Knowledge of history is a tool for democracy. It contains great lessons, both positive and negative, on how best to proceed in making a just and democratic society. It provides standards, models, values, and examples of resistance to deploy against those who would subjugate, manipulate, and insult the populace. It bequeaths rich legacies of sense of change, alternative, and agency, antidotes to the “shit happens” fatalism that
modern masters of power seeks to spread among the people. Current authoritarian structures of power and inequality, history reminds us, are not fixed in stone or reflective of the inexorable laws of the universe. They are contingent and transient things, the products of forces, events, political alignments, and choices that can be reversed, countered, or otherwise transformed by creative, democratic and collective human intervention. At the same time, history is full of facts, standards, values, models, and principles that embarrass contemporary authorities, bosses, and other supposed “elites.”
The Revolutionary Past Vs. The Totalitarian Present
Take, for example, the Declaration of Independence, whose 227th birthday America just celebrated, the United States Constitution, and the vision of America’s Founding Fathers. The Declaration “introduced,” as Howard Zinn has noted, “the idea of democracy into modern government.” It did this by granting “the people” the right to “alter or abolish” a government that becomes “destructive” of their shared and equal rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and proclaiming the belief that governments
“derive their just powers from the consent of the governed” (1).
that revolutionary ideal, the United States Constitution required the
federal government, representing “We the People of the United States,” to
work to “establish justice,” “promote the general welfare,” “provide for the
common defense,” and “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our
posterity.” It also, of course, codified charter liberties and principles -
freedom of speech, separation of church and state, freedom from illegal
search and seizure, the right to a jury trial, etc. – that are justly
cherished and honored at home and abroad.
It’s pretty hard to square these principles, pledges, and ideals with the
readily observable actions and strategies of the current White House and its
allies within and beyond government. These actions and strategies include
the cynical manipulation of public opinion to:
* advance massive tax-cuts for the super-wealthy (in what is already
the industrial world’s most unequal and wealth-top-heavy society).
* starve social programs and services and even homeland security
while feeding a military machine and an imperial campaign that increases the
likelihood of future terrorist attacks on Americans and transfers billions
of dollars to the already outrageously wealthy “defense” corporations.
* rollback domestic civil liberties and civil rights (e.g., Patriot
Acts I and II and the White House assault on affirmative action).
* fight illegal, unnecessary, and dangerous wars cynically sold to
the populace on thoroughly false premises (the blatantly manufactured
pseudo-threat posed by Iraq), resulting in lucrative new contracts and
awards to gigantic corporate multinationals like Bechtel, Chevron, and
Haliburton, all with strong and intimate personal, institutional and
financial linkages to the current CEO-dominated White House and its
plutocratic allies in government.
Contrary to the 1776 ideal of governance on the basis of popular consent,
the recent US war on Iraq was launched on the basis of sheer deception. The
masters of American policy and opinion manufactured the consent they needed
to conduct their terrible operation by inventing imaginary threats: Iraq’s
supposed “weapons of mass destruction,” “suicidal” leadership, and link to
Islamic terror networks.
The consequences of all this for the “general welfare” include dramatic
increases in inequality, economic insecurity, poverty, crime, depression,
domestic violence, substance abuse and general chaos among a rising and
significant share of the nation’s population. That population includes a
remarkable 2 million Americans who spend their days and nights behind bars
in the “world’s leading democracy,” which curiously happens to be the
world’s leading incarceration state. There is a growing fiscal crisis of
state and local government – not great enough, however, to close down the
prisons – and rising violence and incivility in American life, reinforced by
the White House’s legitimation of brute force as the “solution” to social
and political problems abroad.
