Welcome to the final installment the Politics & Paine series. Harvey Kaye and Elvin Lim are corresponding about Thomas Paine, American politics, and beyond. Read the first post here, and the second post here, and the third post here.
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.
You mention John Kerry‘s aversion to invoking democracy. It’s odd that the same John Kerry who spoke before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee back in 1971 on behalf of the “Winter Soldiers” – an organization of antiwar Vietnam vets – could not bring himself to speak openly of Paine in the 2004 campaign. And even more pathetic that Kerry used Reagan’s favorite words from Paine, “We have it in our power…,” when he accepted the Democratic party’s nomination, and yet he did not refer to Paine. Which is to say that Kerry quoted Reagan quoting Paine! Is that plagiarism or flattery? Either way, it amazed me that conservative pundits never made anything of it.
But you ask if I think it’s possible to be both “populist” and “pro-government.” Here I turn to FDR , who did not hesitate to engage popular memory and imagination and mobilize popular energies in favor of recovery, reconstruction, and reform and who most certainly embraced and pursued government action. In a September 1934 Fireside Chat, Roosevelt said: “I believe with Abraham Lincoln, that ‘The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done but cannot do at all or cannot do so well for themselves in their separate and individual capacities.’” And for what it’s worth…FDR was the first president since Jefferson to quote Paine, cite his name, and praise his contributions in a major speech while serving as president (see the Fireside Chat of February 23, 1942 and for audio click here.)
Before we close, I’d just note that in a recent national essay contest sponsored by the Bill of Rights Institute and involving 50,000 high school students indicated that young people do view Paine as a major American hero (in order: Jefferson, Lincoln, King, and Paine) and consider Common Sense one of America’s three most inspiring documents. So, presuming that most of those students are not fans of Glenn Beck, maybe, just maybe, the “kids are all right.”
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You asked me about my take on FDR and his fireside chats, so for what it’s worth, here’s my two cents.
I think FDR brought the presidency into the living room, and he knew he was doing so because he always started with “My Fellow Americans.”
But this Democratic president’s success with populism was somewhat contingent on a communicative genre, radio, that was a striking contrast to the stump speeches that had been the method of communication up till then.
In fact, the genre was what softened FDR’s pedagogic style. If one looks closely at FDR’s fireside chats, they were actually relatively complex and as much patrician as they were populist. Democratic leaders since FDR have continued on this patrician bent – conservatives might say condescending or elitist – but they did not benefit from a relative monopoly on a communicative genre which softened the edges of their didactic rhetoric.
Indeed – and one thinks of Al Gore‘s debates in 2000 and Sarah Palin might point to the professorial style of Obama – the pontificating, talking-down style of some Democrats may be brought into even sharper relief by television and close-up camera shots.
In the end, I think Democrats have tended to eschew populism because they hold on to a different theory of representation than do Republicans. What Republicans see as talking down and condescension, Democrats see as deferring to experts. What Democrats see as demagogic and pandering, Republicans tend to see as unpretentious and authentic. That is to say, many Democrats are uncomfortable with populism because they believe that our leaders should be endowed with greater gifts than the people they are representing (they believe that leaders should be trustees), but many Republicans believe that our leaders should look and sound just like us (they believe that leaders should be delegates of the people).
FDR then, appears to be less of an exception than the rule. In my opinion, the reason why he may appear exceptional is because he fortuitously latched onto a genre (radio) that made his style palatable for his times.