America’s unthinking majority

US politics is not keen on the theoretical, Alan Ryan discovers

Like many people, I’ve been embarrassed when I’ve taken the online tests that the UK and US governments post for the benefit of anyone applying for citizenship. But I’m embarrassed because I get 100 per cent on the American test and never more than 40 per cent on the British test. This isn’t like newspaper tests of religious knowledge where atheists get the answers right and evangelical Christians get them wrong. It is just that the American test asks simple questions about the Constitution while the British test asks arcane questions about demography and the inner workings of the Department for Work and Pensions.

I discovered the hard way how elusive American ideas about politics really are when I decided to celebrate the fact that I was about to provide my last large lecture course by teaching American Political Thought for the first time in my life to highly educated American students. It is an oddly unpopular subject.

Professors happily teach constitutional interpretation. They take their classes through Supreme Court decisions on slavery and on segregation – the Plessy v Ferguson judgment in 1896 that “separate but equal” provision was constitutional and its reversal in Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, 1954. They discuss cases on the free exercise of religion for semesters on end. American Political Thought? Not so much. “Political thought” in the traditional form of Plato to Nato is taught everywhere, and in many places is a compulsory component of political science degrees. However, across the pond, American political thought induces a sort of embarrassment. A collection of Dita Shklar’s essays was titled Redeeming American Political Thought; you can’t imagine substituting another national label for “American”.

‘Political thought’ in the traditional form of Plato to Nato is taught everywhere, but across the pond American political thought induces a sort of embarrassment

If political theory is a matter of what people have thought about good, bad and indifferent forms of government, you might think it shouldn’t have a national identity, any more than physics does. A course on “American physics” wouldn’t be a physics course but a course on the history or soci-ology of science, just as a course on “American religion” would be a course on the history and sociology of religious practice, not theology. But that isn’t quite right. “French political thought” might be defined only by a string of names, but there would be no problem starting with Bodin (or even Christine de Pizan), taking in Montesquieu and Rousseau, Diderot and Voltaire, Joseph de Maistre, Benjamin Constant, Tocqueville and a host of utopian socialists, embracing Sorel, and ending perhaps with Foucault. It would be a course in political theory with a French focus and style of thinking.

But the ease of listing the names you would encounter on a theoretical Tour de France is part of the source of the embarrassment: there is no similar catalogue of American political thinkers. Perhaps there’s no reason there should be: “happy is the country that has no history”, as the proverb says, and perhaps even happier if it doesn’t waste time discussing legitimacy in general or its own in particular. There was every reason for the short-lived outbreak of high-grade political theorising between 1765 and 1820 associated with the names Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton, but that takes us back to the popularity of constitutional interpretation.

There are deeper reasons. From the beginning, the American view of politics was that of the radicals in the English Civil War. For all Jefferson’s high-flown rhetoric about natural rights, the colonists held old-fashioned English views about the likely wickedness of all holders of monarchical authority; it was British rights they thought they were protecting, and English radicals who did their thinking. Once independence was achieved, the arguments that roiled 19th-century Europe couldn’t gain any purchase. The hereditary principle was excluded by the Constitution; universal suffrage (for free white men) was inevitable; everyone was committed to social mobility (for free white men); religious barriers to political office were illegal. Not until the rise of the robber barons did European socialist ideas get any sort of a hearing in the US, and one of the curious features of that period is the extent to which socialists complained of the loss of the old agrarian America: not the world of a land-owning aristocracy but that of the yeoman farmer.

Slavery nearly undid the 19th-century US and its after-effects afflict us in the 21st. The near-genocide of the original American population should have preoccupied Americans, but didn’t – slavery did. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Lincoln halfway through the American Civil War. But as a topic in political theory, rather than the history of the Supreme Court, slavery suffers from being so utterly indefensible. The way different churches split on the biblical warrant for slavery is deeply interesting historically, but the argument is over. Nonetheless, it isn’t strictly true that nobody put up a secular defence of slavery that is worth reading today: two interesting, neglected and deeply rebarbative thinkers did, but trying to get 21st-century students to take John C. Calhoun or George Fitzhugh seriously is an uphill struggle. Yet the former at least deserves the label of “the Marx of the master class” that Richard Hofstadter applied to him. Arguing in good Marxist fashion – without himself reading Marx – that civilisation depended on extracting the necessary resources from the class who do the productive work, Calhoun thought the only question was whether to have wage slaves as in the industrial North or black slaves as in the South. I can’t say I was surprised that my students were pretty resistant to both these premises and the conclusions he drew from them.

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