition to these political ideas, there are cultural facets that provide necessary ballast, and bereft of these, the political structures will not survive unscathed. What are some of these cultural elements? Here, briefly, are a few.

1) Personal responsibility. Some favor the language of rugged individualism, and when properly understood this is an undeniable virtue of the American culture. A “can-do” attitude, one that is willing to initiate, innovate, and unflinchingly bear the consequences is an important cultural, as well as economic, driver. Personal responsibility is closely tied to self-control. Self-control implies the ability and willingness to regulate one’s own actions, for in the absence of self-regulation, laws are necessary to accomplish the same thing and generally less well.

2) Neighborliness. Personal responsibility is complemented by the virtue of neighborliness. Individualism without strong communities tends to strengthen the central authority, for in the absence of communities of mutual help, individuals will tend to find security and community—although a deformed and deforming version—in the state. Strong communities jealously guard the idea of self-government and prefer to render aid to those in need via private means rather than cede that privilege and duty to an anonymous bureaucracy that has no capacity to love and therefore lacks the ability to serve the community in the holistic fashion of neighbors.

3) Love of particular people and places. While it is possible to love a nation or a flag, these are abstractions that piggy-back on concrete loves directed at particular people and places. Burke argued that it is the love for the “little platoons” that tutors the mind and heart to love the state and perhaps even mankind in general. In other words, a proper love of the nation must be rooted in a love for particular parts of the whole, for no one can know the whole much less love it properly. Affection for one’s people and place makes self-government both desirable and workable, for love thinks in terms of the long term good rather than short term exploitation.

4) Freedom of religion. A major impetus in the founding of the American colonies was the desire to worship God freely. While freedom from religion was certainly possible to achieve in some colonies, the general tenor of the population was strongly Christian with a corresponding suspicion of a state church. Tocqueville was convinced that the spirit of freedom that was so prevalent in America was inextricably tied to the spirit of religion. If the latter waned, he thought, the former would necessarily follow suit.

These few political and cultural ideas lie at the heart of the American system. Short of a revolution (in thinking as well as in fact) they are the ideas with which we must work. Speaking of revolutions, though, there are those who seem to eagerly anticipate the imminent collapse of the republic. They regularly issue dire and confident predictions that the American system will soon implode—the predictions, of course, are constantly moved back to accommodate stubborn reality. While it may be that our republic (which in many respects has lurched toward an empire) is on its last leg, no American should take delight in contemplating its demise. There is much good worth saving. There are resources by which we can shore up that which has been damaged. The republic yet breathes.

The principles I have listed are, indeed, broad but they do suggest a direction for practical action: policies that respect and promote republicanism, federalism, separation of powers, and self-government ought to be championed. Those that do not, should be rejected. Likewise, the way we live our private lives should be characterized by personal responsibility, neighborliness, love of particular places, and reverence. These political and cultural touchstones are keys to the American republic and the soul of its people. While there is much work to be done and there are no guarantees of success, we don’t have to look far for the foundations upon which to build. They are all around us.

12 COMMENTS

  1. In making the list, are you advocating a reset to the initial conditions of the republic? I wonder if rewinding and then interpreting the intent of “being American” with the benefit of hindsight would lead to different outcomes. While they don’t fall under the blog topic, the “Why” and “How” of being American are important. For example, it seems that citizens of republics who delegate governance to representatives cease to feel obligated to stay engaged. Absent this engagement, there is little incentive to learn about the institutions of government and to develop the knowledge to interpret and understand situations.

    For example, in evaluating a design or a mathematical proof, it is often necessary to repeat the entire exercise in order to fully appreciate the work. Without the ability to do this, it is difficult to understand the progression of steps that led to the outcome. We have this in our republic. Our representatives may do good work, but citizens mistrust the work they do. We say, “We’re heading in the wrong direction.” This criticism is difficult to act upon. If this is the wrong direction, what is the right direction? If I were a representative or a senator, I would ask, “Could you be a little more specific?”

    Have we created an environment where citizens, can be more specific? It would seem not. We can flame, but we can not express ourselves as did Madison and Tocqueville and others. After so many years of public education, one could reasonably expect that this could’ve been achieved. Is the question one of motivation? Do students perceive that being able to understand and express is only to be able to identify the mountain one wants to climb. There are still significant barriers — corporate, bureaucratic, for example — to being heard, to making a difference. This leads back to point one.

    Personal responsibility is American, but nurturing personal responsibility in a poisonous environment is not likely to revive this American attribute.

    So it is great we can list what is American. What we need to consider is what causes these features to emerge and to be sustained.

    • Jefferson proposed that all Congressional laws expire every 19 years, so that each generation would have the responsibility of reevaluating the laws. There are obvious problems with how that might work, but there’s one obvious consequence that I think everyone at FPR would enjoy: the national government would have a much smaller role in our country.

  2. I think part of the problem is in seeking something like the essence of America. America is what is called an historical kind; it it constituted by historical relations between its members. But these forces are real and not merely “socially constructed.” However, these historical traditions of language, morals, and so on are are transmitted with varying degrees of fidelity and they change over time. So “American,” despite being a real thing, doesn’t have an essence in the traditional sense of “essence” like when we say water is H2O. See my post “On Being Real”: http://apoxonbothyourhouses.blogspot.com/2010/06/on-being-real_20.html

  3. I know there are certain media outlets that regularly hire writers to assemble obituaries for the various Swells and Poobahs of our existence even though they aint yet gone cold, nor even lukewarm but to say that this quixotic place “is finished” would seem to be a bit hasty. After all, we aint yet had a truly professional decline for such a vigorous debauch as the U.S.A..

