In an age of political polarization, Jill Lepore reminds us, in her latest release These Truths: A History of the United States, that there has never been an age without political polarization. The faintest familiarity with United States history should convince you that political conflict has deep roots.
Some examples: the revolutionaries and loyalists fought vigorously over the issue of independence during the Revolutionary War; the Federalists and Anti-Federalists fought over federal versus state rights; the Mexican-American War was vigorously defended and opposed, as was the Indian removal policy, during the presidency of Andrew Jackson; proslavery and antislavery advocates fought intensely over whether new states should be admitted as free states or slave states; business has battled against labor since the 19th century; and the equality of races and sexes was vehemently defended and opposed for virtually all of US history.
Further, congressional violence was common throughout the 1800s, as when John Wilson stabbed Representative J. J. Anthony to death during a dispute about the administration of bounties for the killing of wolves. In 1865, Charles Sumner, a prominent abolitionist, was attacked and almost killed with a walking cane by Representative Preston Brooks for criticizing slaveholders. For this act of violence Brooks was praised by many and then later reelected. Political duels were also common, as when Aaron Burr shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in 1804.
The mass manipulation of voters is also as old as newspapers themselves, which have always been in the business of supporting candidates and causes. Radio and television were always used for purposes of propaganda, and advertising agencies were immediately employed for political purposes. In 1945, Harry Truman proposed a universal healthcare bill, only to see the bill killed by a targeted advertising campaign deployed by Campaigns Inc., a political consulting firm, that ran thousands of ads capitalizing on widespread Communist fears. Labeling the bill “socialized medicine” and “a product of Germany,” the agency manipulated the psychology of millions of people with scientific precision, long before Russia interfered with the latest 2016 US presidential election.
The problems we face today are old problems with new technology, but the problems cannot be said to be more barbaric or more violent than the problems of the past. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Even if this progress is frustratingly slow, the conditions of today are far superior for most people compared to almost any point in the past, as horrific act after horrific act is painstakingly documented by Lepore throughout the book.
The United States, like any other nation, has a complex history of conflicting ideas, motivations, events, and institutions, with an equal mixture of well-intentioned and noble ideas along with racist, evil, and destructive ideas. Lepore doesn’t hide the negative aspects of US history, but at the same time doesn’t focus on them exclusively. Lepore notes that the US was founded on the concepts of truth, reason, science, liberty, and equality, and that current and future progress hinges on these truths.
Lepore reminds us that the founders of the United States were scientists and political philosophers before they were politicians. They drafted the first secular constitution the world had ever seen—one which did not mention God or Christianity a single time—and one that mentioned religion only for the purposes of granting religious liberty. Religion is mentioned in the Constitution exactly twice: Article 6 states that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States,” and the First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Thomas Jefferson noted that the three greatest men that ever lived, in his opinion, were Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, and John Locke—a philosopher of science, a physicist, and a political philosopher. Notice that, during an age where everyone believed in God and everyone was Christian, Jefferson didn’t include Jesus or St. Augustine or any religious figure in his list. Likewise, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay were all well-versed in the writings of the scientific revolution and Enlightenment philosophy, including Bacon, Locke, Newton, and Montesquieu, in addition to Plato and Aristotle. (How familiar do you think the current president is with the writings of Aristotle or Montesquieu?)
The founders were creating, in their own words, the “American experiment,” based not on divine rule but rather on experimentation, freedom of speech, press, and religion, and open debate and free discussion based on principles of rationality. This is the essence of democracy as a political experiment; everyone is free to express their views, and differences of opinion are resolved through debates and votes rather than through violence. This is Enlightenment philosophy applied to the founding of a nation.
Of course, the implementation of this ideal was far from perfect. It was not lost on anyone that the author of the Declaration of Independence owned hundreds of slaves. While arguing against the arbitrary power of English rule and stating that all men were created equal, Jefferson simultaneously denied liberty to hundreds of African Americans working his plantation. In fact, four of the first five presidents owned slaves, including George Washington, Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe.
At the same time, Jefferson was ambivalent about slavery and did work to gradually end the slave trade, while others like Benjamin Lay were strident abolitionists even before the Revolutionary War. And so slavery, an obvious stain on the character of the United States, was a complicated issue with people on both sides and sometimes on both sides at the same time.
While the United States has much to be ashamed of in regard to slavery and racism, the founders established the principles that the country could slowly live up to, even if the founders themselves fell short. By establishing a country based on the principles of reason, democracy, freedom, and equality, rather than on religion or divine rule, the founders set up the conditions for continued progress.
But progress, like always, depends on living up to the ideals of reason, free speech, humanism, liberty, and equality, and not backsliding into religiosity, racism, violence, and authoritarianism. And, like always, it also depends on an informed public, able to leverage the power of their own reason without falling victim to the manipulation of mass media or to the echo chambers of their favorite news outlet or internet site.
As citizens of the US, each of us has access to more information than any previous generation, yet in practice most of us consume information from a much narrower range of sources. The remedy to the problem of mass manipulation has always been the same: the development of critical thinking skills within the population, a commitment to reason, intellectual humility, and the toleration of competing viewpoints that can be debated in a civilized manner. Regardless of which technology becomes available, progress forever hinges on our ability to live up to these ideals and these truths.