Discover more from BIG by Matt Stoller
The Long Annoying Tradition of Anti-Patriotism
Declinism is a longstanding posture of political elites. It's also a political choice, not a reflection of reality.
Welcome to BIG, a newsletter on the politics of monopoly power. If you’d like to sign up to receive issues over email, you can do so here.
“There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” - John Adams, 1814
I love July Fourth. I love the flags, the music, the bbq, the fireworks. So today’s piece is a little different. It’s about why patriotism is an essential part of addressing our great social problems, such as the rigid corporate power that curses our society.
But I’m going to get to this point by focusing on a different American tradition, one so buried that we often don’t realize it’s there. And that is, I want to look at the long American embrace of anti-patriotism, of disdain for democracy, and general gloominess and dislike of politics. Because at times of populist anger at dysfunctional institutions - and we are in one right now - this anti-patriotic sentiment rises to the fore.
We’ll start with the importance of the political symbolism of July Fourth. Today most of us think about this day as a holiday based on barbecue and beer, but from the 1790s to the early 1900s, it was one of the most important political days of the year. Americans would gather and give what were called July Fourth Orations, mini-speeches, about patriotism, factionalism, industrialization, slavery, or whatever else they associated with politics.
The most famous July Fourth Oration is Frederick Douglass’ 1852 speech “What To the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” which both subverted and used this tradition to further the cause of abolition. It’s a jeremiad, with Douglass, speaking as an escaped slave, intertwining hope for humanity’s future with the blood and cruelty of the antebellum slave society America. He did not like the America in which he lived, but he did believe in the ability to use politics, and “wind, steam, and lightning” - the new technologies of railroads and telegraphs - to make it better. There were thousands of these speeches over the years, in virtually every town and city in America.
This tradition, of making July Fourth a day for political discourse, has come back. Today’s political oratory, however, is pretty annoying. It’s either celebratory pablum, or immensely pessimistic and gloomy. I’m drawn to this notion by an article in the New York Times titled “No Sparklers for These Folks”, on how some people don’t like to celebrate America’s independence for political reasons. “I think a lot of people think America isn’t for everyone anymore, and so it’s not an inclusive holiday,” according to a 28 year-old in in Phoenix. The rest of the article goes on like that, with relatively empowered people decrying various forms of injustice and making a political statement that July Fourth shouldn’t be celebrated.
In fact, this attitude isn’t uncommon among those with influence. Take Princeton history professor Kevin Kruse, whose July Fourth piece, titled “Torn on the Fourth of July,” expresses the salient point that one should avoid tear gas when engaged in protest. But it is uncommon among normal Americans, a majority of whom like to celebrate. The New York Times, in other words, published an article about banal gloomy young people because some editors agree with the sentiment, not because it’s widely held.
There’s no shortage of this kind of gloomy chatter. So what gives? Why? Are things especially bad? Compared to 1852? No way. America has serious problems, of course, but so does every nation. We also have immense achievements, from the social to the political to the economic. Take what is perhaps the most difficult issue in our society, race. Whatever you think about racism, this long-term trend is amazing.
If we can achieve something so remarkable and inclusive, and change something so fundamental about our social attitude towards one another, then it should lead us to realize we can change other things about our society. If Frederick Douglass could be optimistic, could believe in politics, then we should be able to as well.
Despite lots of bad headlines, the future, especially for a massive and complex society like ours, is simply unknowable. In other words, for Americans with some level of prosperity, gloomy pessimism is not about evidence of social decline, but is a political choice. In fact, dislike of the American experiment isn’t edgy, cool, and hip, it’s old, crusty, and common. And it’s rooted in some key institutions that have an interest in tamping down popular discontent.
From the very beginning, key American thinkers have hated and feared democracy itself. "Elections, my dear sir, I look at with terror,” John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson in 1787. “Experiments of this kind of have been so often tried, and so universally found productive of Horrors, that there is great Reason to dread them." You might think, as many academics would like to believe, that he was warning of someone like Donald Trump. But Adams was responding to popular discontent from revolutionary war veterans, who had fomented a rebellion in Massachusetts - known as Shays' Rebellion - against mass foreclosures engendered by austerity. (It ended with a military loss for the rebels but a political victory, as their side won the next election and stopped the austerity.)
