The American Political System in a Time of Crisis: Remarks to Entering Fulbright Scholars

by Rich Rubenstein on August 25, 2017 · 6 comments

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Remarks to Entering Fulbright Scholars
August 16, 2017 at George Mason University, Arlington, Virginia

This year my university earned the contract to conduct a three-day orientation for some sixty-five Fulbright scholars entering the United States to study at universities around the country. I spent a morning with two faculty colleagues (Profs. Jennifer Ritterhouse of the history department and Susan Trencher of sociology/anthropology) talking with a very lively and concerned group of graduate students about what to expect in an America undergoing painful, largely unpredictable political change. A summary of my remarks follows:

Welcome! I am delighted to meet this year’s Fulbright scholars, especially since I was a Fulbright teacher myself, first in France in the 1970s, then in Malta twenty years later. I’m also glad to be able to honor J. William Fulbright, the Arkansas senator and head of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee who created this enormously successful academic exchange program. To many people’s surprise, the normally conservative Fulbright spoke out vehemently against the U.S. war in Vietnam, which he had become convinced was illegal, immoral, and counter-productive. His moral authority played an important role in ending the war, although not before more than two million Vietnamese and 50,000 Americans had lost their lives.

You are coming here at another critical, exciting, and anxious time in American history: a time of change, of intense polarization, growing partisanship, and increased questioning of political and cultural assumptions. Many of us have the feeling that the United States is at a political turning point, and that things are not going to be the same after this.

My task is to help orient you toward the U.S. political system. The task is complicated by several factors:

First, political systems don’t exist in a vacuum. They are intimately connected (or “nested,” as some analysts say) with social, economic, cultural, and psychological/spiritual systems that also require description. Second, each system contains contradictions and internal conflicts that destabilize and change it. Therefore, we need to describe relevant patterns of change as well as relevant structures. And third, these changes generate emotions that get in the way of “cold” description. There is no such thing as an objective presentation of a political system that doesn’t reflect the presenter’s own political assumptions and values. We saw this subjectivity emerge among people attempting to describe what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia two days ago – an event that all the speakers today will say something about in due course.
In any event, here are four points that I hope will help orient you towards a deeper understanding of the American political system:

1. The original situation

Let’s start with the original situation that produced the American system: a continent settled by white Europeans, who considered it a wilderness given them by God for the purpose of creating a prosperous and virtuous society. I want to emphasize three key factors:

(a) The aboriginal inhabitants of the continent were defeated, driven off the land, and removed to reservations, while several million Africans were kidnapped to provide slave labor for the major agricultural industries. These industries, cotton in particular, were then integrated into the world economy, with the result that that the prosperity of the clothing industry from New England to Old Europe depended upon the unpaid labor of American slaves.

(b) The white settlers who were accorded political personality in America were businesspeople and traders, commercial farmers, craftspeople, and workers (including housewives and other domestic workers). There was no European-style aristocracy or peasantry on the North American continent. This was therefore a predominantly middle-class colonial settler society.

(c) The colonies began with a sense of religious mission that was translated into what later became known as “American exceptionalism.” The British writer G.K. Chesterton said that America was the only country he knew whose spirit was not based on blood, soil, or historical tradition but on a creed: the idea that Americans were a chosen people destined to provide a political and moral example to the world and to save it through the spread of democratic government and individual freedom. America was an extraordinarily diverse society, said Chesterton, a society of immigrants held together very much like a religion by a system of beliefs.

I want to suggest this morning that one of the changes now taking place in the U.S. is the gradual and painful abandonment of the idea of American exceptionalism. We are struggling to learn how to affirm our national identity without affirming its superiority to any other people’s identity. Many people find this very difficult to do when they aren’t feeling fulfilled in their own work or successful in their community and family lives.