Accurately sensing that they lack the financial resources to meaningfully
shape policy and opinion in a corporate-plutocratic political and
ideological system, America’s fragmented, exhausted, terrorized,
commercially carpet-bombed, and relentlessly privatized population turns
away from politics and public affairs to a remarkable degree. It is in
danger of becoming an ex-citizenry, taking the risk once and all out of
democracy and permitting the policymakers and their super-wealthy patrons
and allies to rule with animalistic impunity. Its tendency towards public
retreat and disinterest is fed by an objectively totalitarian
corporate-state media, which banalizes deception, and mass manufactures
despair and idiocy. That media subjects the populace to a unremitting
onslaught of commercial and falsely “popular”-cultural messages advancing
the authoritarian notion that the only solutions to social and political
problems are found in the private sphere and the realm of commodity
The Founders in the Left Opposition
We can be quite sure that the chief father of the Declaration of
Independence (Jefferson) and the leading father of the Constitution (Madison
) would join the left opposition to all of this if they were alive today. It
is quite remarkable, in fact, to note the significant extent to which the
current crisis of American democracy was envisaged and warned against by
leading founders Jefferson and Madison. Listen, for example to Madison’s
almost eerie observation and warning that “the fetters imposed on liberty at
home have ever been forged out of the weapons provided for defense against
real, pretended, or imaginary dangers from abroad” (2). Consider also
Madison’s statement that “a popular government without popular information
or the means to acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or to a tragedy,
or perhaps to both” (3). Or Jefferson’s comment to Edward Carrington from
Paris: “if once the people become inattentive to the public affairs, you and
I and Congress and Assemblies and Judges shall all become wolves” (4),
pillaging with public purse with selfish impunity.
We might also note the Founders’ widely shared sense that a society of
employers and employees could never function in a way consistent with
principles of popular government. “Free men,” they were sure, largely on the
basis of the nation’s founding republican ideology, did not rent themselves
out to others except on a distinctly temporary basis. Permanent wage- and
salary-dependents, they felt, could never provide the basis for an
intelligent, engaged, or free citizenry. This was an idea that stayed with
many Americans well into the 19th century and beyond. It richly informed the
development of the early labor movement and the core founding ideology of
the anti-slavery Republican Party (5). It holds no small relevance today,
when the predominantly wage and salary-dependent working-age population of
the US is so badly overworked that it lacks the time to engage meaningfully
in democratic self-activity.
As Noam Chomsky has reminded us more than once, Jefferson warned quite
explicitly and stridently against what he called the “insidious power” of
the “banking institutions and money incorporations.” If these selfish
interests of concentrated private power were not curbed, Jefferson knew
quite well, they would become “a form of absolutism that would destroy the
promise of the democratic revolution.” Jefferson shared with Aristotle the
belief that “widespread poverty and concentrated wealth cannot exist side by
side in a democracy.”
Observing the class- and wealth-polarizing rise of early industrial
capitalism, Jefferson in his later years made a portentous distinction
between “aristocrats” and “democrats” within the American republic.
Jefferson’s “aristocrats,” were “those who fear and distrust the people, and
wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes.” The
“democrats,” were those who “identify with the people, have confidence in
them, cherish and consider them as honest and safe.” Jefferson’s
“aristocrats,” Chomsky notes, “were the advocates of the rising capitalist
state,” which “Jefferson observed with rising dismay, recognizing the
obvious contradiction between democracy and capitalism – or more accurately,
really-existing capitalism, linked closely to state power.” The emergent
class distinctions and organized capitalist power he witnessed in the early
19th century reminded Jefferson of the “rotten” aristocracy-dominated Old
World he toured and chronicled with disdain in the 1780s (6).
Even Madison, who advocated a government that would “protect the minority of
the opulent against the majority,” came to recognize and worry quite early
and seriously about the capitalist takeover of policy and opinion. Already,
by the 1790s, he was denouncing the “daring depravity of the times” as “the
rising class of business people become ‘the tools and tyrants’ of
government, overwhelming it with their force and benefiting from its gifts.”
When Madison “saw that the minority of the opulent are not nice gentlemanly
aristocrats or Enlightenment philosophers who are going to make sure
everyone is healthy and happy,” Chomsky wryly observes, “he was outraged and
infuriated,” concerned for the fate of the republic (7).
It’s true that the nation’s Founders thought “the people who own the country
should run it,” as John Jay used to say. But none of them, not even the
aggressively state-capitalist Hamilton, though that those people should run
the country into the ground by turning “popular government” into an
accounts-receivable machine for private profit and a mechanism for deepening
the chasm between the rich and the rest of the population. This is because
the Founders were pre-capitalist, imbued with an aristocratic spirit of
noblesse oblige – a sense of their duty to maintain the stability and
integrity of the broader societal whole, albeit in a way that sustained
their own already remarkable but for them sufficient wealth and privilege.