Adams is a complex founding figure, but he was personally offended at the democratic impulse of small farmers to preserve their property. Beyond that, as a general rule, he hated “democratical principles” and felt any attempt to have a republic would lead to “Confusion and Carnage, which must end in despotism.” Tom Paine, to him, was a terrorist, as were several key members of Thomas Jefferson’s administration. And this attitude never really went away, even into the 1810s as he witnessed a successful self-governing republic in action.
Adams sired a dynasty of priggish anti-populists. One of his descendants, Henry Adams, in 1896 attacked populists led by William Jennings Bryan, who faced off against the banker-dominated William McKinley in one of the most important Presidential elections in American history. “A capitalistic system had been adopted,” Adams wrote, “and if it were to be run at all, it must be run by capital and by capitalistic methods for nothing could surpass the nonsensity of trying to run so complex and so concentrated a machine by southern and western farmers in grotesque alliance with city day-laborers.” McKinley’s victory ensured that giant corporations would have a fundamental role in American society for the next century.
Anti-populism, along with its cousin anti-patriotism, is an elite response to demands from below to change a social hierarchy, which is why it’s so pervasive today, at a moment when the public is angry. I saw it all the time when researching corporate power - which is the bedrock of our social hierarchy. It was particularly pronounced during the New Deal. In 1933, upon the ascendance of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for instance, Columbia University Nicholas Murray Butler told incoming freshmen that Totalitarian dictatorships are putting forward “men of far greater intelligence, far stronger character, and far more courage than the system of elections.”
After the New Dealers succeeded, and defeated both the Great Depression and Nazism, the gloom and pessimism agglomerated into the world of big business. For instance, the head of the National Association of Manufacturers in 1948 said "at the highest level of prosperity, our people have lost faith in freedom and are moving away from it." A few years later, the President of the United States Steel Corporation, one of the biggest firms in the world, said the American economic system was "in deadlier peril than it has ever been in my lifetime." He was followed by James Byrnes, a former Supreme Court Justice, Senator and Secretary of State, who argued the people could "be led over a bridge of socialism into a police state.”
Indeed, for much of the 20th century, anti-populist big business leaders, and the movement they inspired, libertarianism, became one giant gloomspiracy to argue democracy can’t work. Take this book in 1963 by libertarian Ayn Rand. Yes, you should judge it by its cover.
In her book, Rand analogizes antitrust law to “legalized lynching,” that “'pogrom known as “‘trust-busting’.” Rand’s work is deeply pessimistic about democracy; in her penultimate work, Atlas Shrugged, she portrays a dystopian society where the wealthy have withdrawn from participating in society due to overregulation, leading to social collapse and tyranny. (It’s unsurprising that Rand’s disciple, Alan Greenspan, would run the Fed as a mystical ‘oracle,’ intentionally using opaque and hard to parse words to show why democratic bodies like Congress should leave the central bank alone to made decisions about the economy.)
There is also plenty of anti-populism on the left. Counter-culture sociologist C. Wright Mills thought the idea that normal people understood their own self-interest was a “fetish of democracy.” Mills also hated the prototypical American icon, the small businessman, calling them the “lumpen-bourgeoisie,” petty, aggressive, proto-fascist, repressed, patriarchal, and dull. Unsurprisingly, Mills was a big fan of John Adams.
Another important anti-populist was Richard Hofstadter, who became the iconic historian of the postwar era. During World War II, Hofstadter regularly lunched with a group of left-wing scholars and bonded over “the group’s common hostility for Roosevelt, the war, capitalism, and southerners.” Hofstadter re-crafted the history of populist fear of big business as mere ‘status anxiety,’ Anglo-Saxons worried about losing their vaunted place in the grand old game of American racial hierarchy. Democratic movements, to Hofstadter, represented nothing but a ‘paranoid spirit’ in American politics.
