American Imports Revalued: The Tributaries of American Culture
for the bicentennial year of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence
Delivered by: Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, Representative for the 18th District of the State of Texas
The subject matter of this lecture has nothing to do with America’s trade policy. The subtitle, The Tributaries of American Culture, may provide some clue that I will talk about the package of ideas and beliefs which America borrowed and eventually made its own. In America, we will re-work, re-craft an idea or belief, give it an American patina and at times declare that its value has been enhanced — even in the face of contrary evidence.
I believe that two imports, two concepts, have most shaped the American governing process: the idea first developed by John Locke that the government derives its power from the consent of the governed; and the belief that consent can best be implemented by a legislative body. These two ideas have influenced the way America governs herself and relates to the world around her.
‘Consent of the governed’ is the last phrase in the most famous paragraph of our Declaration of Independence. What that phrase means today and how legislative bodies go about implementing ‘the consent of the governed’ is of concern to me. I do not mean that in the context of being a Member of Congress standing for re-election this year. Nor does my concern originate with my involvement in my country’s constitutional crisis of two years ago.
My concern, rather, is similar to that of Daniel Bell, the Harvard University sociologist, who believes that there exists in America a crisis of belief which has as its major consequence, the loss of ‘civitas — the spontaneous willingness to obey the law, to respect the rights of others, to forego the temptations of private enrichment at the expense of the public weal’. America needs to rectify this loss. If we do not, our failure will help bring about Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s prediction that ‘liberal democracy on the American model will soon become a holdover form of government like 19th century monarchies with no relevance to the future’.
The crux of the problem is that representative democracy as we know it in America is on the decline and with it the ability of the government to govern. This disenchantment with representative government has coincided with a rise in the belief that ‘participatory democracy’ could be a resolution to the problems faced by American society.
The disenchantment with representative democracy is not a new problem. Lord Bryce in his famous commentary on the United States, The American Commonwealth, described this as one of the recurring problems of American democracy. The discernible interests of the majority and the objectives of the government are not always the same; sometimes they conflict, sometimes they are contestants in the legislative arena. The outcome may be decided by the articulateness of the spokesmen for the majority.
The nature of this contest in America is today paradoxical. More people are aware of the government’s impact on their lives, but at the same time more people are disenthralled. The public realm is left then to party officials, political activists and special interest groups. Allow me to briefly explain how we arrived at this situation two hundred years after Thomas Jefferson contributed the phrase, ‘consent of the governed’, to our political language.
In the early years of our republic, we accepted Locke’s concept of property ownership as a requirement for voting. It was subsequently revalued to mean that it was the right of all who were governed to have the opportunity to consent or dissent. The term ‘consent of the governed’ came to mean one thing: the right to participate in the electoral process. The enfranchisement of blacks, of women and, most recently, of eighteen year olds is an important chapter in our political history. This drive culminated with the adoption of the 24th Constitutional Amendment eliminating the poll tax, the passage of a voting rights act in 1965 which mandated that the Federal Government would intervene in our Southern States to protect the right of minorities to vote, and the enfranchisement of young people. Efforts to eliminate legal barriers to the right to vote continue to this day.
In addition to removing legal barriers to the right to vote, participation in American politics came to have other meanings: that each interest group had a right to participate in the apportionment of the Federal budget and involvement in the decision-making process. To a certain extent, these were fostered by the Federal Government principally through the passage of some legislation which mandated that citizens in local communities must be consulted prior to the distribution of Federal funds. This was done, primarily, to insure that members of minority groups and the poor would have a mechanism which would enable them to participate in the governing process.
It was hoped that the expansion of the franchise would enhance the respect of the people for the government. It did not.
Daniel Bell in The Coming of the Post Industrial Society succinctly describes what has occurred in American politics in the last few years:
“The expansion of the political arena and the involvement of a greater number of persons simply means that it takes more time and more cost to reach a decision and to get anything done. More claimants are involved, interests multiply, caucuses have to meet, demands have to be bargained over, differences have to be mediated — and time and cost mount up as each person or interest wants to have his or its say. Often one hears the statement that individuals or groups feel powerless to affect affairs. But there is probably more participation today than ever before in political life, at all levels of government, and that very increase in participation leads to the multiplication of groups that check each other, and thus to the sense of impasse. Thus increased participation paradoxically leads, more often than not, to increased frustration.”
The result of increased frustration has been the loss of civitas. One task of political leaders in America in the immediate future will be to nurture its restoration. This will not be easy. Political leaders must ignore public opinion polls and begin to live again. Political leaders must attempt to answer the following question: in a period when representative government is not held in high esteem, how do we go about developing a consensus in a society composed of thousands of interest groups? We can begin by encouraging the majority of the people, to use Lord Ashby’s phrase, to concern themselves more with the politics of values than the politics of interest. Four re-evaluations by Americans may facilitate the development of a consensus among diverse interest groups.
First, we Americans will have to think in terms of the whole rather than the particular. As a people, we must begin to define our Pursuit of Happiness in terns of the general welfare rather than our own individual needs. As Robert Bellam, a noted Americen sociologist wrote: ‘The Constitution as created by Jefferson and Madison was not meant to be a shell for the pursuit of self-interest, but rather a space for the exercise of free initiative in the public interest.’
