Friday, November 02, 2012

Our Moderate Heritage

Maybe ideologically, we’ve always been a closely divided nation.  Using estimates from various experts, during the years of our Revolutionary War 45% of Americans  were “neutral” or leaning neutral while 40% were patriots and 15% were loyalists.

Even patriots were divided between those seeking protection from pro-British Indian nations, those seeking economic equality and those seeking independence from British laws.  Maybe we only think we’re more divided now than 230 years ago because much of our historical narrative has been rewritten due to what psychologists call a need for cognitive coherence, especially among ideological conservatives.

However, back at the dawning of this country, only 1 in 4 served in the Continental Army or for a few weeks or so in the various local and state militias and at any given time the war actively involved only 8% of all who were patriots.  According to a 2010 article in The Smithsonian:

“After 1777, the average Continental soldier was young, single, propertyless, poor and in many cases an outright pauper.”

Many today forget that in the southern colonies, the war was as much a civil war as a revolutionary one and providence came as much in the form of treasure, soldiers, sailors, ships and endorsement from France and Spain as it did from above.

Even fighting on behalf of colonies divided over race at the time, a quarter of those fighting in the war as victory was achieved were Blacks, which made up 20% of the population at the time.  Many were in front line combat units and fought with distinction.

I like to think I would have been as patriotic as some of my ancestors, who fit the description above and fought not only in Virginia militias but in the 9th North Carolina, 5th Pennsylvania and 4th Massachusetts of the Continental Army some in the north under General Washington and some also during several pivotal battles in the south.

However, I don’t think of those who remained neutral back then as unpatriotic, nor do I believe they were all neutral due to religion such as many Quakers and Amish were, nor were they any more likely than patriots did to seek to profit from the war, something that galled Washington.

I think many who were neutral back then may have been moderates who were very aptly defined last week by conservative columnist David Brooks when he wrote, “Just as the founding fathers tried a mixed form of government, moderates like pluralistic agendas, mixing and matching from columns A, B and C. They try to create harmonious blends of policies that don't, at first glance, go together.”

George Washington himself was a conservative among revolutionaries but a moderate conservative.  In his excellent biography Washington A Life, published two years ago, acclaimed author Ron Chernow repeatedly illustrates that even while he was spearheading the effort to achieve independence – “It took courage for Washington, instead of simply demonizing Great Britain, to study the secrets of its strength.” 

What would eventually emerge as the United States of America that we know today was not at all apparent during the Revolutionary War and partisanship such as we have today was nearly its downfall before it was even formed.

Moderates back then were probably not neutral about independence, just less inclined in the words of Brooks “to know what their solutions are before they define the problems.”  Even the founders admitted to having more questions than answers and were given to much thought and revision and compromise.

According to a scientific poll updated last week by university researchers on behalf of The Associated Press, Americans today are as divided as they were at the time of independence by issues of race.

More than half of all Americans now express explicit anti-black and anti-Hispanic attitudes, 79% among Republicans; but when tested implicitly, the anti-black sentiments are also held by 55% of Democrats and 49% of Independents, much of it refueled, in my opinion, by uncivil discourse and coded rhetoric stoked after the election of the first black President of the United States.

It is no wonder, as reported recently by columnist Charles Blow from a new ABC News/Washington Post poll, that the Republican challenger to become President of the United States has the support of 59% of whites, including 65% of white men while the President, an African American has 79% among nonwhites overall.

Looking deeper into the results by region of the country, these trends among whites are even more pronounced in the South.  Made in his farewell address 216 years ago at the completion of his terms as the first US President, George Washington’s warning about partisanship rings true today as we wonder whether there is any hope for a long-overdue national conversation about race as well as solutions to any number of problems facing this nation.

Any hope of success may lie in the ability of neutrals and moderates to organize themselves again into an effective force. As Brooks describes of moderates in his column:

“The animating principle doesn’t mean that all Americans think alike.  It means that we have a tradition of conflict…over the centuries…

The moderate doesn’t try to solve those arguments.  There are no ultimate solutions.  The moderate tries to preserve the tradition of conflict, keeping the opposing sides in balance…

In most great arguments, there are two partially true points of view, which sit in tension.  The moderate tries to maintain a rough proposition between them, to keep her country along its historic trajectory.”

In a few days, half of the country will be disappointed in the outcome of the election, but regardless of who is elected, (and I have already voted as nearly half have in Durham NC where I live) solutions will only be made possible by a resurgence of moderates.

As a moderate myself, I am deeply disturbed by the stereotypes and bigotry around race.  But I believe much of that intolerance is merely a surrogate for other even harder to discuss issues.

If we don't discuss them openly, rather than in terms of scapegoats, our descendants may be facing another revolution.

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