In the 1970s, anti-populism, and a sense of political gloom, began taking over America’s political class. Fred Dutton, the campaign manager for JFK who later reformed the Democratic Party to remove unions from the nominating process in 1972, led the charge. For him, organized labor was “the principal group arrayed against the forces of change” and “a major redoubt of traditional Americanism and of the anti-negro, anti-youth vote.” Adopting a New Age counter-culture disdain for politics, he argued that elections should no longer be oriented towards actual tangible real-world accomplishment. The “balance of political power,” he wrote, had shifted “from the economic to the psychological to a certain extent—from the stomach and pocketbook to the psyche, and perhaps sooner or later even to the soul.”
Today, as Thomas Frank’s The People, No so expertly chronicles, this anti-populist tradition lives in both parties, in political science departments and in elite magazines. In 2010, for instance, the head of the Tea Party Nation argued that voting should be restricted to property owners, presumably because voters picked Obama, which he didn’t like. During the Trump era, the Atlantic published many articles such as this one - titled “Too Much Democracy” - because voters picked Trump, which the Atlantic did not like.
Adams is a sort of spiritual guide to this sentiment. Peter Orzag, for instance, argued in 2011 “why we need less democracy,” citing Adams to make the case that we should “counter the gridlock of our political institutions by making them a bit less democratic.” Orzag was the former senior advisor to Obama at the Office of Management and Budget, as well as the former head of the Congressional Budget Office. His view is that government spending should be removed from any sort of democratic control, like the Federal Reserve has removed monetary policy from elected leaders. Today, unsurprisingly, Orzag is the head of investment bank Lazard and Company, which specializes in mergers and acquisitions.
Anti-populism, and its cousin of anti-patriotism, is alluring for our elites. Many lack faith in fellow citizens, and think the work of convincing a large complex country isn’t worth it, or may not even be possible. Others can’t imagine politics itself as a useful endeavor because they believe in a utopia. Indeed, those who believe in certain forms of socialism and libertarianism believe that politics itself shouldn’t exist, that one must perfect the soul of human-kind, and then the messy work of making a society will become unnecessary. In this frame, political institutions, like courts, corporations, and government agencies, are unimportant except as aesthetic objects.
Anti-populism and anti-patriotism leads nowhere, because these attitudes are about convincing citizens to give up their power, to give up on the idea that America is a place we can do politics to make a society. In 1941, Congressman Wright Patman expressed this sentiment in a speech titled Americanism before 4-H youth clubs. Here’s what he said:
You have heard politics criticized. You have doubtless heard the statement made: “Let us keep politics out of this or that kind of work” and “Let us not have any politics in connection with what we are attempting to do.” These statements are often made, but on careful analysis, they do not hold water. The truth is, politics is the masses controlling. One, who is against politics, is against the people ruling and, therefore, against our American way of life and our Democratic form of government.
One who holds a political office has been successful because he has the good will of the people who elected him. One, who succeeds as a merchant, as a doctor, as a lawyer, or in any other business or profession, succeeds because he has the good will of the people. Hitler doesn’t have in politics, neither does Mussolini. They are opposed to the people ruling. They want a dictator form of Government.
Anyone, who is opposed to totalitarianism and dictatorship, is in favor of politics, which is our American form of Government. Politics can be good or bad. Let us work to keep politics clean and our elections fair, in order to properly preserve our country.
The essence of populism, is that we the people, as messy as we are, can make our world, for better or worse. Most throughout history haven’t had this opportunity, or honor, as difficult as it might be. And that’s something to celebrate.
So have your hotdogs and enjoy your fireworks. And ignore the haters.
Happy Fourth of July.
Thanks for reading! Your tips make this newsletter what it is, so please send me tips on weird monopolies, stories I’ve missed, or other thoughts. And if you liked this issue of BIG, you can sign up here for more issues, a newsletter on how to restore fair commerce, innovation and democracy. And consider becoming a paying subscriber to support this work, or if you are a paying subscriber, giving a gift subscription to a friend, colleague, or family member.
P.S. Last year on July Fourth, I shared Thomas Jefferson’s ice cream recipe. And far be it for me to deny you 18th century sweets, so here you go again.