One Good Book

The Revolution Will Be Politicized

National Journal
Feb. 6, 2015, midnight

Fight­ing Over the Founders: How We Re­mem­ber the Amer­ic­an Re­volu­tion, by An­drew M. Schock­et (New York Uni­versity Press, 2015)

What It’s About

Fight­ing Over the Founders ex­am­ines the on­go­ing clash over the mean­ing of the Amer­ic­an Re­volu­tion. Schock­et sorts the camps in­to “es­sen­tial­ists,” who view the Founders as vis­ion­ary “demi­gods,” cre­at­ors of  “a leg­acy from which stray­ing would be treas­on”; and “or­gan­i­cists,” who “be­lieve that  Amer­ic­ans are ever in the pro­cess of try­ing to com­plete a Re­volu­tion that the founders left un­fin­ished.” He then de­tails how this tug-of-war over our na­tion­al ori­gin story plays out in polit­ics, en­ter­tain­ment, aca­demia, and in­sti­tu­tions such as mu­seums. (Jean Le­on Ge­rome Fer­ris/Lib­rary of Con­gress)

 

Tar­get D.C. Audi­ence

His­tor­i­ans, speech­writers, mu­seum cur­at­ors, tour guides, doc­u­ment­ari­ans, con­sti­tu­tion­al law ex­perts, dog-whistle de­coders, plus self-re­flect­ive tea-party act­iv­ists and any­one else who might claim the mantle of the Founders. 

 

Best Line

“Let’s not fight, they sug­gest, let’s share the na­tion’s found­ing sym­bols. But I think that we should con­tin­ue to de­bate the na­tion’s ori­gins. At least the Amer­ic­an Re­volu­tion gives us a com­mon set of char­ac­ters, set­tings, and events. That civic vocab­u­lary al­lows for de­bate through a rhet­or­ic­al short­hand. The point in a demo­cracy is not for us to agree on everything. But we can have dis­cus­sions if at least we’re speak­ing the same con­cep­tu­al lan­guage.”

 

To Be Sure

Schock­et is forth­right about his lib­er­al bi­as, so it is not sur­pris­ing that he tends to be more crit­ic­al of es­sen­tial­ism, the view he ar­gues con­ser­vat­ives are more likely to hold, than he is of or­gan­i­cism, a per­spect­ive he says is more com­monly found on the left. 

 

One Level Deep­er

The book’s first chapter is a ver­it­able gloss­ary of found­ing-era quotes and how they’ve been used on the stump by mem­bers of both parties. This could be a valu­able tool for speech­writers. As Schock­et notes, “Quot­ing the founders rep­res­ents a strong rhet­or­ic­al gam­bit, re­flect­ing the as­sump­tion that no one can gain­say Jef­fer­son on the mean­ing of the De­clar­a­tion of In­de­pend­ence.” Journ­al­ists and oth­ers look­ing to de­code the rhet­or­ic might also find it use­ful. 

Among the more telling rev­el­a­tions: Re­pub­lic­ans have used the phrase “Found­ing Fath­ers” four times as of­ten as their Demo­crat­ic coun­ter­parts since 1968, while Demo­crats have over­whelm­ingly stuck to “a more per­fect uni­on” and “cre­ated equal” when echo­ing the found­ing gen­er­a­tion.

 

The Big Takeaway

The Amer­ic­an Re­volu­tion isn’t the na­tion­al uni­fi­er it might seem to be — and you can learn a lot about someone’s polit­ics by how they think and talk about it. 

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