Five Themes of American Conventional Wisdom Part 3: Restrained Democratic Ideology

Continuing to look at the first section of his wonderful book, What Are Schools For?, where author (and friend) Ron Miller calls out five dominant cultural assumptions that he believes are at the root of conventional American thinking, particularly conventional American thinking about education…

1. Puritan (Calvinist/Protestant) Theology
2. Scientism & the Culture of Professionalism
3. Restrained Democratic Ideology
4. Capitalism & Free Enterprise
5. Self-Righteous Nationalism

See my two previous posts, “Scientism & The Culture of Professionalism” and “Five Themes of American Conventional Wisdom”, for my thoughts on the first two above. Today’s installment looks at item three, America’s restrained view of democracy. Again, I look at my friend Ron’s thesis through the lens of the patriarchy/partnership, hierarchical/egalitarian dualism presented in Riane Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade.

I feel Ron sums things up so succinctly, I aspire to write at the level of his prose…

American culture had always harbored a tension between radical Jeffersonian ideals and far more conservative principles… Clearly, there has been an ongoing conflict between conservative elements — represented by the Federalist, Whig, and Republican parties, which are oriented to commercial expansion, traditional morality, and obedient citizenship — and liberal elements—inspired by Jefferson, Jackson, and various populist movements, which tend to emphasize personal freedom and opportunity.

And I like Ron’s one paragraph summary of the conservative position (given that Ron himself is on the liberal side of things)…

These are different ideals of social order, based on different images of human nature. In conservative/republican thought, human excellence is limited to a select few, who naturally tend to rise to economic and social prominence and who should be entrusted with guiding the affairs of state and society. The masses, especially immigrant masses not schooled in national traditions, are often feared as subversive elements. Excessive liberty granted to individuals is seen as a dangerous threat to the social order. Therefore, freedom must go hand-in-hand with discipline. The welfare of the community — the common good — supersedes the personal freedom of the individual.

In Ron’s encapsulation of conservative thought he highlights the elements of hierarchical patriarchal thinking that Riane Eisler has called out in her work. The more negative Calvinistic view of human nature leads to a working assumption that the limited human excellence needs to rise to the top and assume strong authority over the rest of us if the species is going to have any chance. Freedom is mitigated by discipline, even coercive discipline as necessary.

So what of the other side…

Liberal democratic ideology, on the other hand, argues that most (if not all) people have the potential to conduct their own lives and do not need to be controlled from above. If people were free from economic, social, and religious injustice, they would, willingly, be hard-working and moral citizens.

Ron is speaking to the more egalitarian (Eisler’s partnership) position of Jefferson or Jackson, though in today’s world things get a little more complicated as the more libertarian types (generally positioning themselves with the conservative camp) often accuse liberals of being for “big government” and that the libertarians are the ones pushing to let people “conduct their own lives”.

That said, there are plenty of liberal politicians who are certainly very comfortable working within the context of male privilege. I remember in the 1970s my mom pointing that out to me repeatedly (with great frustration) as she and other women struggled to convince their male colleagues to actively support equal rights for women in the guise of the Equal Rights Amendment.

Certainly mainstream liberals today seem just as willing as conservatives to dictate how our kids should conduct their lives and what exactly they need to learn. (But then our youth have not generally been seen to rise to the level of deserving full human rights until adulthood, but that’s different axe to grind.)

So now Ron gets to his basic point here about restrained (rather than I suppose unleashed) democracy. Referring to the liberal ideology…

While this ideology is arguably the majority, mainstream view of American culture (it is certainly the core of the American myth), there is no question but that it is held in check, and in certain periods seriously compromised, by the more conservative tradition.

Putting aside that he may be more optimistic about this being the majority view than other progressive folks, his big point here is that the uneasy compromise between these two positions is a tamer view of democracy that still acknowledges the need for power-over directive (patriarchal) rather than more facilitative (partnership) leadership by whichever side gets the most recent majority vote.

My take is that the continuing prevalence of a more hierarchical patriarchal view of democracy manifests in our elections becoming a horse race or often a grudge match between two competing teams, one which will be victorious and the other vanquished. The “winners”, while doing lip-service to representing all their constituents, are expected by many of their supporters to wield power in a directive power-over fashion that adds perhaps insult and injury to the losing side. Karl Rove somehow jumps to mind here (given perhaps my liberal bias), but I’m sure their plenty of people on “our side” who play this game in a similar manner.

Certainly framing politics and governance as a series of contests between two incompatible sides sells cars and erectile dysfunction medicine on television, and put Fox News followed by MSNBC at the top of the cable news ratings heap. Some would argue that this gets more people interested in politics and that’s a good thing. But making democratic process so adversarial and take-no-prisoners, serves in my mind to restrain rather than enhance a process which should really be about building intelligent compromise and consensus.

As a holistic educator (and a former Waldorf teacher), Ron’s final thought is on the impact of all this on the American education system…

The ongoing tension between conservative and liberal interpretations of democracy is reflected, and has played a major part, in the development of American education.

He goes on in his book to flesh out a historical narrative of how this tension has played out in an around the forming and seemingly endless reforming of the American education system. This of course ties in with Ron’s assertion that unlike Europe, America really isn’t comfortable with politics, but instead frames issues in moralistic/religious terms with scientific socially engineered solutions that ever seems to focus on education as the answer to all America’s continuing challenges.

3 replies on “Five Themes of American Conventional Wisdom Part 3: Restrained Democratic Ideology”

  1. While deploring competitive behavior, you neglect to note that each side is closer to each other than the extremes of patriarchalism or collectivism.

    Convenient, but not conducive to the facilitation you propose.

    Humans needs guidance. You can call it control, but perhaps a re-reading of Lord of the Flies would refresh your balance on human nature.

  2. Ormond… good to have your comments.

    I don’t see myself as deploring competitive behavior, I just don’t like seeing the selection of representatives and the rest of our governance process to become just a contest with winners and losers, becoming more of a spectator than a participatory sport.

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