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Politics & Paine: Part 3

Welcome back to 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.

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.

Hi Harvey,

There is little in your reply I would object to. Indeed I would add to your argument that Paine was no anarchist by pointing to his ideas in Agrarian Justice, where he proposed an estate tax, universal old-age pensions and made the very modern argument that the concepts of “rich” and “poor” were man-made distinctions to which man and government can undo.

It is indeed telling that modern conservatives want to trace their genealogy to both John Adams and Thomas Paine, who held rather opposite views especially regarding their faith in democracy. Perhaps this contradiction could be somewhat (though not entirely) reconciled if we think of conservatives as inheritors of Paine’s style and parts of Adams’ philosophy.

Modern liberals – John Kerry and Al Gore the most prominent among them – have indeed been rather slow to invoke democracy for their causes. Even Barack Obama, the Great Democratic Communicator has faltered. I wonder if there might be a structural cause associated with the degree of fit between a populist stance and an anti-government philosophy, namely, that it is easier to be populist and anti-government than populist and pro-government in America.


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