Posts Tagged ‘Founding Fictions review’

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Founding Fictions” by Jennifer R. Mercieca

Sunday, June 20th, 2010

I was fortunate to spot this book on the “new arrivals” shelf at the Library, as it neatly filled in some (rather large) gaps in my knowledge about the political arguments that attended the founding of our nation.

Written by Jennifer Mercieca — an “associate professor of Communications at Texan A&M Univserity” — “Founding Fictions” (University of Alabama Press) lays out the history of the stories Americans have created about themselves first as subjects of a monarch and then as citizens of a republic and eventually as partisans in a political party system (that continues to this day) in the first two generations of the nation.  These are the “founding fictions” from which the book draws its title.

Beginning in the years of conflicts (and attempted reconciliation) with the English Monarchy that led up to the actual revolution, Merceica deftly lays out the intellectual landscape as well as the key players and events that turned a colony that was mostly content to be his majesty’s subjects into a unified populace willing to do battle for a new idea of citizenship and liberty.  Such a shift required major movements in the way that people viewed themselves in relation to their government, and the first generation of revolutionaries managed to unify this self-perception through a vibrant public debate of a kind not matched since.  This is the stepping off point for the author’s comparisons of the political fictions that followed this original one: in short, were the fictions of “tragic victim” and “ironic partisan” that replaced this earlier fiction of the “romantic hero” as fully debated and understood before they were adopted by the majority of Americans?  The answer is clearly “no”.

But there is, as ever, much more to the story, and the author manages to show the many sides of the debates and power struggles that attended the revolution (that led to our choosing a republican form of government) and, finally, the rise of “Jacksonian Democracy” in the first half of the 19th. Century, when the rise of the party system led to this (now familiar) scenario: “The new-style professional politicians founded pro-Jackson newspapers, promised government jobs to the party faithful, and pressed state officials into the service of the national organization.  The leaders of the new “political machine” had learned that even without the “aristocrat’s wealth, prestige and connections,” they could still rise to power by enlarging their constituency and by compelling obedience with strict “party unity” achieved by any means possible.” (p. 173) And: “By organizing citizens into party members; by running campaigns as party battles; by demanding submission to party law; by contesting elections for the purpose of party advantage; by using the spoils system to maintain party power; and by changing the nation’s political discourse without changing the Constitution or its fundamental principles, political gamesters created the democratic fiction in America.” (p. 198)

It’s fascinating (and not altogether pleasant) to witness how we as citizens consciously chose a republican form of government, which (after the instability and economic crises that followed the “very weak, but republican, central government” established by the Articles of Confederation) lead to the adoption of a constitution that established a very strong, centralized government (that was never intended — or, indeed thought to be by the average citizen — a democracy) but later adopted a “fiction” that we were, indeed, living in a true representative democracy.  By Andrew Jackson’s time, terms of political theory were being used as party names:  “Words like “federalism”, “republicanism” and “democracy” had become empty signifiers through a process that the greeks would have called antonomasia — “name swapping”.  They had lost their traditional meanings and had ambiguously taken on new meanings…” (p. 180).

At last we come to “The fundamental contradiction at the heart of American republicanism”, which is “…between the government’s need for stability and the citizen’s desire for active participation.”  As “Popular governments are profoundly unstable, because when the people rule then there can be no settled question, no unquestioned rule, no ruling power and no powerless citizen.”   In short, we chose stability over democracy, and no matter how much our political fictions have changed (and been argued) over the generations since, we have never changed the Constitution in that regard.  “The Constitution was overtly designed to protect stability by constraining citizen action to what political leaders believed was its proper realm: outside the legislature.  Citizens were sovereign — the government was based upon the will of the people rather than upon the will of the monarch — but their dangerous opinions would be filtered through the stabilizing mechanism of representation.” (p. 216)

This book helped me understand my own feelings about my country and my government, revealing that when it comes to groups like the TEA Party, I’m actually a conservative republican, and they’re the radical democrats.

If you get this book, I must warn you about (even as I encourage you to persevere through) the introduction and first chapter that read like a masters thesis written for a purely academic audience.  But once you’re past that hurdle, you’ll find a very readable and informative book that I can highly recommend for a great primer on how our nation was actually formed.

t.n.s.r. bob