Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The Declining Use of the Founding Fathers in Progressive Political Rhetoric

Watched Jon Stewart interview Robert Reich last night. I was really struck by what happened when Reich brought up Jefferson. Stewart basically dismissed any reference to Jefferson by saying that he was banging his slaves while saying this. This brought to mind an issue I consider important--the use of the Founding Fathers in modern political arguments.

I have long been struck in my own research by how so many different groups use the rhetoric and images of the Founders for their own purposes. I have seen them invoked by hunting groups, patriotic groups, radical labor organizations, etc. I had a friend who wrote a thesis on how Jefferson was used by both segregationists and the Civil Rights movement. Today, the Republicans use their version of the Founding Fathers all the time, particularly in discussing the 2nd amendment, small government, and the role of religion in American life. But progressives almost never use the Founders anymore.

What to make of this phenomenon? I am mixed on it. I don't think that invoking men of 200+ years ago is particularly valuable. But then again, isn't the age of our political system one of its benefits and weaknesses? How can you interpret a vague 218 year old document for modern society? Particularly when the actual intent of the writers of the Constitution is so up in the air. Because the Constitution is so open for debate, it makes sense in political arguments to invoke the beliefs of certain Founders when they fit your purpose. But modern progressives represent the first time in American history that this rarely happens. Why? I think the reason almost has to be because of progressives (appropriate) rejection of the patriarchy and slaveholding society that these men represented. But by rejecting to invoke these men at all, we deny ourselves one of the most powerful and resonant rhetorical methods we can use for pushing our agenda. Washington, Jefferson, and the other early American leaders still have great cache with most Americans, even if they don't have a clue what they really stood for. Republicans know this and they misrepresent what these men believed in. But because progressives virtually ignores these figures, we cede this entire rhetorical ground to the Republicans. We don't challenge what they say Washington and Jefferson thought and thus Republican versions of their beliefs go into the ears of Americans uncontested by a progressive version of our early history.

Yes the Founding Fathers had beliefs that we should find repulsive today. But for God's sake they lived over 200 years ago. It's absurd to banish Jefferson as a patriarchal dead white male because he didn't believe in women's suffrage and had sex with a slave. While we should be knowledgeable of the misdeeds of past leaders, we shouldn't judge them entirely by modern standards. To do so has serious consequences upon our attempts to convince the nation of the rightness of our convictions.