There was for them more to life and society than the endless pursuit of
individual wealth and advantage. At the same time, they were also
participants in an age of democratic revolution, acutely conscious of the
need to mobilize popular energies, albeit carefully, without antagonizing
the masses into revolution of truly radical variety (8). This is why they
stand as a rebuke to what passes for modern statecraft and freedom in the
US, dedicated to selfish corporate-cronysim, naked capitalist self-interest,
shameless pecuniary advantage, and the relentless manipulation and
de-mobilization of the populace.
A Curious Panel of Experts
How disturbing, then, to witness the sorry performance of four American
“historians” assembled on July 4th by the Public Broadcasting System’s
prime-time news hour to discuss what America’s Founders “would think of us
as a people and some of the contemporary things that are happening to us as
a country?” It’s a good question, for reasons just discussed, full of
significance for justice and democracy at home and abroad. Unfortunately,
the assembled historians dropped the founders’ ball in a narrow prime-time
discussion that omitted all the rich tension between America’s original
revolutionary ideals and present corporate-plutocratic reality (9).
According to panelist Walter Isaacson, Ben Franklin would have approved of
the Supreme Court’s recent affirmative action decision (a monument to
Franklin-esque “common-sense” in Isaacson’s view). Franklin would also,
Isaacson feels, like “the notion that America stands for tolerance and
religious tolerance,” and hate “the divisiveness and partisanship you see
today.” We are left to wonder how a founder who hated “divisiveness” was
able to embrace a revolutionary independence movement that inevitably led to
significant violence within the colonies. Isaacson, by way, is the former
head of CNN, and happens to have written a book in his spare time about Ben
Franklin. He’s not an historian, but he plays one on tv.
According to a second PBS expert, Joseph Ellis of Mt. Holyoke College, an
actual historian, Jefferson “would say we have to begin this new Iraq
republic with the principle of separation of church and state” (the Shiite
majority of “liberated” Iraq may want to debate that point). Jefferson can
be cited against the recent Supreme Court decision, Ellis added, since “the
Declaration does root rights in individuals and very little to say about
government powers to redistribute those rights.” At the same time, the
Declaration contains a “mandate towards equality” that would support the
decision. Actually, the Declaration does not distinguish between the rights
of individuals and the rights of a people and the Supreme Court decision
unfortunately upheld affirmative action in the name of “diversity,” not
equality. Mainly, Ellis begged off the question regarding Jefferson,
claiming that we’d have to “brief him on the last 180 years of American
history and so it’s tough to know what he’d say.” Actually, though, the
Declaration’s author wrote quite clearly about the subversion of the
Revolution by related tendencies of wealth concentration and incorporation
that he observed in his own day and which hold central relevance to
contemporary American history.
A third panelist, UCLA historian Joyce Appleby, avoided the nature of
American society altogether by focusing on external developments. “I think
the founders would be impressed by the fact that democracy is spreading in
the world,” said Appleby, claiming that “there are 112 democracies in the
world today. I think,” Appleby concluded, “that would be extremely
gratifying because they would feel that their revolution had been the
beginning of an entirely new future for humankind.” But many if not most of
these 112 nations (a count generated by the right-wing think-tank “Freedom
House”) are democracies in name only. The real term for the prevailing
political system in many of them is “polyarchy,” a US-favored “system in
which a small group actually rules and mass participation in decision making
is confined to leadership choice carefully managed by competing elites. The
polyarchic concept of democracy,” notes sociologist William I. Robinson, “is
an effective arrangement for legitimating and sustaining inequalities within
and between nations (deepening in a global economy) far more effectively
than authoritarian solutions” (10). Under the watered down system of
“democracy” promoted by the US, Chomsky notes, the big decisions belong to
“leading sectors of the business community and related elites.” The “public
are to be only ‘spectators of action,’ not ‘participants’ …They are
permitted to ratify the decisions of their betters and to lend their support
to one or another of them, but not to interfere with matters – like public
policy – that are none of their business. If segments of the public depart
from their apathy and begin to organize and enter the public arena, that’s
not democracy. Rather it’s a crisis of democracy in proper technical usage,
a threat that has to be overcome in one or another way: in El Salvador, by
death squads – at home by more subtle and indirect means” (11). When
elections are considered incompatible with US interests, as in Vietnam
during the 1950s, Chile in the 1970s, or Iraq today, to give just three of
many possible examples, Uncle Sam is sure to prefer dictatorship to
To make matters worse, the spread of democracy throughout the world state
system is deeply qualified by American militarism and the related spread of
the world capitalist economic system, which operates on profoundly
anti-democratic grounds. This latter expansion “was never,” Edward S. Herman
has noted, “a democratic choice by the peoples of the world.” It is, Herman
observes, “business driven, by business strategies and tactics, for business
ends.” Top on the list of the relevant “business ends” is the weakening of
popular sovereignty. Capital seeks through globalization to evade, subvert,
and preclude popular and governmental regulation and to roll back labor
power. Whatever the intentions, “there is a global pool of capital that
floats around from country to country every day. It amounts,” as the chief
economist at a leading global securities firm told Chicago Tribune reporter
William Neikirk in 1997, “to a national daily referendum on government
policies. It will discipline even the biggest countries and force them in a
conservative direction” (12).
