“Make America Great Again,” “A Future to Believe In,” and Competing Philosophies of American History

"We have a great history. The best history ever. It's really special. I'm going to build a wall around our history so that angry liberal historians won't destroy it. I'm about winning, and the history of my presidency will be summarized in one word. 'WINNER'."

“We have a great history. The best history ever. It’s really special. I’m going to build a wall around our history so that angry liberal historians won’t destroy it. I’m about winning, and the history of my presidency will be summarized in one word. ‘WINNER’.”

The current U.S. election has been a consistent stream of embarrassing statements, extremist rhetoric, radical political stances, glaring hypocrisies, and nonstop media coverage that in many cases comes off as an uncritical infomercial for Hilary Clinton and/or Donald Trump, the presumptive Presidential nominees of the Democrat and Republican Parties. I rarely discuss contemporary politics on this website and I don’t want to wade too deeply into those depths with this post.

One theme from this election that interests me, however, is the degree to which political change from the status quo is necessary to ensure future prosperity for the United States. Bernie Sanders and Trump maintain two remarkably contrasting political platforms, but they’re also the two loudest advocates for a political revolution that completely dismantles the vaguely-defined Washington “establishment” and puts a totally new order of governance into place. Meanwhile other candidates like Clinton and the now-departed John Kasich often speak in more moderate terms about incremental change, compromise, and the toning down of heated rhetoric.

Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” has clearly resonated with a good number of Americans who, for various reasons, feel like they are falling behind economically while also watching their moral values and ways of life being destroyed in a twenty-first century culture war. The slogan offers itself as a great title for a manifesto in support of a conservative revolution. But what, exactly, does it mean when we call for America to become great again? Are we not great now? What greatness are we trying to recover? Who are we trying to take the country back from? When in American history was this country ever truly great for all? What does “Make America Great Again” say about how we view the whole of U.S. history?

In his 2015 publication Fighting Over the Founders: How We Remember the American Revolution, historian Andrew M. Schocket argues that the memory of the American Revolution and the development of U.S. history holds inherent “political and cultural implications” for how we view the world today. In sum, how we view the origins of the country’s founding can say a lot about how we view the role of politics and government in our lives today. Schocket distinguishes between those who view the American Revolution from an “essentialist” viewpoint and those who view it from an “organicist” viewpoint.

The essentialists argue that American history has only one discernible meaning that offers us clear lessons for navigating the contemporary world, and that any other interpretation or act of “historical revisionism” that diverts from the clear, God-ordained version of American history is flawed. This version of history emphasizes the importance of “private property, capitalism, traditional gender roles, and Protestant Christianity,” according to Schocket, and it views the U.S. Constitution as a perfect or near-perfect document that promotes freedom and liberty for all. The essentialists also assume that our contemporary U.S. government has strayed from its glorious founding ideals, and that the great future struggle of American society lies in restoring our political life to one that sits in harmony with the constitutional order that existed during the nation’s founding and early formation, which is the greatest, most free era in our history. The essentialist vision is all about making American great again.

The “organicist,” version of American history differs from the essentialist one in several ways. The organicists argue that there is no single, fully accurate version of American history that can be learned without interpreting the facts of the past. They believe that there are many ways to interpret this history and that appreciating the various interpretations people form about the past allows for a more holistic and accurate understanding of American history. For example, Schocket explains that “you might insist that white Virginians revolted primarily because they wanted to keep their slaves, and I might insist that white Virginians revolted primarily because they resented British governance, and we could both have a legitimate claim to be debated.” The organicists also refrain from glorifying the American Revolution and the nation’s early years too much, instead stressing the contrast between the ideals of the founders and the sometimes destructive policies they implemented in practice. The great future struggle of American society for the organicists isn’t so much about returning the country’s government to a state of perfect alignment with its glorious past (which in their minds is a contested belief subject to debate) as much as it’s about improving upon that past by achieving the ideals of freedom, liberty, and equality through good governmental practices in the present. The organicist vision is perhaps best articulated through Sanders’ campaign slogan, “A Future to Believe In.” (It bears repeating, however, that the Sanders campaign platform of a “political revolution” to accomplish these ideals is contested, and I doubt all organicist-minded thinkers would agree with the necessity of such a revolution).

I suspect that most Americans fall somewhere in between the essentialist-organicist spectrum. I don’t believe the constitution or American history as a whole can be understood through one uniform narrative devoid of interpretation, and my training as a historian stresses the importance of understanding multiple perspectives and interpreting history through both primary and secondary sources. I also tend to agree with Ulysses S. Grant when he wrote (more or less) that it’s impossible for a contemporary society to solely live by the rules set by people hundreds of years ago. In these regards I find myself aligned more with the organicist interpretation. I can embrace some essentialist philosophies, such as the belief that the nation’s constitution and republican form of government have promoted freedom and liberty for many Americans, but I would argue that the challenge of enhancing everyone’s freedoms is a never-ending project that requires constant debate and discussion about the best path forward. There will never be a point when we wave a “Mission Accomplished” banner once we’ve successfully implemented a perfect form of Republican governance throughout the United States. Moreover, asking an essentialist-type question like “What would Jefferson do?” is not very useful. Instead, we should follow the lead of historian David Sehat and ask, “What is the common good today?”

Cheers

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5 responses

  1. The Make _____ Great isn’t anything new or revolutionary. Neither is the rhetoric of political and economic reforms from the Sanders campaign. However Liberal Nationalism, Positivist Civil Society produced modern Britain…Romantic Nationalism produced the French revolutions, the 1848 revolutions, and the nationalist regimes of the Germany and Italy in the 20th century…either way I appreciate your article very much. Its important that Americans understand discourse analysis in their history and just the principles of historiography in general, specially the American Exceptionalism were seeing today.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Kyle. I agree that what we’re seeing from the Trump and Sanders campaigns isn’t new or revolutionary.

      1. Not to those who’ve studied Global History, Political Economy, or Discourse Analysis. However to the average American with a HSD or even a 4 year degree the history they we’re exposed to as students was largely American/Westernized and singular in that it only taught Liberal Nationalism and Free Market Capitalism as why the West is so great and the rest of the planet whether the Middle East, Latin America, Africa, The USSR, China are such terrible, un-American places aka the Doctrine of American Exceptionalism

  2. I was re-reading Thad Stevens Dec. 18, 1865 Reconstruction Speech and thought it had some interesting thoughts:

    Demogogues of all parties, even some high in authority, gravely shout, “This is the white man’s Government.” What is implied by this? That one race of men are to have the exclusive right forever to rule this nation, and to exercise all acts of sovereignty, while all other races and nations and colors are to be their subjects, and have no voice in making the laws and choosing the rulers by whom they are to be governed. Wherein does this differ from slavery except in degree? Does not this contradict all the distinctive principles of the Declaration of Independence? When the great and good men promulgated that instrument, and pledged their lives and sacred honors to defend it, it was supposed to form an epoch in civil government. Before that time it was held that the right to rule was vested in families, dynasties, or races, not because of superior intelligence or virtue, but because of a divine right to enjoy exclusive privileges.

    1. Well-stated. That’s a great speech right there.

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