“To know our heritage takes us far toward improving our knowledge of ourselves. And to know ourselves is indispensable if we are to act with understanding and realism in the shaping of our future.”
Acclaimed Columbia historian Richard Hofstadter offered that perspective when I was privileged to study with him during the 1950s.
He later wrote a book that has continuing admonitory relevance for today’s politics: “The Paranoid Style of American Politics.”
This is a dilemma that has occurred in our history. Is it worse now?
Paranoid people are defined as having “an irrational and obsessive distrust of others.” When elected officials and their followers manifest such tendencies, how likely is it that they will “know our heritage” and act on essential American values?
In 1984 George Orwell warned that people in power can use “newspeak” to convey a false message, so that a “Ministry of Truth” in reality is a “Ministry of Lies.” Orwell also shows how paranoid political operatives build support using a “week of hate,” reinforced by daily “two-minutes of hate.”
Orwell wrote before the advent of daily tweets. Are these modern mechanisms serving the undemocratic purposes so powerfully illustrated earlier in one of the most disturbing books ever written about assaults on human freedom?
This is a worst-case scenario, but it has many folks thinking that the 2018 elections are the most consequential off-presidential year contests of their lives.
What are the prospects that a threshold of Americans can find common ground regarding our heritage?
Another great Columbia historian has addressed this key query, both in terms of our past and continuing challenges.
Henry Steele Commager poses both the obstacles for American unity and prospects for achievements as well. He emphasizes the driving forces of essential U.S. values.
Like other top analysts, Commager finds his major reference point with the establishment of the United States in 1776 – and then he advances the themes into our times.
On the challenges front, Commager emphasizes that Americans from the nation’s 1776 founding have dealt with 1. physical size of the country; 2. a large population; and 3. dramatic diversity of ethnicities and religions.
All three variables make unity and shared “heritage” an ongoing journey. In 1776, the new United States was already physically larger than many European nations. Indeed, England then would have fit inside of Pennsylvania.
Now, France would fit inside of Oregon and Italy inside of California.
As early as 1776 the new U.S. population was booming ahead of growth in England and Europe. Now, with more than 320 million people, the U.S. is the third most populous nation in the world, with as many people as the entire European Union.
Before the American Revolution, the British were properly concerned about the large numbers and percentages of settlers who came from nations other than England. Now, Queens County New York is the most diverse place in the world with more than 160 different nationality groups.
So Commager asked: How can any nation achieve unity and a shared heritage when it is so physically huge, so numerous and so diverse? Can there be a glue to draw people together in such a context?
Here is where Commager highlights the unique founding principles of the American Revolution. They were often works in progress, but as Lincoln said they were “beacons” constantly summoning Americans to higher standards of freedom, democracy and equality.
How many 2018 voters can summon those essential principles (of true American “exceptionalism”) and keep them alive?
In 1776, Thomas Paine wrote: “We have it in our power to begin the world anew.”
He emphasized that in the Old World the King was the law, “but in America the law was King.”
Princeton scholar R. R. Palmer concluded that never in history had “the people been elevated as the constituent power as they were in the new United States.” Leaders like Jefferson, Franklin, Lincoln and others recognized that “people” would need to be redefined to include women, men without property and people of color.
But the principle that power comes from the many, not the few set a key standard. Critically important were the commitments to individual liberties (the Bill of Rights) and a justice system and educational practices that fostered equality.
Many Americans celebrated a “contagion of liberty.”
Global analysts recognized that critical differences existed in the new U.S. than any other nation in the history of the world. Frenchman Tocqueville proposed that his stirring book be called “Equality in America.”
Commager celebrated the U.S. as a “protest nation” that could keep striving to fulfill founding principles of democracy and human rights. Indeed, that confidence was a key bond between the historian and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
On April 4, 1967, the two men were key speakers at New York’s Riverside Church where they were joined by freedom-riding rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
King epitomized key heritage views when he frequently spoke of his “dream,” always emphasizing: “My dream is deeply rooted in the American Dream.”
These leaders – and others – called on Americans to tap their personal sense of goodness and strive to implement the nation’s noblest principles.
In this election season, how many voters will tap our heritage of inclusion, fairness, informed judgment and human rights – our continuing beacon for the rest of the world?