The revoltin’ developments keep coming for the Chester Rileys today and even the Jim Andersons are feeling not quite as smart as 60 years ago.
“What a revoltin’ development this is” was the catchphrase of indignation uttered by Chester A. Riley, the fictional wing riveter in the radio and TV situation comedy The Life of Riley, starring William Bendix (and for a while Jackie Gleason). Ignore for now how this portrayal of a working class male contrasts with the insurance agent Jim Anderson, the fictional hero of Father Knows Best. Both were popular in an America that saw itself as essentially classless. Also ignore the ambiguous judgement in the etymology of the “life of Riley” allusion.
The revoltin’ developments keep coming for the Chester Rileys today and even the Jim Andersons are feeling not quite as smart as 60 years ago. So much so that there is lots of discussion of revolution, or absent that, complete collapse of the US empire, the US, the Western cultural dominance, the global economic system, or the ecology of Earth itself. The sense that things can’t go on like they’ve been going on is palpable.
So what does a revolution in the context of American politics look like? Are the models of historical revolutions still relevant to the United State and its political culture?
Garry Wills writes in Henry Adams and the Making of America:
Ours is not only the world’s oldest democracy (it can even be argued that we are the world’s first real democracy) but one of the the few governments that have not been overthrown by revolution or conquest. We are standing refutation that democracies are by nature unstable.
After so many “Where are the people in the streets?” blog posts, this assertion by Wills caught my attention. First of all, I find it an oversimplification. Wills’s book itself examines Henry Adams’s history of the War of 1812 in which the government of James Madison was not saved so much by democracy as by two large oceans and the complexity of imperial competition in Europe. But the persistence of any kind of regime for 224 years is quite a long run, Egypt, China, and Rome notwithstanding. Second, the argument of the US being a real democracy is still an unfulfilled promise. But Wills seems to be arguing that the US is democratic enough to avoid instability and regime change for a long period of time, whereas dictatorial republics of the post-Enlightenment period quickly were destroyed.
What is it to have this new-old thing, a “revolutionary tradition”? If it is a tradition, its should preclude or evade the need for revolution. If it is still revolutionary, it should be fundamentally be remaking itself on a continuing basis.
Wills here introduces Joseph Schumpeter’s argument that in economics capitalism is also a revolutionary tradition. Wills here is referring to Schumpeter’s Captialism, Socialism, and Democracy, which was part of a movement to distance economics and other social sciences from Marxism while still attempting to incorporate the analysis of capitalism by Marx. And follows with:
Nonetheless some of those defending the capitalist system insist that it is not only in the Constitution but in the “original intent” of the Founders. That is the seal of approval endlessly sought. We feel that we not only honor but need the Founding Fathers. Without that we become illegitimate children.
Wills goes on later: