On his death bed, George Washington was extremely preoccupied with thoughts that the American experiment might not long outlast him. He wrote to James McHenry a few weeks before he died, “I have, for some time past, viewed the political concerns of the United States with an anxious, and painful eye. They appear to me, to be moving by hasty strides to some awful crisis; but in what they will result – that Being, who sees, foresees, and directs all things, alone can tell.”
Washington was not alone. Five months before he was killed by Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton stated, “every day shews more and more the much regretted tendency of Governments intirely popular to dissolution and disorder.”
John Adams was never very sanguine about the prospects for the new American republic, famously stating in a letter to John Taylor in 1814, “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” For the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence he wrote that the first fifty years of America was “a memorable epoch in the annals of the human race, to form the brightest or blackest page…”
Adams died on that Fourth of July, the same day as Thomas Jefferson. Prior to his death, Jefferson had written to Clairborne Gooch, coeditor of the Richmond Enquirer, lamenting “the evils which the present lowering aspect of our political horizon so ominously portend.” But it was not just at the end of his life that Jefferson doubted the viability of the Republic. In 1798, before his presidency, he wrote the Kentucky Resolution asserting states’ rights and the ability of states to nullify federal law. And during his presidency there were rumors of a Northern secession after the Louisiana Purchase which the Northerners felt would create an avalanche of agricultural, slave-holding states, to the disadvantage of the financially and commercially oriented Northern states.
And what was the cause of all this apprehension among the Founders? Faction! The Framers of the Constitution envisioned a republic led by morally upright, publicly spirited men. A prime example would be Benjamin Franklin who sold his valuable printing business in order to be a disinterested public servant (at that time disinterest meant unbiased by the private or special interests that are so common today). But factions were already forming even before the document was signed, between Hamilton and his Federalist supporters and Jefferson and his supporters (called at the time Republicans but were eventually to become the Democratic Party). Federalist Hamilton and Republican Madison collaborated in writing the Federalist Papers (prior to there actually being Federalists and Republicans) to encourage the adoption of the US Constitution but fell out soon afterward on how to actually implement that Constitution. The presidential campaigns of 1796 and 1800 were among the most malicious and rancorous in our history, even compared to 2016 and 2020. Newspapers were nothing more than propaganda mills spreading innuendo and outright lies about their opponents. Votes were bought with whiskey and the promise of government jobs.
Based on their own letters and speeches, Syracuse University professor Dennis Rasmussen described these concerns of the Founders in his recent book, Fears of a Setting Sun, The Disillusionment of America’s Founders.
But the issues of 1800 would strike a chord with us in today’s political climate. Despite the fight for independence from Great Britain, many of the Founders favored a government similar to that of England’s. While the king appointed royal governors, most of the colonies had elected assemblies and much of daily life was managed locally by the counties, townships and local courts giving the colonists a taste of the self-governance enjoyed by Englishmen. The American Revolution was not so much a rejection of the British form of government, but a reaction to not being included in it (“no taxation without representation”). Many founders, including Washington and especially Hamilton, favored this form of government, eventually becoming known as Federalists.
The French Revolution was a complete rejection of the ancien regime making a clean break from the aristocratic structure of that society. Many Founders, including Jefferson and Madison, supported France’s revolutionary efforts. As Jefferson said, “I hold that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing.” These Founders felt that the Federalists were actually monarchists and fought against the increasing power of the executive branch of government.
I was struck by the similarities between those early days of the Republic and our current situation. The anglophile Federalist monarchists are analogous to our current conservative movement and the Francophile Jeffersonian Republican revolutionaries are analogous to the current progressive movement. Each side believes the other to be devoted to the destruction of America as we know it. They believe that other side is not made up of fellow citizens, but enemies that must be fought at any cost.
Obviously, each side sees a different America and have been battling each other to shape the future of America into their particular vision. But against all odds and the Founders premonitions, America has held together for over two hundred years. There must be something else in our makeup that has helped us to survive for so long. Not only survived but flourished despite many adversities. This fact makes me optimistic that America will also survive our current turbulent era. Cautiously optimistic. But cautious optimism is better than despair.
So, Americans have been going after each other for over two hundred years and, apparently, for much the same reasons. Hoover Institution Rose and Milton Friedman Senior Fellow on Public Policy, Thomas Sowell wrote in his book, A Conflict of Visions, Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, that the world can be divided between two mega-groups that have two very different views of humanity.
One view of humanity Sowell calls the constrained view. The constrained view sees human beings as flawed, a moral creature but with moral lapses, driven as much by self-interest as the common good as described by Adam Smith in his book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. But as described by Smith almost twenty years later in his book The Wealth of Nations, the common good can be served by people acting in their own self-interest. The impact of moral choices will be limited by the flawed nature of human beings and will have consequences at least partially derived from that flawed nature. So, government must be limited and kept in check to forestall the accumulation of power subject to the flawed nature of humanity.
The other view of humanity Sowell called the unconstrained view. Citing William Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (the eighteenth-century version of social justice), the unconstrained view sees human beings as capable of understanding that working toward the common good is the “essence of virtue,” and that humans can overcome their moral lapses and put aside self-interest. This concept was echoed by Karl Marx who foresaw humans becoming “communist man” as he described in the Communist Manifesto. The unconstrained view requires a powerful government run by virtuous leaders to assure social justice.
