America is the greatest nation in the history of the world. Or so the lessons of countless middle school classrooms have convinced billions of people everywhere. At the root of the culture wars’ debates of the last forty years is this core argument. Is the United States exceptional among all human accomplishments, or is it just another tyrant – another empire – limiting the ways people can find peace, prosperity, and stability in their lives? From the conception of Manifest Destiny through the current global War on Terrorism, every major American engagement with the world and its people derives from these disparate perceptions of liberty and representative government. Sadly, these debates nearly always rely on the records and perspectives of the winning political coalitions. It is time to take a different look at the narrative timeline.
The Revolutionary War was fundamentally a debate about the control of property, dressed up in the philosophy of liberty. Should a divine sovereign dictate individual wealth, or should large property holders organize representative legislatures in their interests? George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin prevailed on the field of battle, constructed a temporary federation of states, and ultimately crafted the core of the U.S. Constitution that still guides legal debates today. Less famous, or losing, voices like Pennsylvania’s William Allen, New Jersey’s Colonel Tye, and New York’s David Matthews sided with the principles of negotiation, compromise, and abolition as the most stable foundation for prosperity and growth. These Loyalists either died or fled the newly independent United States after 1781. Yet many of their ideas survived in the philosophy of Federalism as the economic foundation for American liberty. Jefferson’s election in 1800 turned the Congress and Presidency away from these ideas for more than half a century, but the Supreme Court’s preservation of economic Federalism was the foundation of the Republican Party in 1854.
The sudden ascendance of the Republicans came at the direct expense of the anti-Federalist, Democratic Party that protected Jefferson’s legacy. Between 1864 and 1877, the losing Democrats were roundly condemned as traitors for instigating the Civil War. Even over the forty years that followed, the core Jeffersonian idea of a republic of small landholders, dependent on enslaving Africans, retained the stench of treason. Only with the election of Woodrow Wilson did some fundamental, national compromise take hold.
The reintroduction of the Democratic Party to national power marginalized the Republicans for more than 50 years. At the base of the nation’s rejection of Republican elitism was the failure to mobilize government to minimize the damage of the Great Depression. Where Democrats like Stephen Douglas and Andrew Johnson earned the scorn of the American public in the nineteenth century, losers like Herbert Hoover and Warren Harding remained albatrosses around the neck of the Republicans for most of the twentieth century. The irony of the Democrats adopting the aggressive use of the federal government (betraying its founding principles for many) fractured Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition and created an unthinkable political reality – a Republican Party based in the southern United States by 1968.
The geographic reorientation of the Republican Party created tensions between traditional Jeffersonians in the South and wealthy establishment bankers in the Northeast, but the contentious coalition persevered long enough to thoroughly undermine the emerging liberal coalition in American cities between 1981 and 2009. The rise of Ronald Reagan and Rudolph Giuliani came with the explicit losses of Shirley Chisholm and Ralph Nader. The American public shunned the ability of government to resolve longstanding, divisive, social and economic conflicts around gender, class, sexuality, and race. In the vacuum created by the constriction of government services, global conglomerates provided unparalleled low-cost consumer entertainment through cable television and the Internet.
Over the last year, leaders and innovators across every sector of education have noted the ebbs and flows of political fashion. Now is the time to take this accumulated knowledge from both the winners and the losers. It is time to build a range of inclusive institutions that reconcile these traditions for the good of every family and community. Norristown is an ideal place to start.
Dr. Walter Greason is available on LinkedIn, Twitter (@worldprofessor1/@icmgrowth), Facebook, and by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).