One of the joys of reading a history like Gordon Wood's The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States, is the humbling experience it provides of learning how none of us are terribly distinctive, how living in interesting times does not mean we also live in particularly unique ones and how the more things change the more they stay the same.
Take America's dysfunctional, polarized politics for example. Polls show the parties further apart ideologically than ever before since tools have existed to measure such things. For the first time, the most conservative Democrat is now to the left of the most liberal Republican. Instead of that ideological overlap which once kept the wheels of government moving we now have a rigid and ossified party discipline (especially on the right) that makes compromise impossible and grinds government to a halt.
Ideological, economic and theological issues separate Americans, to be sure. But as Wood's portrait of early American history reveals, the underlying conflict in American politics today bears a striking resemblance to the very different views about the nature of politics itself that separated our early colonial ancestors.
American history suggests that the source of today's polarization may be less the divide between the 1% and the 99% or the debates between freedom versus statism, or the left versus right demonization that dominates the cable shows, so much as it is a replay of the same old conflict that set Federalists against Anti-Federalists when We the People first came together as one country.
On the one side were the Founding Fathers themselves, the Federalists and other supporters of the Constitution whose study of ancient Rome led them to embrace the ideals - and perhaps the self-deceptive pretensions -- of a "civic republicanism" in which disinterested statesmen abandoned their own self-interest in search of the common good.
Wood writes that the story we all learned in civics class of the Constitution arising out of the infirmities of the Articles of Confederation and unsettling popular uprisings like Shay's Rebellion in Massachusetts is deeply misleading.
By the time delegates came together for the constitutional assembly of 1787, "gentlemen up and down the continent were shaking their heads in disbelief and anger at the private views and selfish principles of the men they saw in the state assemblies -- men of narrow souls and no natural interest in the society," writes Wood.
The American Revolution had unleashed acquisitive and commercial forces that no one had quite realized existed, and for those we call the Founding Fathers the popular political behavior exhibited in the early states of the 1780s was very different from what they expected from the "republican revolution" of 1776, says Wood. This is what made the late 1780s "a genuine crisis period."
What the Founders had seen, says Wood, was a glimpse of what America was to become - "a scrambling business society dominated by the pecuniary interests of ordinary people. And they did not like what they saw. The wholesale pursuit of private interest and private luxury were, they thought, undermining America's capacity for self-government."
The Constitution itself was designed "in order to save American republicanism from the deadly effects of these private pursuits of happiness."
James Madison, renowned as the "Father of the Constitution," devoted very little time worrying about the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation, writes Wood, focusing most of his attention instead on the deficiencies of the state governments that dominated the immediate post-Revolutionary period and the "multiplicity," "mutability" and "injustice" of the laws passed by those state governments.
"The Virginia legislators seemed so parochial, so illiberal, so small-minded and most of them seemed to have only a particular interest to serve," wrote Madison. "They had no regard for public honor or honesty. They too often made a travesty of the legislative process and were reluctant to do anything that might appear unpopular."
As an early echo perhaps of the provincialism we associate today with a House Tea Party caucus that nearly pushed the nation to default on its debts, Madison once told George Washington in disgust that "it will little elevate your idea of our Senate" to learn that the Virginia assembly had actually defeated a bill defining the privileges of foreign ambassadors in Virginia "on the principle that an alien ought not to be put on better ground than a citizen."
Alexander Hamilton, principal co-author with Madison of the Federalist Papers, knew that while most people were "selfish scavengers incapable of noble and disinterested acts, he did not want to become one of them," says Wood. Thus, as Wood reports, Hamilton refused to make speculative killings in land and banking because, in his own words, "there must be some public fools who sacrifice private to public interest at the certainty of ingratitude and obloquy - because my vanity whispers I ought to be one of those fools and ought to keep myself in a situation the best calculated to render service."
Hamilton "clung as long and as hard to this classical conception of leadership as anyone in post-Revolutionary America," said Wood.