Like Professor Rasmussen’s description of the different visions of America’s Founders, Sowell’s analysis of a conflict of visions is an apt description of what is occurring in America in the twenty-first century even though he wrote his book in 1987. Furthermore, Professor Sowell begins his discussion of the constrained and unconstrained visions by comparing the Enlightenment philosophy emanating from Great Britain in the writings of John Locke, Adam Smith and Edmund Burke that gave rise to British parliamentarian democracy and the American Revolution with the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Marquis de Condorcet and William Godwin that inspired the French Revolution.
These two visions have battled for the soul of Western civilization for almost three centuries and, in America, have been exemplified by the Anglophile Hamilton and the Francophile Jefferson and their ideological descendants. I suspect that these two visions are more than mere ideological differences. Jonathan Haidt indicated as much in his book, The Righteous Mind, Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, where he observes that surveys he conducted indicate that progressives (who he calls liberals) have different moral axes than conservatives and that these axes underly the ideologies of these groups. But these moral axes may be more deeply ingrained than a morality brought about through upbringing and education.
Daniel Kahneman wrote in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, that the human mind has two principal aspects, the quick reacting instinctual brain that we share (more or less) with other animals and the slow, thoughtful brain of the frontal cortex that is pretty unique to us. But Kahneman pointed out that the thoughtful, rational brain is only occasionally in control and that most of the time people are acting on instinct. Because the morality conceived of by millennia of philosophers and religious leaders doesn’t control most of the daily activities of humans, our hierarchical and egalitarian tendencies may lie buried deep in our instinctual brain.
And that instinctual brain is the product of millions of years of evolution. Richard Wrangham wrote in his book, The Goodness Paradox, The Strange Relationship between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution, that this struggle between visions may have existed as far back as our prehistoric ancestors. According to Wrangham, the egalitarian hunter/gatherers of our past did not just happen but were the result of a titanic struggle over many millennia between hierarchical tendencies and egalitarian tendencies that parallel the visions described by Dr. Sowell. Stanford neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky points out that while the mating habits of most primate species can be categorized as either monogamous pair-bonding species or polygamous tournament species, human beings seem to fall in between exhibiting characteristics similar to both mating categories. While not directly analogous, I believe something similar has occurred in human beings as regards to moral axes and political visions.
According to Sowell, the constrained vision focuses on processes that free people utilize to pursue their own goals and to avoid concentrations of power while the unconstrained vision focuses of social justice outcomes that require concentration of power to be effective. But the unlimited implementation of either vision will create either excessive inequality or dreary oppression, neither condition being conducive to the thriving of human beings. These two visions are not the bane of western democracy but are the yin and yang of the Enlightenment. These visions can only exist in a democratic society where millions of people form their own ideas on what represents good governance. They cannot exist in an authoritarian state that suppresses free thought. But a good society that encompasses millions of people must accommodate the visions of all its citizens so there can be no winner between the constrained vision and the unconstrained vision. Neither the economic ravages of laissez-faire nor the oppression of egalitarian idealism is sustainable. For human societies to function well, there must be a balance between these two visions and an understanding that these two natural conditions are both part of what makes us human. Only that way can we bridge the difference between visions and build trust among citizens.
The problem we face today is that the balance between the visions, always precarious, has become very unbalanced. On the left, the progressives are demanding progress on their social justice goals and find the democratic processes and institutions of America an impediment to the achievement of their social justice goals. On the right, the conservative movement has been overwhelmed by Donald Trump and his MAGA followers. Trump and his supporters have a great disdain for the democratic processes and are also obsessed on results and outcomes (although they are very different outcomes than those envisioned by progressives). The pragmatic constrained vision has lost out to two radical versions of the unconstrained vision, one on the left and the other on the right.
The January Sixth insurrection was a crude and tragic attack on an American institution that was doomed to fail. But the intention was to disrupt the functioning of the democratic processes that are vital to this country. The progressive attack on those democratic processes (packing the Supreme Court, unconstitutionally dodging the Electoral College, creating federal election laws to supersede the states, etc.) is more insidious and is making significant inroads despite slim majorities in Congress. There is no balance in the American political system right now. Radicals on the left and right are trying to create an America that matches their unconstrained vision.
But if these different visions (or however you want to define them) are innate psychological dispositions (as evidence seems to be pointing toward) or even genetically influenced, then no amount of debate (no matter how rational or reasonable) will convince either vision to give up their beliefs. But there can be compromise between the constrained and unconstrained visions (there must be or there will be constant war between these factions). Each vision has validity within certain parameters but lose that validity when taken to extremes. Those with the constrained vision must realize that supposedly good processes that do not yield good outcomes for society must be rethought. And those with an unconstrained vision must realize that both social justice and nationalistic populism that destroy liberty are counterproductive to the well-being of society. The constrained and unconstrained visions are only mutually exclusive if carried to extremes. Compromise and acceptance of some validity in the goals of the other vision can lead to slowly rebuilding the trust between citizens that is essential in any just society.
So, I remain cautiously optimistic about America’s future. People are beginning to react to the progressive left’s overly ambitious plan to achieve their social justice outcomes, and conservatives will soon realize Trump and his MAGA adherents are a dead end with no hope of winning a majority or electing a president. Then perhaps we can focus on restoring our democratic processes and get on with our role as leader of the free world.