2. Key political ideas and values

As a result of this original situation, the major political ideas and values of white American society were middle class ideas owing a great deal to thinkers like John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and John Stuart Mill. These liberal philosophers believed society was based on a contract of sorts between individuals – a social contract like that realized in the U.S. Constitution of 1787. Their assumption was that government was an artificial creation whose role should be minimized in the interests of individual freedom. At the center of the political universe they saw the free, rationally calculating individual – not the family or society itself – as the primary unit.

Furthermore, these philosophers and the American nation-builders who adopted their ideas assumed that capitalist markets and private property were natural, and believed that the rule of law was also natural, even sacred. The issue of radical inequality of wealth and status – the questions of poverty and privilege – did not dominate political consciousness on this side of the Atlantic as they were starting to do in Europe. The general assumption here was that economic abundance was the norm, and that to appropriate some of it for oneself and one’s family, all one had to do was to practice the Protestant work ethic. Many American religions assumed that economic success was a sign of virtue and was morally deserved, while poverty was a sign of moral turpitude.

At the same time, in foreign affairs, the prevailing American attitude for a long time was militarily isolationist. People tended to agree with George Washington that this country should not be involved in European or global wars, and only sometimes in global politics, although it should be involved in international trade. On the other hand, the general assumption (at least among white males) was that the new nation was morally entitled to expand from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, either through land purchases or wars of conquest like the U.S. war against Mexico. The name given to this expansionist doctrine was “Manifest Destiny”.

3. Written and unwritten institutions

The political institutions that developed against this background were of two sorts: some were based on written legal documents, and others were based on political invention and experience. The most important institutions of the first sort were Constitutional. To begin with, the U.S. Constitution created a federal system in which governing powers were distributed between a central government and state governments. In addition, both state and federal constitutions defined certain fundamental rights and freedoms that were given special status in law; unlike the British parliamentary system, the U.S. legal system declared that courts were entitled to defend these rights even against legislative and executive acts that threatened them. I’m afraid that, as poor people and members of minority groups know too well, the protection of these rights is not consistent – but the extent to which they are protected is the glory of the American system.

Finally, written documents defined property rights, including rights in slaves, that were said to be sacred. Of course, the fact that each of these institutions was based on law did not remove them from the realm of controversy. Controversies over federal power and states rights, fundamental liberties, and property rights were not only intense, they could be intensely violent. The U.S. Civil War of 1860-65 killed more than 700,000 Americans, most of them soldiers, and as events like Charlottesville show, we have still not dealt adequately with the legacy of that bitter struggle.

The most important institutions not based on writing were political.

(a) Political parties were created during the nation’s first decade of existence even though some of the Constitution-writers were greatly opposed to them. The characteristic form of this institution in the U.S. has been the two party system, although third parties have sometimes arisen to replace one of the two older parties.

(b) Interest groups played a very active role linking the masses with political elites. These groups, ranging from trade associations and within-government groupings to labor unions and civil rights and other protest groups, can play a highly conservative or radical role, depending upon circumstances. Ordinarily, the wealthiest and most powerful groups dominate the inter-group contest, but as we saw during the period of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, this is not always the case.

(c) The presidency, although defined as a relatively weak office by the U.S. Constitution, has become a dominant institution – an “imperial presidency” – in the twentieth century. This occurred, first, because of the need to reorganize American society in response to the Great Depression, and then because of the assertion of America’s global leadership role. Especially following World War Two, the U.S. became a global empire largely replacing the old European empires, maintaining military forces in more than 80 nations, fighting constant wars, and proclaiming itself the world’s indispensible policeman.

4. Changes in the air: the current political crisis (and a clouded crystal ball)

Finally, what about changes in the American system and the current atmosphere of political crisis that now pervades the United States? According to the Pew Foundation, there has not been a time since they began polling that there has been so much partisanship in American politics – such strong divisions based on conflicting social and cultural values as well as policy differences. Political institutions in the U.S., in particular the political parties and legislatures dominated by those parties, have proven themselves unable to define and solve many of the nation’s most serious social problems: problems like the deindustrialization of large portions of the country; the persistence of deep poverty both among rural white people and people of color; the persistence of racism, sexism, and classism; the clash of values between religious fundamentalists and liberal modernists, and the existence of a permanent state of war in which the U.S. economy is dominated by military-industrial production.