On the other side of the political divide were "pugnacious" and rough-hewn Scotch-Irishmen like William Findley of Western Pennsylvania, anti-Federalists who rejected not only the Federalists' Constitution but also their political assumptions. Those like Findley saw politics as less a high-toned arena for learned statesmen seeking the common good than a mad scramble of individuals seeking their own personal good, the advancement of personal interests and a private pursuit of happiness.
The populist Findley "had seen the gentry up close," says Wood, "so all sense of mystery at aristocratic authority was lost."
The rich may have thought they were "born of a different race from the rest of the sons of men and able to conceive and perform great things," said Findley, but despite their "lofty carriage" such gentry "could not in fact see beyond the pale of power and worldly grandeur."
In Findley's view, and those like him, society was not a hierarchy of ranks but a heterogeneous mixture "of many different classes or orders of people all equal to one another" in which one group of men or class of interests "could never be acquainted with the situation and wants of those from another."
The whole idea of dispassionate and impartial representation was thus a farce to men like Findley since "no man when he enters into society does it from a view to promote the good of others but he does it for his own good."
Unlike the Federalists, writes Wood, the Anti-Federalists tellingly "offered no disinterested umpires, no mechanisms at all for reconciling and harmonizing clashing self-interest." All they and their successors had to offer, says Wood was the assumption attributed to Thomas Jefferson in 1806 "that the public good is best promoted by the exertion of each individual seeking his own good in his own way."
I confess that my sympathies in this debate are with the Federalists who believed in the virtues, however unrealistic, of a classical republicanism that had confidence in the ability of a people and its rulers to rise above self-interest for the common good.
But this grand vision of governing had its uglier side, to be sure, because it was predicated on a belief that impartiality came as a consequence of being without care. And such carefree carelessness was a function of economic independence. And so, at the very heart of the Founding Fathers' classical republicanism was a belief in a limited franchise that restricted the vote and most political power to men - it was always men - of property whose independent standing, it was thought, permitted independent thinking to take place.
It was one thing to talk of disinterestedness that comes from the security and leisure of not having to worry about one's daily bread, said opponents of the Constitution and the ideas that lay behind it. It was another to oppose easy money that might reduce the return on those investments that permitted a detached point-of-view to begin with or to support a national bank as being in the national interest at the same time one had a pecuniary interest in said bank.
There were always those like William Findley who never tired of deflating the pretensions and exposing the hypocrisies of those stuffed-shirt Federalists whose "enlightened" governance on behalf of the national good had, on more than one occasion, uncannily matched their own self-interest as well.
"Instead of enlightened patriots making a constitution to promote the national good," Wood says Anti-Federalists like Findley "saw groups of interested men trying to foist an aristocracy on republican America."
Politics as the disinterested pursuit of the common good, or politics as unashamed pursuit of self-interest. That is still the debate which rages today.
These very different ways of looking at democratic politics are ones that defy easy classification along class or ideological lines. Today, we associate bi-partisanship and compromise and the search for disinterested solutions with liberalism because liberals by overwhelming margins say they want leaders who are able to reach consensus on the vexing problems of the day. Conservatives by like margins say they want their leaders to stick to principle come what may. Yet, during the Founding Fathers' day, high-minded disinterested impartiality was seen as an aristocratic virtue, a luxury only the wealthy could enjoy because only the rich were free from the trouble of making a living.
Recast in modern times, one side of this debate is represented by a former constitutional law professor and community organizer who once spoke eloquently (and in retrospect naively) not about a Red America and a Blue America but the United States of America.
On the other are those like one-time pest exterminator and GOP House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who first got into politics in order to teach the "Gestapo-like EPA" a lesson after it told him he could not use his preferred poison to kill bugs.
DeLay, I have always maintained, is the spiritual leader of the Tea Party Republican caucus because his Farewell Address to Congress is so unreservedly an ode to the combative partisanship the Tea Party likes best, as well as a sneering parting shot at all "those preening self-styled statesmen (like Barack Obama and James Madison) who elevate compromise to a first principle."
Another individual who embodies this divide is the fellow Mitt Romney just picked to be his running mate.
Congressman Paul D. Ryan of Janesville, Wisconsin has a reputation as a policy wonk, the Tea Party caucus' go-to idea guy, a big thinker who sees the big picture and whose policy proposals unfailingly project the excitement of 1,000 mile journeys filled with energy and change, like his Path to Prosperity and his Roadmap for America's Future.
