The Great American Experiment, 2020

Posted on November 3, 2020. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, What History is For | Tags: , , |

We’ve seen a number of people looking at this post lately, so we’re rerunning it. It seems appropriate to do on Election Day; we originally ran it in 2008 when Barack Obama was first elected, and we re-ran it in 2016 when Trump was elected, and then said “perhaps we will run it every November, that great election month, to remind people of what is at stake each time they vote.” So here we are back again.

Vote today, if you haven’t already.


America is an experiment. From the time of its establishment as part of a New World in the late 1400s, the land that has become the United States of America has been a place where people came to experiment with doing things differently. It’s been a place to gamble, to see if you could be one of the lucky ones who became landowners or lawyers or independent merchants. You gambled on the weather, politics, your own skills, and your own ability to commit to the experiment of living in America, and being an American.

During the 18th century, the experiment deepened, as Americans began to speculate that they could form the first democratic nation in modern times. Intense experimentation went on from the 1760s to 1787, as Americans adapted and invented forms of government fit for the scope of their needs, the gaping hole of their inexperience, and the high and intense expectations for their future.

On and on went the experiment: could we create a strong and stable centralized government? Could we grow without destabilizing? Could we solve the problem of slavery? Could we truly create a melting pot in which to forge Americans out of peoples of all nations? Could we give women the vote? Could we accept Jewish people as true Americans? Could we desegregate? Could we assure civil rights regardless of sexuality?

America’s story is one of constantly tackling the big—the biggest—problems, ahead of everyone else, with very little to guide us but those founding principles of liberty and justice for all that nag at our conscience. And each time we’ve made progress, extending civil rights to more and more people, it’s been because that old spirit of taking a gamble, of performing the ultimate experiment, took over and led us to the right decision.

As we think today about what divides Americans, it seems to boil down to the fact that some Americans no longer want to experiment. They want to close the lab down. We’ve gone far enough into the unknown, making it known, they say; now let’s stop—let’s even go backward. We were wrong to conduct some of our experiments in liberty, and that’s the source of all our problems. Gay people shouldn’t be treated equally. Black people shouldn’t run the country. Women shouldn’t hold high office. Muslims shouldn’t be granted habeas corpus.

Whenever one of those Americans talks about the problem with our country today, they talk about how we should be like we once were, back when white people who defined marriage as one man-one woman and were Protestant military veterans living in a small rural town with lots of guns built this nation. They feel they are losing their birthright, their legacy—even when they themselves don’t entirely fit the description they cling to.

But those Americans are wrong. What their ancestors really were was scientists. Experimenters. Radicals who always considered the impossible possible. To define those ancestral Americans as merely white or straight or Christian strips them of their most stunning feature, their near-supernatural qualities of optimism and defiance and willingness to go into the unknown and make it their home, to make the amazing the norm. They defied the status quo. That’s how they built America, the ideal that is represented by the Statue of Liberty.

Americans who want to end the experiment are few, but boisterous. They clamor at the national microphone. But Americans who know that there is no America without the experiment will keep at it, and they will persevere.

Sometimes we elect a president who is such an American, and his (so far only “his”) election is proof that the lab is still open, and that America in general will always be at the drawing board, expanding its concept of liberty and justice and equality until we finally fulfill the founding principles that created this nation so long ago.

Sometimes we elect a president who is not such an American—we elect someone from the loud minority who want to shut down the lab and restrict liberty and justice to some, not all. In that case, real Americans must redouble their efforts to restore our proper focus.

Whatever time you find yourself in, live up to your duty as an American, and keep the experiment going, not because it is easy, as one president once said, but because it is your birthright.

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Tea Party, Health Care, “Reload”—the long view

Posted on March 30, 2010. Filed under: American history, Civil Rights, Politics, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , |

We don’t usually get into current-day politics here at the HP, but when big-ticket history is being made, we have to mention it. Right now, the United States is in the midst of a long, rolling series of major changes that will make this present day of ours as deeply studied and debated by historians as the run-up to the Civil War or the civil rights movement.