President Trump was elected, in large part, because of the existence of these problems, but there is virtually no indication that he will be able to solve them. The Democrats, who have spent a great deal of time criticizing Trump’s style and character and dreaming of ways to remove him from office, have offered very little in the way of solutions either. Meanwhile, as the political party system descends into extreme partisanship and gridlock, decay generates fragmentation. Larger groups form to the Right and Left of the major parties, and the center continues to weaken — a development that has led to numerous violent confrontations, most recently in Charlottesville, where representatives of the white nationalist Right clashed with counter-protestors of the Left.

Where is all this headed? Are we entering a period of instability and change similar to that of the 1930s or the 1960s? Is there a real possibility of intensified civil violence in the U.S.? Should we worry about a fascist takeover of the American government? It’s important to point out that, while we would like to avoid panicky reactions to a disturbingly unfamiliar situation, we do not really know the answers to these questions. The academic experts are as divided on such issues as the politicians and the public.

My own view is that we are entering one of this country’s periodic eras of mass mobilization and institutional change, but that it is still early in the process – too early to make accurate predictions, although a very good time to get involved. This is an exciting, even if a somewhat scary, time to be a political analyst or activist in America. It is also an exciting – and I hope not too scary – a time to be a Fulbright Scholar at an American university.

I conclude with a request. Keep your eyes open, keep your mind open, and make your own analysis of the situation here during your time in this country. I hope that, when you do, you will share your findings and ideas with us, since America is surely not “exceptional” in its need for imaginative solutions to unsolved social problems. On the contrary, we need good ideas and political renewal as much as any other people on earth.

Thanks for your attention. Now let’s talk.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Marc leland August 26, 2017 at 9:36 am

Dear rich.
Interesting summary but making Fulbright a hero a bit much. He tried to kill the peace corps as chair of foreign relations committee he hated it because he though it might compete with Fulbright he only did not succeed because he was up against the president’s brother in law I testified before him. He was a nasty man and do not need to say anything about racism. For fulbright scholars I would add what Europeans are seeing. Checks and balances a good thing.


Rich Rubenstein August 26, 2017 at 6:30 pm

Marc, you were on the scene as General Counsel to the Peace Corps so I can hardly disagree about that. I never met the man but I remember how important his break with Lyndon was to the anti-war movement.


Carolyne Ashton August 27, 2017 at 2:00 am

Hi Rich, excellent piece. If I were an entering Fullbright Scholar, I would feel well-introduced to the American system. My only critique is that, all through the Charlottesville conversation, I have not agreed with statements that put all of the anti-fascist, anti-Nazi, etc. protestors in the camp of the Left. I know many conservatives, Republicans, Evangelicals, and fundamentalists who totally disapprove of white supremacists and are just as likely to protest as anyone on the “Left.”


Rich Rubenstein August 27, 2017 at 2:30 pm

You’re right Carolyne. Thanks for the reminder.


Carolyne Ashton August 29, 2017 at 4:17 am

I’d put a heart here, if I could 🙂


Diane Perlman August 28, 2017 at 1:38 pm

Thanks Rich for this excellent piece. I appreciate the psychohistorical background beginning with defeating the natives and how we evolved. I think it is worth publishing somewhere as an article where it will get more exposure.
Also, fyi, Fullbright wrote an excellent intro to Jerome Frank’s book, Sanity and Survival in the Nuclear Age: Psychological Aspects of War and Peace in 1967. It begins, “So frequently it is pointed out tat the human race has acquired the means of its own destruction that the shocking fact no longer shocks us.”

It seems now we are being shocked. Need much wisdom to get through this. Thanks for your contribution.


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