Second, Americans, a people fascinated by technology, must realize that there are not technological solutions to some of the serious problems our society confronts. In 1961, President Kennedy proclaimed America’s intention to land on the moon before 1970. Four years later, Sargent Shriver, then head of the War on Poverty, outlined in a memorandum to Present Johnson, the Federal Government’s plan to end poverty by 1976. Three days ago, America landed a spacecraft on Mars. Poverty remains silhouetted against these marvels of technological achievement.
Third, the American people will have to expand their concept of time. For most Americans, time is limited to the present. The sheer abundance of our natural resources has allowed Americans to ignore the need to preserve resources. We are only mow beginning to understand the meaning of conservation because of the awakened consciousness directed toward protecting the environment.
Television also constricts our sense of time by enabling advertisers to incessantly promote their mesage to ‘buy now,’ so much so, that Daniel Boorstin wrote, ‘A new price of our American standard of living is our imprisonment in the present.’
The resulting restrictions on our sense of time affect the governmental process. Interest groups press the government to provide benefits and solve all problems immediately. Government attempts to meet most demands and fails. We are now paying for the consequences of our actions.
Fourth, the American public will have to realize that there are limits to what the government can and cannot do. Throughout our history and particularly in the last forty years, social programs have proliferated primarily because we could afford to pay for them. David Potter1 the American historian, asserts that ‘abundance made possible the realization of the expectations which democratic ideology promised... We could afford our ideals more because of our condition rather than our character.’ Now, we must determine whether we can afford our ideals more because of our character than our condition.
Congress has taken the first step in the development of a new budget process that will in effect test the people’s representatives’ commitment to social advancement by forcing them to choose what needs must be satisfied immediately and which ones are to be deferred temporarily. The acceptance and successful implementation of the budget process will be one indication of whether or not a consensus can be forged and which needs are to be met immediately.
The four re-evaluations I have suggested would not solve immediate problems but would establish a milieu in which representative government may be able to regain some of its authority and thereby function more efficiently.
These re-evaluations are not only important in restoring a sense of national community, but also in terms of re-establishing the position of America in the world. As Samuel Huntington in his essay, Democratic Distemper, wrote: ‘A decline in the governability of democracy at home means a decline in the influence of democracy abroad.’
Does ‘consent of the governed’ and the implementation of that consent by legislative bodies in any manner shape America’s role in the world?
Henry Fairlie, your modern day successor to Lord Bryce, as well as Professor Brogan in his new book, The Spoiled Child of the Western World, have addressed the subject of America’s destiny: ‘from the moment the country was invented, the dominance of the United States in the world was foretold by Americans and Europeans alike.’ Our nation’s foreign policy ultimately depends on the consent of the governed.
As Fairlie observed, ‘It is in America that one senses one of the predicaments of the citizen of a democracy: that he feels a sense of moral involvement in, and responsibility for the deeds (and misdeeds) of a government which he helped to elect, but over which, for the term of its office, his control is tenuous and indistinct.’
‘A sense of moral involvement’ is, on the surface, an odd phrase to use when discussing foreign policy. Yet, to have any understanding of America’s foreign policy, an observer must fully comprehend what the phrase, ‘a sense of moral involvement’, means to Americans.
Allow me to briefly explain. In my judgment, there is a widespread feeling, a belief if you will, in the American idea. Though intangible and for the most part unexpressed, this belief is so strong that after two hundred years, it still dominates our thinking. Historians call it our national purpose; our drive to create a Utopia that can never be. Politicans call it the promise of America. The people, my constituents, use more direct terms, often negative: ‘that’s un-American’—-or ‘we shouldn’t be doing that.’
They have a fixed, though inarticulated standard by which the actions of Presidents are ultimately judged. To ignore the strength of that idea in to disregard an important element that goes into the making of our foreign policy. America, as Alastair Buchan pointed out, ‘is to a significant degree an ideological state . . . . It imposes upon the President the restriction not only of being for the most part unable to indulge in sudden shifts of attitudes or alignments, but of having to formulate policies that elicit the basic idealism of American opinion.’ It is for that reason that Felix Gilbert in his recent article in Foreign Affairs could write, ‘In the assumptions about the leading role of the United States in the world, we find beliefs and hopes similar to those which inspired the thinking on foreign affairs in the early years of the republic.’
How has this idea been revalued over the last two centuries?
During the first century of our existence, this moral fervor, this belief that America had a special destiny, was focused on demonstrating to the world that America’s experiment with democracy could succeed. During the latter half of the 19th century, America, moved by the concept of Manifest Destiny, directed its attention to bringing God and democracy to what we perceived to be less fortunate people. Later, Woodrow Wilson attempted to plant the seed of American democracy in Europe following the First World War.
At its best, this belief in our special destiny has made America a ‘standing monument and example’ among some peoples of the world. At worst, this same moral fervor fostered a sense of self- righteousness that led America to either turn its back on the world or try to impose a Pax Americana.