    Generally, the angst has been dominated by sore winners bagged by the notion that what they see in their popular culture has much bearing on the health of all the folks milling about in an aghast daze from Secaucus to Santa Cruz. Just because our deranged freebooters in the Personality Cult of Washington D.C. think they ought to have our complete attention don’t mean they should. It is, of course, a wee bit disconcerting that the National Burlesque requires the payment of taxes but we buy cardboard fare at the mall food court and call it food.

    The old carrion eater has a lot more tainted roadkill to consume before she loses all her tail feathers. We been around the bend before….during the War of 1812, the Civil War , the Double Feature of Brazen Insanity known as Prohibition and the Great Depression, the madness of the late 60’s/early 70’s but we aint yet begun to wholly unravel. We’re just another set of bald and fraying radials whose vehicle needs a proper alignment.

    Personally, I’ll be damned insulted if this is the best decline and fall we cornpone cranks can pull off. Standards may be declining but they aint yet completely absent. After all, we came within a hair breadth of electing the Grand Madame of the World Wrestling Corporation to the U.S. Senate and couldn’t quite pull it off. I’m a little peevish about that myself but I wouldn’t yet count the palooka America out. Batshit Daft yes, dead and gone, no.

    • Dee-Dub:

      I’m a bit confused. What happened to your doomsday spirit? The imminent underwater explosions in the Gulf? Your analyses of the stinking Washington crockpot? I guess you are suggesting that there’s still breath in them there ‘Merican spirit?

      Certainly America is still breathing, and it will survive in some form (probably secession to some extent is likely), but in saying it “is finished” is simply to say the decline has begun, and there is no stopping it. How long it takes is anyone’s guess (the article cited certainly notes that empires, once in decline, tend to collapse faster than anyone expects), but it will happen.

      The most ominous sign is the toxic political environment. How can anything be rescued when the country is locked in a political Civil War? It seems (more than any nonsensical myths of a “self-made” character) that American is most easily defined by its seeing existence as black and white. Things must be painted as evil or good. (This is probably the result of its religious character being formed by the endless shipfuls of dismal colonizing sectarians… does this also explain why Catholics dominate a level-headed Porch??) Anyways, that kind of existential perspective results in a war-like society. It started with a revolutionary war, then turned inward in the Civil War, before expanding outward into a kind of “benevolent” global jihad and hegemony. Finally, the instinct turned inward again, and a new (political/economic) Civil War has ensued. Even the NFL and MMA can’t satisfy the bloodlust. It only seems to reinforce this Either/Or mentality.

      As a Canadian I can only offer my experience. Every time I cross the border into the U.S., it is amazing how palpable the difference is between the countries. You can positively feel the power of the American spirit. It vibrates in the air. At its best it is warm, inviting, joyful and friendly. At its worst it is mean, aggressive, and arrogant. Either way, it is potent. But the black and white perspective seems to render it blind and self-mythologizing. Me good, not me… bad.

      I spent half a year at a Christian Conference/Retreat Centre in the Austrian Alps a few years back. There were numerous volunteers from all over the world. Poles, Lithuanians, Serbs, Brits, Russians, French, Austrians, Germans, Canadians and many Americans. And a common observation among the non-Americans was that the Americans seemed to have an almost total lack of self-knowledge. There was an extreme unwillingness to look inside and find fault.

      The reason I frequent FPR, is that it is one of the few places in the American political dialogue that boasts individuals who “Know Themselves” and gives an outsider hope that the beloved behemoth that lives next door might, indeed, find itself some humility and fulfill the role that individuals such as David (frequent commenter) believe it is called to.

      But without that humility and self-knowledge it will fail. To the detriment of us all. And I think the humility will only come with the inevitable collapse. After that America may find new life and an even more vital global influence.

      P.S. This new comment format really bites.

  4. I wonder if the idea of self-determination would be a fruitful addition to discussions of secession in an environment where the spread of democratic freedoms across the world is held very highly and is basically intelligible to people.

  5. I still believe that the corruptions are more important than the commonalities. I don’t think we have to worry about what our foundations are because they operate silently and organically even when attacked by cancerous institutions.

    I don’t think we fight tumors by making the liver feel better about itself. We excise the malignancy. There are several key co-operative maladies which we could toss out in a matter of years. The permanent deployment of troops on foreign soil (I don’t mean we have to bring them all home next week, but even if plans were made to pull them all home, even if we didn’t leave places like South Korea completely for 20 years or more. The important thing here is what is set in motion.)

    The repatriation of American corporations. If you are doing business in the US you do it with an American corporation headquartered in America. Again, nothing rash. Think long term (5-10 year processes).

    End corporate person-hood.

    Cripple the Fed. There are several subtle ways of doing this. An audit might be just enough to start with, but more likely it should either be re-designated a for profit corp (and taxed) or it should lot be allowed to issue dividends. The gold standard is probably not workable.

    End usury abuses by substantially extending the ability of consumers, businesses, states and the federal government to declare bankruptcy. This will make credit more expensive and reduce incentives for borrowing, and encourage saving. Making real money and not credit the true and proper lifeline of capitalists.

    Or one could simply outlaw public employee unions and void all contracts.

    Make all public assistance, need-qualified.

    Any one of these would have a catastrophic effect on the others without needing to waste precious resources reforming them. There are other ones, but these are some of my favorites.

    We don’t actually have to worry about those things which are right (at least to start with). And there is a danger of idealism creeping in if we do. Just cut out the disease, as a surgeon (not too bluntly or without care).

  6. Why do people, when citing Tocqueville’s views on American religion, always neglect to mention that the chief characteristic he saw in it was the tendency to pantheism?? Quite different from orthodox Christianity.

  7. “…it is surely true that something in our system is amiss. After two hundred years, our democracy appears beleaguered and in need of revitalization.”

    Prove it.

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