I owe my patriotic sentimentality to my mother, a teacher from Iowa who encouraged me to read and spent the early 1970s prowling yard sales for age-appropriate books about American history, which I promptly consumed. It is because of her that I worshiped Thomas Jefferson above all the other founding fathers, carrying his ideal of intellectual egalitarianism well into my adult life.
Last week she sent me an email titled "Thomas Jefferson's sayings in light of today." My hackles rose before I even opened it, since poor red-haired TJ has become the Patron Saint of Liberty in modern America, cited by all sides as proof of their fundamental wisdom and Americanism. And Mom joined me in ambivalence: "Don't know how I feel about a lot of these ... but it is interesting!"
Interesting and deeply bothersome is how I'd put it.
"When we get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, we shall become as corrupt as Europe."
"The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work, and give to those who are not."
"It is incumbent on every generation to pay its own debts as it goes. A principle, which if acted on, would save one-half the wars of the world."
"I predict future happiness for Americans, if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them."
And so on. In short, the collection presents an American icon as Ron Paul with a pony tail, a Libertarian genius standing athwart history and shouting "Stop!" For every anxious American worried about the future of the country under Democratic leadership, this collection reads like Jefferson's j'accuse from beyond the grave.
Which brings me, this Presidents Day, to an uncomfortable duty. I come to argue not only with one of my greatest heroes, but in doing so, to argue for a new understanding of this particular moment in history. Because I believe we are in the midst of the fourth America revolution.
Today we remember the third president's political ideals as "Jeffersonian Democracy," and they are beautiful if only for their coherent, logical simplicity: Limited government, self-reliance, civic duty, etc. It's a political philosophy based on decentralization and individual virtue -- perhaps as close to a core American identity as we've ever come.
Of course, other aspects of Jeffersonian Democracy are not so universally beloved: He believed that democracy per se was nothing more than mob rule. He advocated a strict separation of church and state. Jefferson feared standing armies and "foreign entanglements." And had Jefferson been president in 1861, his beliefs about States' Rights would have allowed the Republic to dissolve into two separate nations.
Neither was this great political philosopher so equally wise as a sitting president. Despite his belief in "pay-as-you-go" government, Jefferson failed to achieve it. His response to the Barbary pirates is cited as a proud success, but on the larger issue of American sovereignty during the Napoleonic Era, Jefferson was rather more of a flop. His Embargo Act of 1807 was a disaster for American businesses and ironically expanded the federal government's involvement in trade to invasive, near-tyrannical control. Jefferson's inability to deal pragmatically with the world of the early 19th century bestowed his successor with an undeclared war with England and no means to win it.
In other words, Jefferson was a great man of the 18th century who struggled with the realities of the 19th, a theorist to whom we owe two great debts: A fundamental belief in liberty, and the radical idea that "the pursuit of happiness" is an essential human right. Both are imprinted in our national DNA.
That was America 1.0: The Grand Experiment of the Enlightenment, beset then as now with greed and ignorance and petty power struggles. It lasted more or less from the demise of The Articles of Confederation in 1788 (Call The Articles of Conferation America's Beta period) until the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862 and ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865.
America 2.0 began not with the shots on Fort Sumter in 1861, but with Abraham Lincoln's decision to address, once and for all, the sin at the heart of our nation's founding: slavery. Lincoln did so incrementally, but committed the Republic to a future that was not only far less hypocritical but also far less decentralized. At the start of the Civil War people referred to "these United States" in the plural form. By 1865, "The United States" had become a singular noun.
America 2.0 largely looked inward, concerning itself with the settling and development of North America. This required enormous pools of immigrant labor, and so the world flocked to our shores. Commerce flourished, and along with it came corruption. America 2.0 saw the growth of cities and industries. It saw the rise of a great labor movement that is barely taught in modern American schools. It was a time of vibrancy and violence and bustling domestic optimism.
This second America lasted until The Great Depression, failing in increments for at least two generations before its collapse in 1929-32. Despite the efforts of Teddy Roosevelt and other reformers, robber barons, unregulated financiers, newspaper tycoons and political patronage machines brought the country step-by-step to disaster.
America 3.0 began with the New Deal in 1933, but it was not simply a matter of stimulus economics. Rather, America in The Great Depression learned that unregulated capitalism could be as dangerous as it was dynamic. This realization enabled a new awakening: If the Great Western Democracies were to avoid the fate foretold for them by Karl Marx, they would have to begin to care about the rights and fortunes of the powerless. America 3.0 was the realization that we were no longer a nation of Jeffersonian "yeoman farmers," that the "Go West Young Man" optimism of America 2.0 had run out of places to go. From here on out, we were all in this together, like it or not.
