Daniel Rodgers, Contested Truths: Keywords in American Politics since Independence, 1987

This book is one that I suspected might not hold up as well today as it did when I first read it as a History major in college. At the time, Rodgers’s study of how phrases like “natural rights,” “the people,” and “the interests” evolved in American discourse over time was truly eye-opening. The garden variety insight that “natural rights” might not mean the same thing to various people over time is not much to write home about, but Rodgers goes well beyond it to show how Americans wavered between Benthamite utilitarianism and Wilsonian idealism for much of their history, from belief in the greater good of the people as a whole to the idea of democracy as a marketplace for sorting out people's conflicting interests. The book is at its best when it charts the career of pluralism in twentieth century political culture: in the Progressive Era, “the Interests” represented the venal influence of big business, which sought to warp the playing field against workers, consumers, and smaller competitors. By the 1930s, the New Dealers began to imagine the state as a broker that negotiated compromises among the many different “interests” that made up society, but the existential crises of the Atomic Age and the Cold War soon led Americans to swap liberal pragmatism for a discourse that emphasized stark lines between freedom and Communism, good and evil. The Red Menace was not to be negotiated with or accommodated like, say, business and labor, or farmers and consumers.

This is a story that Louis Menand has told in a book with a grander narrative sweep and finer grain of detail; The Metaphysical Club (2003) beautifully unfolded the evolution of American pragmatism from the generation that survived the Civil War to the aftermath of World War II, but Rodgers captures the essential problem of how we think about the competing ends, interests, and ideas that vie for supremacy in our own democracy. Questions about what constitutes “an interest” (or “the people” or “freedom,” for that matter) are about what we think of each other, and how we envision a good life working out. Are we better off setting aside the individual demands of ourselves and our groups, or should each constituency seek to fulfill its own objectives – with democracy producing an amalgam (the legislative “sausage”) everyone can live with? These questions are part of what motivated me to want to keep learning about history; with the help of healthy dose of Orientalism, I learned to scrutinize the way Christian missionaries wrote about their converts in China or the discourse that copyright interests used to persuade others of the importance of intellectual property to the US economy.

Language isn’t everything, though (even if some postmodern thinkers say everything is a text). As important as it is to examine why people say what they say, it also matters what people do. Ronald Reagan’s particular idea of “freedom” (the freedom to bash in the heads of radical priests in Central America, for instance) did not find favor with the public just because of its rhetorical power, or even the particular legacy of Cold War “freedom talk” that gave rise to it. Similarly, liberals have long sought to find a new language that exemplifies their idea of the public good. The linguist George Lakoff has spent much of the last decade trying to persuade progressives to drop Republican “frames” about security, social welfare, and a host of other issues, and though some progressives (notably Barack Obama) appear to have succeeded through soaring rhetoric, the current debate about public spending and debt has been framed in depressingly Republican terms. Bill Clinton’s attempt to redefine the liberal vision of the social contract as a “New Covenant” in the early 1990s failed to resonate with the public, perhaps because it did not connect or comport with life as people were then experiencing it.

So, yes, Virginia, there is a real world in which language operates, which language also helps to construct. Contested Truths does not treat political language as if it is a system unto itself, but it does struggle to locate talk of rights and freedoms in the material world where people actually go looking for new rights and new freedoms. Other books may do a better job of the latter — Eric Foner's Story of American Freedom is able to accomplish more by looking at how one ideal was interpreted by Americans in a variety of different contexts, from the Puritans to the New Dealers to right-wing militias — but Contested Truths still provides an engaging tour through US history, when battles over the meaning of natural rights or pluralism exposed the various and competing ways Americans envisioned their own society. Each such contest reveals something vital about the period when one word or another became the terrain of struggle.

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