Observers are now seeking clues to determine how this concept is being once again reshaped by the American people. Some may believe that they have found them already in Congress’s restrictions or Presidential war powers and freedom to act in Cambodia, and, most recently. Angola They believe, as Mr. David Watt of The Financial Times recently wrote, that a ‘dangerous tide of neoisolationism is rising in Congress. They would have you believe that the American people are running as fast as possible toward Fortress America and are quite prepared to ignore the rest of the world. Questions are raised as to whether or not America has the will to act.’
No one can answer these questions until the American people are put to the test. But observations suggesting an isolationist trend in America, in my belief, are not accurate.
Congress and the American people show a continued willingness to support America’s commitments abroad. Congress, for example, has for the first time in the history of our nation, not reduced a defense budget following the end of a war.
Congressional critics of the defense budget — and I am one — who wish to reduce it by five billion dollars, believe the reductions can be made without jeopardizing our national defense. The discovery of numerous ‘cost overruns’ in the development of weapons systems clearly indicates that sound budgeting procedures could eliminate not only waste, but foster greater efficiency.
Observers should not equate a belief in sound management procedures with a belief in isolationism. Nor should Congress’s restrictions on covert actions in Angola be taken as a sign that America will not defend our common strategic interests. Those who do may be judging Congress’s decisions by standards which were suitable for the 1950s, but not the present. What, then, are the views of the American people?
Louis Harris, found in a poll released last September, that by a margin of 66 to 24 per cent Americans have rejected the notion that we ought to stay out of world affairs — a margin almost identical to that in 1974. ‘Three quarters or more of the people’, he has said, ‘believe the US is highly dependent on the rest of the world for our energy and other key resources.’ His report and that of other pollsters who testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee give every indication that the American people more so than in the past, have a greater awareness of the interdependence of nations.
The pollsters’ reports also give some clues about the changing attitudes of the American people. The rigid and monolithic perceptions that were characteristic of the 1950s and 1960s, the belief that every conflict could only be viewed in black and white, no longer exist. It is for this reason that a majority uphold a policy of supporting socialist governments which respect the basic rights of their people.
While not a majority, a substantial number of Americans, about 41 per cent, think it proper for America to recognize democratic left-wing governments.
The American people have come to regard issues such as population growth, access to raw materials, and protection of the oceans as multi-faceted, rather than bi-polar. They realize that a solution to these and other problems cannot be imposed by the major powers but must be reached by developing a consensus among all the countries concerned.
George Gallup, another pollster, reported that ‘although Americans continue to be internationalist in outlook at the present time we are perhaps less strident in our internationalism than we were in the - . - 1950s. The desire to be Number One is not quite so compelling.’
Let it be clear, that I do not believe that public opinion polls should be the foundation on which America’s foreign policy rests. To paraphrase a former Justice of the Supreme Court: What the crowd wants cannot become the ultimate standard by which the soundness of a policy is judged. Its actual formulation should be left to the President, but any President would be wise to maintain a continuing dialogue with a public that is, in the words of Louis Harris, ‘prepared to take giant strides toward international participation, well beyond what their leaders have asked.’
The decision that Americans must make is whether a basic principle on which our foreign policy is founded is to be changed. For twenty-nine years since it was first developed by President Truman in 1947, our foreign policy has been rooted in the belief that America should support any government, be it a liberal democracy or a dictatorship, as long as that government opposes communism.
Can America now develop a new principle on which our future foreign policy is to be based that expresses in a realistic way the basic idealism of the American people? I believe we must.
The American people are seeking a foreign policy founded on a principle that is positioned between two extremes, of pragmatism without idealism, and of idealism which is oblivious to realities. Two observations relating to foreign policy follow:
First, that what a country stands for is often more important than what it actually does. The United States, despite all of its efforts, many well-intentioned, and the expenditure of billions of dollars, has not won the war of ideas.
Second, that any President in the immediate future cannot get the United States involved surreptitiously in the affairs of other countries and expect to find the people united behind his policy. A President must build the consensus first and then act.
While unsure of how their idealistic goals can be realized, I do not think that Americans will shrink from fulfilling their responsibilities to the world community nor will they abdicate their responsibility to continue to develop a society that fosters racial harmony and upholds human liberty. Our success in that endeavour, with the ‘consent of the governed’, may, in the long run, be our greatest foreign policy weapon and the special destiny that America is to fulfil.
The words of one of your novelists of the past century, Mr. Thackeray, seem an apt conclusion to the subject of America’s British imports. Speaking of the British character — perhaps with tongue in cheek — he wrote ‘for a steady self-esteem, and indomitable confidence in our own courage, greatness and magnanimity, who can compare with the Britons except their children across the Atlantic?’ Although this child from across the Atlantic cannot, for reasons obvious, be considered a British off-spring in an anthropological sense, I thank you for this opportunity to visit the land of my political ancestry.
© The Ditchley Foundation, 1976. All rights reserved. Queries concerning permission to translate or reprint should be addressed to the Communications Officer, The Ditchley Foundation, Ditchley Park, Enstone, Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire OX7 4ER, England.