This realization created a system that I dubbed "democratic capitalism": A complex feedback loop of multiple systems that prevented too much power from accruing to any one sector. Just as the founding fathers separated political power into multiple institutions to keep any one branch from growing too strong, America 3.0 ultimately created unprecedented wealth and freedom by expanding that principle into economics and social policy.
Since FDR, democratic capitalism has ebbed and flowed, yet its basic tenets remained in place well into the early 21st century. Among those tenets are regulated markets, checks and balances on businesses, an unprecedented relationship between government and mass media, organized labor as an institution and powerful, established political parties. America 3.0 saw the rise of enormous institutional powers, and though these competing institutions generally stayed in some form of dynamic equilibrium, the power of the individual was diminished with each turn of the wheel.
America 3.0 was an attempt to value everyone in the society as never before. It enabled the creation of the most diverse and egalitarian period in America to date. The Civil Rights Movement is its greatest test and its proudest moment, but the 1960s saw the clash between these two fundamentally opposed historical forces: individual rights and institutional power. Neither side won a complete victory, but from 1980 forward, centralized institutional power has largely held the upper hand.
In 2005, after a largely successful power-grab during George W. Bush's first term of office, the radical proponents of institutional power over-reached. Their attempt to shut down the complex feedback loops that had allowed democratic capitalism to flourish for 70 years failed, yet in doing so, the neo-cons may have effectively cleared the decks for the next great American opportunity.
America 3.0 created stability and wealth by recognizing that prosperity that is not shared eventually leads to disaster. Yet it also clearly favored powerful institutions over individual voices. America 3.0 was possible because of mass media, vast capital, the rise of consumerism and a polarized world situation that balanced nation states in a period of protracted conflict.
Within the past generation, we've seen the erosion of many of its transient "eternal truths." The Soviet Union imploded. Globalization wiped out the American manufacturing economy, ending the era of blue-collar prosperity. Mass media exploded into a fractal kaleidoscope of images and messages and alternatives. And information technology expanded so rapidly that centralized institutions simply failed to keep pace with the emerging culture.
Our economic concerns today are leftovers from America 3.0. There aren't enough good jobs for the working class. Corporations that once undertook great endeavors have all too often succumbed to the allure of inflated stock prices and easy money. Our regulated free markets responded to the benign neglect of the Bush-Clinton-Bush years by consuming themselves. And the institutional wisdom of generations now fails to comprehend the new realities of a networked culture and the new economics it implies.
We haven't reached America 4.0, but we are living the period Jon Taplin described as the Interregnum (Taplin believes there were only two previous Americas). The old order is dead, but the new order has yet to take shape. These are frightening and exciting times, indeed. But what can we say about the next necessary step in American history?
To begin that answer, we need to go back to Thomas Jefferson and fully address the Libertarian impulse in the American soul.
Yeoman farmers, physics and freedom
Libertarianism is perhaps the closest analog to Jeffersonian Democracy in the world today, and it's a testimony to the romantic, persuasive power of the original. Further proof of its rhetorical genius can be found in the modern Republican Party, which, despite the fact that unregulated free markets can be found found nowhere on Earth, continues to preach a religion of free-market capitalism even though the rhetoric ignores reality.
But here's the problem: Those yeoman farmers that Jefferson loved were not only a historic anomaly, they were long ago forced off their farms by the very libertarian economic principles Jefferson espoused. Yes, there's something deeply attractive about the idea of an agrarian America in which each of us is self-sufficient. And yet anyone with eyes to see must conclude that this era is gone. Not only has it passed, but the people who seem to long for it most would likely find it insufferable should it suddenly be forced upon them.
The story of civilization is the story of increased stability that leads to increased complexity that leads to increased wealth, and no generation has ever experienced such global prosperity as the world in which we live today. It has to: Should our global civilization suddenly lose that stability, its ability to sustain complex systems would soon fail, and those complex systems not only make our technologies affordable, they're also required to feed a planet of 6.7 billion people.
In other words, to follow the conservative impulse and return to a simpler time -- to quite literally apply an 18th century solution to a 21st century situation -- is to accept starvation, disease and global poverty.
