Politics & Paine: Part 2
Kaye is the author of the award-winning book, Thomas Paine: Firebrand of Revolution, as well as Thomas Paine and the Promise of America. He is the Ben & Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Social Change & Development and Director, Center for History and Social Change at the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay. Lim is author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University, and a regular contributor to OUPBlog.
Elvin – Thanks for challenging me…. You ask the right question.
While it is true that Burkeans – that is, traditionalists – have long been a minority in American conservatism, they can trace themselves back to the likes of folks like John Adams, who, while welcoming Paine’s call for independence, despised Paine himself for encouraging ordinary working people to believe not only in popular sovereignty, but also, in their capacity to “begin the world over again.”
Not for nothing did Adams write in 1805:
“I am willing you should call this the Age of Frivolity, as you do; and would not object if you had named it the Age of Folly, Vice, Frenzy, Fury, Brutality, Demons, Bonaparte, Tom Paine, or the Age of the burning Brand from the bottomless Pit; or anything but the Age of Reason. I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Tom Paine. There can be no severer satyr on the age. For such a mongrel between pigs and puppy, begotten by a wild boar on a bitch wolf, never before in any age of the world was suffered by the poltroonery of mankind to run through such a career of mischief. Call it then the Age of Paine.”
And regarding the divisions in conservative politics, I can’t help but note here how impressive it remains that William F. Buckley Jr. as publisher of the National Review, followed by Ronald Reagan as presidential candidate of the Republican party, brought together traditionalists, evangelicals, libertarians, and neo-conservatives under one big right-wing roof.
Nevertheless, while Reagan himself broke with the 200-year-long conservative practice of trying to bury Paine’s memory and legacy and joyfully quoted Paine’s “We have it in our power to begin the world over again” when accepting the Republican nomination in 1980 and many times after, he did not really turn conservatives into Painites. Reagan and his gang latched onto only one aspect of Paine’s argument – in fact, it often seems they latched onto merely one line of his work: “Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil…” No joke, they not only took out of context (that is, Paine’s attack on England’s King, Constitution, and Parliament), they also essentially ignored – and continue to ignore – everything else in Paine’s work that contradicts their use of the revolutionary patriot in their determined assault on government.
To be clear about it: Paine despised absolute authority in political, economic and cultural institutions and he believed deeply in common people’s capacities to govern themselves. It is evident in everything he wrote from Common Sense and The Crisis, to Rights of Man, The Age of Reason, and Agrarian Justice. Clearly, Paine had libertarian instincts, but he was not a libertarian (or for that matter an anarchist). He was a radical democrat who, recognizing the injustices and inequalities engendered not only by kingly and aristocratic states, but also by “modern civilization” (aka capitalism) pioneered social democratic politics in his later pamphlets Rights of Man and Agrarian Justice. Again, conservatives who now try to claim Paine as one of their own – most notably, Glenn Beck and Newt Gingrich – ignore the radical and social democratic Paine.
Still, having said all of that, whereas the Right has rather successfully sought to harness Paine’s radical spirit and demagogically postured as a friend of the people to pursue its own various anti-democratic ends, the Left – with some exceptions – has all but ignored their old friend Paine and what he was about. Liberals and the left talk about doing things for people, but – in contrast to what a Painite politics would entail – they neither advance a democratic populist rhetoric, nor speak of making a social-democratic America.
I confess that, in writing my book Thomas Paine and the Promise of America, I was hoping not only to show that contrary to long-standing argument and the efforts and ambitions of generations of conservatives, Paine had never been forgotten, but also to challenge my fellow liberals and progressives to reconnect with Paine and once again redeem the vision of America’s historic purpose and promise that he articulated and which has inspired and encouraged generations of Americans to fight to extend and deepen American freedom, equality, and democracy.
I’ll close by sadly noting that in contrast to Reagan, who seemed to relish quoting Paine and citing, if not celebrating his name, Obama quoted Paine in his January 2009 inaugural address, but never mentioned his name. I was naively hoping it was an oversight. But I now see that Obama, though far more effective than Clinton in getting things done, is another top-down Democrat like him. Still, I just hope he doesn’t land upside-down like Carter did.