May 19, 2010

A paradigm shift, a loss of words.

I've written before in this space of communication theorist Walter Fisher's proposal that America's most enduring narrative, the American Dream, comprises two competing strands, both rooted in our founding documents and history.

One of these strands, which I'll call the free enterprise story, envisions an ideal of individual potency, entrepreneurial success, and limited government restrained from tyranny. The other strand, the fair play story, envisions an ideal of universal fairness, public service, and strong government of, by, and for the people.

One can interpret the history of American public debates as a gladiator-like battle between these two stories, chained together, forever wrestling, each gaining and losing dominance, but never permanently.

There are times when the contest is relatively quiet. One narrative or the other dominates, forming most of our assumptions and expectations. But inevitably, the ruling story encounters problems, often arising from its own premises, that expose its weaknesses and overwhelm its abilities. When that happens, the shift is on. The contest gets louder. The new/old narrative presses the debate with increasing confidence and persuasive power; the regnant story digs in to protect its hegemony.

In the late 1970s, the fair-play narrative had driven the action for more than four decades. But it ran out of words to account for and address problems of its own creation: soaring inflation, economic stagnation, embarrassment on the world stage, and declining confidence. Ronald Reagan inspired us with a new story, comprising a vocabulary juxtaposing American individuals' power, value, and potential with government impotency, bureaucracy, and failure.

The result was a sweeping paradigm shift, nearly Kuhnian in its scope. The language of the Reaganite free-enterprise narrative—lower taxes, deregulation, American global power, the idealization of entrepreneurship—not only drove public policy but also informed and shaped the way we think and talk.

For the last 30 years, our words have been lifted from the free-enterprise lexicon; our sentences, from its script: Government is the problem. The era of big government is over. The government should never interfere with the market. Trust business more than government. Entrepreneurs are good; bureaucrats are bad. Public figures are brands. Run schools (and everything else) like a business. The profit motive produces self-regulation. The private sector is better than the public sector. [Fill in the blank] should be privatized. Taxes destroy freedom.

I've heard every one of these and more—and said a few. I'm sure you have too.

We're in a time of transition between the two stories. A new paradigm shift is taking place. Hence the election of Barack Obama, who eloquently expresses a modern rendition of the fair-play narrative. Hence the loud and sometimes frighteningly extreme language of conflict in today's public debates.

The free-enterprise narrative is losing its ability to speak reasonably. Reminiscent of the Coolidge-Hoover version when the Roaring '20s crashed, the latest edition has no sentences to account for or address problems arising from its own premises. In my next post, coming very soon, I'll offer three recent cataclysmic events—the Massey mine disaster, the BP oil debacle, and the Goldman Sachs interpretation of the financial collapse—as evidence.

Rings true to me. And you?

May 5, 2010

The Tea Party, the new Anti-Federalists.

"We'll keep clinging to our Constitution." —Sarah Palin
Countless times I have heard my conservative friends, some of whom are Tea Partiers, claim exclusive fidelity to our nation's founding document.

The narrative plays out like this: We, the Tea Party (I'm using the term as a synecdoche for today's ultra-conservative voice as a whole), honor the Constitution by sticking to its original intent, which is relatively straightforward and simple to interpret. You big-government liberals dishonor the Constitution by treating it as a "living document" that means whatever you want it to mean, making America whatever you want it to be.

The irony is that Tea Partiers, in belief and in tone, have more in common with those who opposed the Constitution (the Anti-Federalists) than those who supported it (the Federalists) during the public debate about its ratification.

To the Anti-Federalists, the Constitution's federal government was too big, too powerful and too elitist. A national government comprising James Madison's "enlightened lawmakers" representing large areas and empowered to tax, to legislate and to raise a standing army would surely trample the rights of the people and the States.

The Tea Partiers—er, excuse me, the Anti-Federalists—pressed their points with frothy certitude about what the future would bring under the tyranny of such a strong national government.

"You gentlemen, the Preachers of the Constitution," wrote A True Friend (advocates of both sides used pseudonyms during the debate), "will not sure contest a fact proved by the records of all ages and of all nations that the liberties and rights of the people have been always encroached on, and finally destroyed by those, whom they had entrusted with the power of government."

"To lay and collect internal taxes in this extensive country must require a great number of Congressional ordinances," wrote Federal Farmer. "These must continually interfere with the State laws and thereby produce disorder and dissatisfaction till the one system of laws or the other ... must be abolished."

The Constitution's national government would produce "a vast number of expensive offices"; it would "totally annihilate the separate governments of the several States"; it would "have to be supported at a vast expense, by which our taxes would be doubled or trebled."

Sounds eerily familiar, doesn't it?

The Federalists, on the other hand, argued for a strong national government, one that clearly superseded State authority.

In fact, James Madison—primary author of the Constitution and co-author of The Federalist Papers—deeply distrusted what he regarded as the pettiness and self-interestedness of "local" politics, by which he meant any politics lower than national. During the Constitutional Convention, Madison argued vociferously for an absolute Congressional veto power over State laws. He thought national veto power "may at once support a due supremacy of the national authority, and not exclude the local authorities wherever they can be subordinately useful."

He lost that debate. The Constitution contains no such federal veto power. But clearly, Madison was hardly a "States Rights" advocate in the modern understanding of that term.

What's more, Madison was deeply skeptical of the public's ability to responsibly evaluate the merits of the Constitution without having participated in the Convention's vigorous and complex interplay between ideas, interests and personalities.

"It is a misfortune, inseparable from human affairs," he lamented, "that public measures are rarely investigated with that spirit of moderation which is essential to a just estimate of their real tendency to advance or obstruct the public good."

As to the meaning of the Constitution and how it is to be ascertained? On this, Madison anticipated communication theories yet to come that would understand meaning-making as a transactional interplay among parties in the discussion.
"All new laws, though penned with the greatest technical skill, and passed on the fullest and most mature deliberation, are considered as more or less obscure and equivocal, until their meaning be liquidated and ascertained by a series of particular discussions and adjudications." —James Madison
When we debate the meaning of the Constitution, liquidating and ascertaining its meaning in our world by a series of particular discussions and adjudications, we are simultaneously formed by and form the Constitution's meaning. In doing so, we have the approval of no less than the document's primary author.

Does this mean that the Tea Party's concerns about the size of today's federal government are without merit? No. Does it mean they should quiet down about their concerns? Certainly not. Does it even mean that Madison was right and the Anti-Federalists were wrong? Not at all. None of these necessarily follow from the facts of the ratification debate.

But this does: Tea Party claims of exclusive Constitutional fidelity are false. They should stop clinging to the falsehood. Doing so might serve "that spirit of moderation" Madison extolled. Which would be good for our country. You know, the one formed by the Constitution.

Rings true to me. And you?