Right now, the health care bill that passed Congress this month is causing an almost inexplicable torrent of rage amongst a small portion of Americans. These are the small minority of very vocal people who always want to stop the American experiment of accepting and driving social change (see The Great American Experiment), a reactionary fraction who always believe the past was better than the present and far better than the ominous future the latest social change is going to unleash.

In these times, it’s good to be a historian, because you have the long view. You know that there have always been these reactionary groups, ranging from the inane to the harmful. The “Know-Nothings” or American Party in the 1830s and 40s terrorized Catholic Americans and won many political seats on a platform of stopping immigration from undesirable countries, eradicating Catholicism, and generally setting up a police state run by white Protestants. In the late 1800s, groups like the Immigration Restriction League and the Workingmen’s Party authorized terror against immigrants; WP leader Dennis Kearney led his men on a rampage through San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1877, destroying homes and businesses, to inaugurate his campaign against Chinese immigration. The state of California eventually passed several laws stripping Chinese immigrants of their civil rights.

In more recent history, the reaction of the fringe against the Civil Rights movement and the federal laws and Supreme Court rulings that championed equal rights for all races is fresher in our memory.

So when faced with the Tea Partiers and brick-throwing anti-health care fringe of 2010, we can defuse their seeming power by reminding ourselves, and others, that these groups come and go at moments of national crisis or change, they spew their hate and then after a decade or so they disappear. Temporarily, of course; there’s always the next fringe group to take over for them. But they remain fringe because of their illogic and their basis in hatred and fear.

A columnist at the New York Times presents a good summing up of the current situation, pointing out that the fringe has predicted doom and the death of America many times without accuracy. They are never right because they fail to take into account the fact that the majority of Americans are on board with the Experiment, with change and progress. The majority of Americans know, as we lay out in The Great American Experiment, that “America’s story is one of constantly tackling the big—the biggest—problems, ahead of everyone else, with very little to guide us but those founding principles that nag at our conscience. And each time we’ve made progress, extending civil rights to more and more people, it’s been because that old spirit of taking a gamble, of performing the ultimate experiment, took over and led us to the right decision.

“As we think today about what divides Americans, I think it boils down to the fact that some Americans no longer want to experiment. They want to close the lab down. We’ve gone far enough into the unknown, making it known, they say; now let’s stop—let’s even go backward. We were wrong to conduct some of our experiments in liberty, and that’s the source of all our problems. Gay people shouldn’t be treated equally. Black people shouldn’t run the country. Women shouldn’t hold high office. Muslims shouldn’t be granted habeas corpus.

“Whenever one of those Americans talks about the problem with our country today, they talk about how we should be like we once were, back when white people who defined marriage as one man-one woman and were Protestant veterans built this nation. They feel they are losing their birthright, their legacy.

But those Americans are wrong. What their ancestors really were was scientists. Experimenters. Radicals who always considered the impossible possible.”

Frank Rich agrees: “If Obama’s first legislative priority had been immigration or financial reform or climate change, we would have seen the same trajectory. The conjunction of a black president and a female speaker of the House — topped off by a wise Latina on the Supreme Court and a powerful gay Congressional committee chairman — would sow fears of disenfranchisement among a dwindling and threatened minority in the country no matter what policies were in play. It’s not happenstance that Frank, Lewis and Cleaver — none of them major Democratic players in the health care push — received a major share of last weekend’s abuse. When you hear demonstrators chant the slogan “Take our country back!,” these are the people they want to take the country back from.”

But that won’t happen. You can’t fight demographics, and America’s population is changing and the result will be: America. Our population has always been changing, always been growing too fast, always been diluted with people from new regions and nations, and we have always kept on, struggling and fighting and eventually breaking through prejudice and habit to achieve new heights of civil rights and equality of opportunity. It’s what we do. It’s why we’re great.

So as you ponder the rage of the fringe, remember they are the fringe. The rest of us will keep on experimenting, like real Americans.

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