Yet because the modern Democratic Party has failed to come up with an answer to the rhetoric of Jefferson and Reagan, it's hamstrung by a limited mandate for "change." President Obama is an interesting figure, elected over GOP protests that he was "The Most Liberal Senator in Washington" yet committed only to technocratic pragmatism. One hopes that the values he expressed in 2008 will animate his presidency, but by its early signals his administration appears to be little more than an endless quest for improved effectiveness.
If Obama is to become a truly transformational figure, rather than just a transitional one, at some point he will have to do what no Democratic president has done in decades: Provide a coherent alternative to the institutional powers that speak the rhetoric of Jefferson's yeoman farmers. And that can't happen until we speak the truth, and it begins with this unpleasant observation: Jefferson's yeoman farmers were each disadvantaged by the ante bellum economic system that made Jefferson a wealthy man. Slaves certainly suffered under slavery, but so too did every "yeoman farmer" forced to compete against "gentleman planters" and their workforces of enslaved Africans.
It's one thing for the Ted Nugents of the world to go around howling about Jeffersonian politics -- they don't have to live off farming. Thank goodness. For those of you who've never tried it, it's a helluva way to make a living, both risky and back-breaking. And to attempt to apply such principles of self-reliance in a non-agrarian world in which everyone is so clearly interconnected and mutually dependent goes beyond foolishness and flirts with dishonesty.
Modern conservatives are attracted to simple answers: The Gold Standard, free markets, "personal liberty," and very often, Biblical Inerrancy. They are skilled at citing history to support their arguments, which are often quite sound rhetorically.
Isn't it time we answered them? Isn't it time we began to clearly state the case that theory is a poor substitute for practice, that society, like biology, doesn't operate by simple axioms? Sure, Jefferson set us on the path to where we are today, but he couldn't have steered us here. Or consider Sir Isaac Newton: We owe our modern science to him, but if we reverted to Newtonian physics, we wouldn't have atomic power, or the space program, or laptop computers.
And finally, shouldn't we stand up and say that freedom without prosperity is just another form of serfdom? If my livelihood depends entirely on the whim of my employer, without hope of recourse through regulation or law, then what value is my political freedom? If corporations are entitled to all the rights of individuals but bear only some of their responsibilities, how is that equality under the law? We give businesses great power in America. It's time we started expecting some responsibility as well.
The next step in economics and democracy is likely this: A switch from an economy based on perpetual growth to a system based on sustainability and mutual interest. Not communism (in which the workers own the means of production) or even classic socialism, (in which wealth is intentionally redistributed for political purposes), but a system that understands that stability is based on shared risks and rewards.
Today's capitalism is in trouble because bankers acquired enough power to write rules that gave them tremendous rewards for success and minimal penalties for failure. The risk-reward analysis for everyone downstream (i.e.: The Whole World, including us) looked radically different, as we are now, all of us, learning. The Libertarian solution to this is predictably simple: Let all the bad banks and poorly run companies fail. They don't grasp that the economy's value to society exists not in the bottom-line asset sheets of a multinational corporations, but within the interconnected complexity of the economy itself.
Our global economy isn't a plantation. It's a rainforest. And the best way to make it healthier is to stop clear-cutting it.
Ecosystems create equilibrium. And there's little balance in our political economy today. Consider: Big-time investors don't really sweat recessions. They rearrange their portfolios and snap-up undervalued assets on the cheap. A great deal of "capital formation" takes place during recessions. But the rest of us suffer immensely. And since "the rest of us" are the people who make the economy go, isn't it time that the risks and rewards of capitalism were shared more equally? Because if the age of extraction economics is ending, then all growth must be based on mutual interest.
Isn't it time that we began to harness the power of networked media as a "force multiplier?" Isn't it time we began to reinvent government based on the abilities of technology-enabled groups, rather than on vertical hierarchies? Isn't it time we replaced bureaucracy with adhocracy?
Most Americans live in cities now, and there are more Americans playing World of Warcraft than there are those who make a living farming. Our health, our livelihoods and yes, even our freedoms, depend upon cooperation, not romanticized notions of frontier self-reliance. Pretending otherwise won't make it so, and selective myopia is not historical insight.
So let's take Jefferson, and history, in a more truthful context. Let's begin not by scolding each other with great disconnected quotations, but by interpreting those great thoughts into a world the original thinkers never imagined. Let's make this revolution, in which we are today embroiled, as peaceful and as great as destiny allows.