We heard nothing about what Jefferson or Madison or Franklin would think of
contemporary America from PBS’s fourth historical “expert” – Richard
Brookhiser. No great loss there: Brookhiser is a senior editor at the
far-right National Review, and therefore incapable of acknowledging the core
conflicts between capitalism and democracy that worried Jefferson.
Too bad PBS viewers didn’t get to hear from the prolific radical-democratic
historian Howard Zinn. Who better to interest the television audience than
Zinn, a very popular lecturer whose People’s History of the United States
recently sold its millionth copy and who has written a marvelous collection
of essays (Declarations of Independence: Cross-Examining American Ideology
[New York, NY: HarperPerennial, 1990)] linking Jefferson’s vision to a
critical analysis of contemporary US society? Since PBS felt the need to
include panel space for historically inclined non-historians, moreover, it
should also have sought out Chomsky, who happens to be the world’s leading
intellectual and has written at length on the founders’ vision and on
contemporary US policy and society.
In Zinn and/or Chomsky’s hands, the founders’ historical football would not
have been so egregiously dropped. It would have been caught and carried into
the end zone, scoring a touchdown for American democracy and “public” media.
But then, that is exactly why they weren’t invited. Let’s be honest about
America’s not-so “public” broadcasting network, which views a retired
executive from the corporate media and an ideologue from the National Review
as better sources on the founders’ vision of contemporary America than
Howard Zinn. Their pathetic July 4th panel is just another reminder that PBS
is captive to the same concentrated private interests that rule American
society in ways that Jefferson and Madison worried about and warned against.
Paul Street ( email@example.com
an urban social policy researcher in Chicago, Illinois.
1. Howard Zinn, Declarations of Independence: Cross-Examining American
Ideology (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1990), p. 296.
2. James Madison, “Political Reflections,” February 23, 1799, quoted in John
Samples, “James Madison’s Vision of Liberty,” CATO Policy Report
(March/April, 2001), p. 12, available online at
3. Quoted in Robert W. McChesney, Corporate Media and the Threat to
Democracy (New York, NY, 1997), p. 6.
4. Richard Hofstader, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made
It (New York, NY: Vintage, 1967, reprint of 1948 edition), p.33.
5. Hofstader, Ibid, pp. 16-20, 39-40, 131-136; Eric Foner, Free Soil. Free
Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War
(New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1970); David Montgomery, Citizen
Worker (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1993); Norman Ware, The
Industrial Worker, 1840-1860 (Chicago: Ivan Dee, 1990, repring of 1924
edition); Paul Krausse, The Battle for Homestead, 1880-1892 (Pittsburgh,
1992); Noam Chomsky, Power and Prospects: Reflections on Human Nature and
the Social Order (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1996), pp. 85-89.
6. Chomsky, Power and Prospects, pp. 72, 87, 8-89; Hofstader, Ibid., p. 27.
7. Chomsky, Power and Prospects, pp. 118-119; Noam Chomsky, Class Warfare
(Moarne, Maine: Common Courage, 1996), pp. 123-124.
8. Chomsky, Class Warfare, 123-124; Zinn, A People’s History, pp.73-74.
9. The full discussion is transcribed and available online. See “The
Founders’ Vision,” Online NewsHour (July 4, 2003), available online at
10. William T. Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy – Globalization, US
Intervention and Hegemony, Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 385.
11. Chomsky, What Uncle Sam Really Wants (Berkely, CA: Odonian Press, 1992).
12. Herman and the global securities economist are quoted in Street,
“Capitalism and Democracy ‘Don’t Mix Very Well’: Reflections on
Globalization,” Z Magazine (February 2000): 20-24.