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The Rise of the New Confederacy: How America-Hating Right-Wingers Took Over the GOP

The rhetoric of Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin and Rick Perry about the “real America” is not imagined: They and those who oppose them live in different Americas.
 
 
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What is America, and what is an American? If anything binds us together across space and time, it is our ideals and the stories we tell about our pursuit of them. From the beginning, we set ourselves against Europe’s hierarchies. We exalted democratic government, equality of opportunity and individual freedom. We conceived of our experiment as “the last best hope of earth,” in Lincoln’s words.

But ideals don’t live in a vacuum; they take root in the soil of institutions. Beginning with our first experiments in self-government, the dissonance between our ideals and our institutional practices–especially the tolerance and extension of slavery–created tensions that finally tore us apart.

The South’s alternative vision of the good society was defeated in the Civil War, and our 20th-century history can be told as a narrative of halting progress toward greater tolerance and equality. The major plot points include regulations on corporations in the early 1900s; women’s suffrage in 1920; a social safety net in the New Deal; the Supreme Court’s rejection of Jim Crow laws in 1954; the civil rights and feminist movements of the 1960s; the gay rights victories since the 1970s.

This narrative suggests that our democratic experiment is working, albeit slowly. If we have never been entirely unified in our ideals, the Civil War at least re-unified our institutions. A century and a half later, we rally around the same flag. Or so we think.

The deeper truth is disquieting. The rhetoric of Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin and Rick Perry about the “real America” is not imagined: They and those who oppose them live in different Americas, embodying different ideals and meaning different things to their loyalists.

How we reached this impasse is a fascinating question. The answer to it raises profound doubts and questions about how–and whether–we can move forward as “one nation, indivisible.”

The split could be said to have begun at Harvard in the decades between the Civil War and the turn of the century, when the university’s president, Charles Eliot, initiated a series of reforms that transformed the paradigm of higher education in the United States.

From the colonial era through the Civil War, Harvard’s intellectual life revolved around the Bible. Harvard’s mission was to train gentlemen of high moral character by giving them a solid grounding for their faith.

Eliot moved Harvard away from this ideal and toward the model of a modern research university. Expanding the boundaries of knowledge through research became the institution’s focus. Most universities followed the lead of Harvard and that of Johns Hopkins University, founded in 1876 for the sole purpose of pursuing a secular research agenda.

This new mission for universities created a spectacular fragmentation of knowledge. By the early 20th century, the old-school generalist who taught everything from Latin to literature and history was a relic. The new university required scholars to specialize in defined fields. This rise of experts within the academy reflected the increasing importance of expertise in American society, as careers in the professions came to require specialized training.

The progressive movement of the early 20th century grew out of these developments. Progressives hoped to make the new knowledge emerging from universities relevant to the actual world. After the First World War, the window of opportunity seemed wide open. John Dewey–the Columbia University philosopher and quintessential progressive–supported U.S. involvement in the war because he believed that the federal government’s new powers would be used, at the war’s end, to reconstruct society along more egalitarian lines.

Dewey had eloquent critics on the left, most notably Randolph Bourne, a young intellectual who rejected the idea that a militarized state could ever be mobilized for progressive purposes. Dewey, stung by the criticisms, used his influence to have Bourne banned from most progressive publications.