And so, for such a big-picture thinker the most interesting part of Ryan Lizza's 6,000-word New Yorker profile of the House Republican budget leader was how "genuinely shocked" he was at the Obama administration's negative reaction to a budget proposal that gave 37% of benefits to the top 1% while sticking 67% of costs to the poor.
As Lizza reports, when White House budget director Peter Orszag "dismantled Ryan's plan point by point," saying it would turn Medicare "into a voucher program so that individuals are on their own in the health care market," as well as reviving the Bush plan to privatize Social Security "and provide large tax benefits to upper-income households while shifting the burden onto middle and lower income households," a surprised and disappointed Ryan complained "the budget director took that olive branch and hit me in the face with it."
Later, Ryan was invited to sit in the front row while President Obama shredded Ryan's plan as one that painted "a vision that's deeply pessimistic," does nothing to reduce the deficit as it hands out "a trillion dollars in tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires" while it asks "for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don't have any clout on Capital Hill."
Ryan responded: "I was expecting some counteroffer of some kind. What we got was a gauntlet of demagoguery."
If understanding an opponents' worldview is a prerequisite for sensible governing, then Paul Ryan is an abject failure as a real leader and one who has proven himself time and time again to be a rigid, right wing ideologue.
He exposed the same lack of vision or self-awareness when confronted with the disconnect between his own severely anti-government ideology (which he credits to the libertarian writings of Ayn Rand) and the state and federal investments that he has supported in the past to help his hometown of Janesville (population 64,000) reinvent itself as a major distribution hub after General Motors closed a sport utility factory that once employed 7,100 people, devastating the town.
Ryan once told a gathering of the Ayn Rand-reading "Atlas Society" that "the fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism."
He also asserted the President's economic philosophy "derives from a naïve vision" in which "the nucleus of society and the economy is government, not the people."
Moving away from the vague abstractions of conservative boilerplate, Ryan has in more recent years supported concrete proposals that have benefited Janesville, such as the widening of I-90 from four to eight lanes - a top priority for local business - thanks to a billion dollar federal and state highway project.
"Paul has been as helpful as he can be to encourage that development," says a long-time Ryan friend whom Lizza interviewed. "But, as you know, he also has philosophical disconnect with the idea of earmarks."
And then there is the Janesville Innovation Center that will provide entrepreneurs with commercial space courtesy of a $1.2 million government grant through one of President Obama's major stimulus programs.
And last but not least is the bio-tech laboratory being built in Janesville with $25 million in federal matching grants to be used as the only domestic manufacturer of a radioactive isotope used in the treatment of melanoma.
When Lizza pointed out to Ryan that government investments were at the heart of his hometown's economic recovery "he didn't disagree." Instead, like most ideologues whose abstract principles are in conflict with concrete solutions to real problems, Ryan lashed out at those like President Obama rude enough to expose the disconnect between Ryan's words and deeds.
"Obama is trying to paint us as a caricature," Ryan told Lizza. "As if we're some bizarre individualists who are hardcore libertarians. It is a false dichotomy and intellectually lazy."
Ryan's hypocrisy was like that of the group of South Carolina Tea Party Republicans whose anti-earmark principles ran aground on the practical reality that critical industries like BMW and Michelin that operate in and around Charleston harbor depend on a port whose shipping channels were in desperate need of maintenance dredging.
Senator Lindsey Graham had supported the much-need dredging project with a $400,000 earmark for the Army Corps of Engineers that was opposed by South Carolina's other Senator, the Robespierre-like Tea Party purist, Jim DeMint. And so, furious behind-the-scenes negotiations ensued to secure funding for the desperately-needed dredging project but in ways that were not technically an earmark so as to allow the Tea Party Republicans to keep their ideological virginity intact without committing political suicide by harming the interests of their constituents.
As Gordon Wood could have told us, we've seen Paul Ryan's kind before. Indeed, the battle raging inside him between high-minded principle and naked self-interest is as old as the republic.