There is a popular superstition that defines America as a “Proposition Nation,” created and proclaimed by the obiter dicta about “all men” in the second sentence of the 1776 Declaration that the 13 colonies “are and of right ought to be free and independent States.” Is America a Proposition Nation? No, for the very simple reason that there is no such thing in human life. Like the unicorn, it can be imagined, and some people may even claim to have seen it, but it cannot really exist.
But if we agree that America is not something thought up, we are still left with the problem of defining what exactly we mean when we say “America.” Granted, America is a place, or rather a sort of a place or many sorts of places, inhabited by people of flesh and blood. But is it a country, a nation, a people in the substantive meaning of those terms? This seems to me the vital question of the moment. What if Americans are not a nation and the best unifying identity they can hope for is as a Proposition? What if a whole series of presidents have declared that they have seen flocks of lovely, graceful unicorns grazing on the White House lawn, and millions of people have believed them?
The history of the United States makes clear, it seems to me, that America, while not a Proposition Nation, has long been governed as a Proposition Regime.
Lincoln defined America as a Proposition and defended his war of conquest as the means of preserving the government that was allegedly upholding that Proposition. He was not speaking for traditional American constitutionalism and republicanism or for the America that had been known up to that point. He appealed most strongly to the revolutionary agendas of three particular groups among Americans: profiteers who stood to benefit from a protected market and a highly centralized capital-friendly government; New Englanders, who, from their very beginning as a self-proclaimed Shining City Upon a Hill, had endowed America with a unique and sacred missionary role in history, under their direction; and German immigrants and other national unification state-worshipers, bastard offspring of the French Revolution, who had achieved a considerable ideological transformation of the North during the 1850’s.
Together, they created the Proposition Regime—resting upon appealing inventions about an America of endless prosperity and progress, and uniquely virtuous violence in stamping out the grapes of wrath. These types are still in power today. Clearly, the Proposition provided a cover for some interests at the expense of others. As Lincoln spoke, his party was fashioning a system by which the natural resources, enterprise, and labor of the country would be largely in the custody of Eastern financiers.
Devotees of the Proposition Regime always define it in terms of Lincoln’s pretty words about equality and government of, by, and for the people. But its real spokesman is General Sherman, whose ruminations I highly recommend to anyone who really wants to understand how we got here. General Sherman made it clear that all who disobeyed the government of the Proposition Regime were rebels against the sacred who quite literally deserved nothing except extermination.
Moving forward a few decades from Lincoln and Sherman, we find that America is known as distinguishable by her characteristic philosophy—pragmatism. Americans, among all the peoples of the world, are especially noted as a nation of pragmatists. And what is pragmatism but a methodological Proposition—indifferent to the humane values that have traditionally bound societies together?
Move forward a few more decades, and we find Henry Ford. Could there possibly be a more archetypal American? Ford said in 1916 that “History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today.” His statement was widely reported and much admired at the time.
Forward a few more years, and we have another archetypal American, Calvin Coolidge, who proclaimed that “The business of America is business.” So that is what America is about—not blood or kin, not tradition or history, not honor, not liberty, not the Constitution, not a common culture, but a Proposition about getting and spending. A Southerner at the time pointed out the cultural impoverishment revealed in Coolidge’s dull, materialist reaction on his visit to the Alamo. The novelist Owen Wister commented, “Eternal vigilance cannot watch liberty and the ticker [tape] at the same time.”
Can we really deny that Lincoln, Sherman, Ford, Coolidge, and George W. Bush represent the prevailing and controlling substance of what we know as “America”? That they are the mainstream of American history and the central and revered American tradition?
And yet, despite all the power of the Proposition Regime, those of us over about 60 years of age can remember another America that was quite real, or at least seemed to be. But if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that what we remember as our country no longer exists. The America of the 1940’s and 50’s is as dead and gone as the America of the 1850’s.
If Americans were a people, could they possibly be persuaded that wasting their blood and treasure in the invasion of a remote country that has done us no harm is somehow their duty and in their interest? Millions of inhabitants of the invented America of global democratic benevolence apparently do believe this and are sending fellow citizens to die for their fantasy. Indeed, for more than a century, the idea of the Proposition Nation has provided a rationale for wars that were seldom wanted by, or in the interests of, the citizens. The Proposition was born in conquest and has from the beginning had a militantly missionary nature.
If Americans were a people, would almost two thirds of the Senate have voted, as they recently did, for so-called immigration reform that will literally displace our grandchildren with Third World coolie labor? The “nation of immigrants,” another invented Proposition, has clearly trumped whatever may be left of our America. Once more, the pretty words serve particular interests against the will and well-being of the citizens. After all, the real business of America is business. The other day, I heard the President say that the amnesty of illegal immigrants must be passed because that is the kind of thing “America should do.” Not my America. But my entire lifetime as a citizen has been nothing but a relentless series of defeats of my America by his America.
It has rightly been observed that a vague thing labeled “values” has been substituted for traditional society as the thing conservatives are supposed to conserve. But this is not an invention of the neocons. They could not plant their poisonous flowers with any hope of a successful crop unless the ground was ready. What if their American Proposition is not an aberration but the true American tradition and the only viable theme for a society such as America has become in our lifetime?
Is there, somewhere out there, a demographic, economic, social, political, cultural, uninvented America, real and potent enough to reassert herself and reclaim her right to exist and prevail? That seems to me a fundamental and pressing question. Maybe there is. I would like to believe that there is. But I am yet to be convinced.
If there is not, we will have to agree with the Proposition as put forward by the colonel in Full Metal Jacket: “Inside every gook is an American wanting to get out.”