A Pathologist’s Report

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by Paul Gottfried

A few kind readers sent notes to me about their experiences in teaching high school and college courses in US Government; and it may be useful to offer the following collective response. I was not suggesting that my students could not recognize "American democracy" in the way their textbooks depicted it. To whatever extent they do think about political structures, they believe that what the textbooks describe epitomizes constitutional self-government. What the framers put into the Constitution seems to them purely antiquarian. Indeed they resent any attempt to have them read the original articles of that document or the subsequently adopted Bill of Rights. They find the phraseology unintelligible and cannot see why any smart or decent person should be forced to look at "stuff" scribbled down hundreds of years ago. Note that most of these students come from longtime Republican (WASP) families and were loudly patriotic after 9/11. Criticizing the American regime in its present form, which is the only one they know or care about, is a profoundly unpopular act. As my colleague Wes McDonald and I have learned over the years, our irritated customers pour out their bile against us, into bad evaluations.

Despite the tributes to "our system," the same students go along with attacks on the American experience from the left. The reason, as Lynne Cheney, who has just written a celebration of America done for young children, explained this week on Fox News, "we have not always lived up to our ideals in the case of minorities." My students and other Americans I encounter think that the framers, who were otherwise irrelevant writers, had certain nice "ideals" they did not put into the Constitution but expected later generations to make good on. Whence the need for dictatorial presidents, philosopher judges, and enlightened bureaucrats, who are the real heroes of our "democracy." Without them, the unwritten morality we are expected to revere could not have brought forth the wonderful, expanding empire we’ve become.

This is not a putdown of students who should not be in college in the first place or of supposed citizens of a constitutional republic who have no more aptitude for self-government than I do for playing in the NBA. The problem is making constitutional self-government operate in a society that is too unwieldy, politically apathetic, and self-indulgent to care about republican freedom. The textbooks my classes look at confirm beliefs they already have, from taking civics courses, watching TV, going to church, and attending other college classes. Those involved in the college Republicans or Democrats undergo the same indoctrination in a more intense form. Both parties glorify the present American regime and emphasize how "far we’ve come" from the bad old times, when women and other minorities were not allowed to make our politics "compassionate."

One of my respondents observes that blacks are more skeptical than whites about "whether or not we are speaking about their government." My own view is different. What distinguishes blacks I’ve taught from Karl Rove, Lynne Cheney, and Theodor Lowi is that the blacks were bent on shaking down the white majority even more and were upset that the state did not help them enough to get what they wanted. For defenders of the status quo, the state is doing about the right amount of shaking down, which is that amount that the framers would have favored in their better moments.

I also received a letter from an ill-tempered respondent who, after flooding me with obscenities, indicated that he would never again read anything with my name on it. Said respondent was upset that I would not agree that we should all take up arms against the present American regime, which he declared to be a "tyranny." Aside from the sad fact that the tyrants could blow him and me away without blinking an eyelash and could then count on the support of "conservative" journalists to endorse their action, there is little that can be done to overthrow a government widely perceived as protecting our liberties and looking after our welfare. This guy was ticked off that I dared to explain the problem, although I did not agree with the general perception under discussion. Apparently pointing out the unfavorable climate for placing limits on the central state is tantamount to pro-government hype. My role is actually that of a pathologist, warning about a grave illness that cannot be cured by haphazard surgery. The fact that the illness is mistaken for the cure complicates matters even more.

Paul Gottfried [send him mail] is professor of history at Elizabethtown College and author, most recently, of the highly recommended After Liberalism.

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