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The Most Successful Revolution
WHAT IS THERE TO CELEBRATE?
April 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 3
It should not he surprising, therefore, that in the war of ideologies that has engulfed the twentieth century the United States is at a disadvantage. This disadvantage does not flow from any weakness on our part; it is not, as some say, because we have forgotten our revolutionary heritage and therefore have nothing to say to a discontented and turbulent world. We have, indeed, much to say, only it is not what our contemporaries want to hear—it is not even what we ourselves want to hear, and in that sense it may be correct to claim we have forgotten our revolutionary heritage. Our revolutionary message—and it is a message, not of the Revolution itself, but of the American political tradition from the Mayflower to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—is that a self-disciplined people rmi create a political community in which an ordered liberty will promote both economic prosperity and political participation. To the teeming masses of other nations the American political tradition says: to enjoy the fruits of selfgovernment you must first cease being “masses” and become a “people,” attached to a common way of life, sharing common values, and existing in a condition of mutual trust and sympathy as between individuals and even social classes. It is a distinctly odd kind of revolutionaiy message, by twentieth-century criteria—so odd that it seems not revolutionary at all, and yet so revolutionary that it seems utterly utopian. What the twentieth century wants to hear is the grand things that a new government will do for the people who put their trust in it. What the American political tradition says is that the major function of government is to supervise the orderly arrangement of society and that a free people does not make a covenant or social contract with its government, or with the leaders of any “movement,” but among themselves.
In the end what informs the American political tradition is a proposition and a premise. The proposition is that the best national government is, to use a phrase the Founding Fathers were fond of, “mild government.” The premise is that you can only achieve mild government if you have a solid bedrock of local self-government, so that the responsibilities of national government are limited in scope. And a corollary of this premise is that such a bedrock of local self-government can only be achieved by a people who—through the shaping influence of religion, education, and their own daily experience—are capable of governing themselves in those small and petty matters which are the stuff’ of local politics.
Does this conception of politics have any relevance to the conditions in which people today live in large areas of the world—the so-called underdeveloped areas, especially? We are inclined, I think, to answer instinctively in lhe negative; but that answer may itself be a modern ideological prejudice. We take it for granted that if a people live in comparative poverty, they are necessarily incapable of the kind of self-discipline and sobriety that makes for effective self-government in their particular communities. Mind you, I am not talking about starving people, who are in a prepolitical condition and whose problem is to get a strong and effective government of almost any kind. I am talking about comparatively poor people. And our current low estimate of the political capabilities of such people is an ideological assumption, not an objective fact. Many of our frontier communities, at the time of the Revolution and for decades afterward, were poor by any standards; and yet this poverty was not, for the most part, inconsistent with active self-government. And there have been communities in Europe, too, that were very poor—not actually starving, of course, but simply very poor—yet were authentic political communities; the popular musical Fiddler on the Roof gave us a picture of such a community. It is always better not to be so poor, but poverty need not be a pathological condition, and political pathology is not an inevitable consequence of poverty—just as political pathology is not inevitably abolished by prosperity. Poor people can cope with their poverty in many different ways; they are people, not sociological creatures; in the end they will cope as their moral and political convictions tell them to cope; and these convictions, in turn, will be formed by the expectations that their community addresses to them—expectations that they freely convert into obligations.