Tradition and American Political Life

First, let me thank my fellow contributors for this rich conversation. I am afraid that I am coming to this discussion a bit late and as a result I am not sure where to jump in. Part of the problem, I think, is that I am a historian and don’t spend a lot of time engaging in these kinds of contemporary debates. (As an early American historian I often tell my students that anything that happened after 1800 is not history, but current events!)

Eve Tushnet wonders why “marriage is the only area of contemporary politics in which tradition is used explicitly as a justification.” She wants something more “hot-blooded” than the local Chestertown tea party. Russell Arben Fox offers a similar local case, but ultimately concludes that if we “restrict ourselves to thinking about ‘hot blooded’ policy debates (as she put it), the paucity of references are striking.”

I am not sure I agree. It seems like tradition—whether historically accurate or not—is used quite often in public debates.

Let’s take the idea, defended by many on the Right, that the United States is a “Christian nation.” In this case, the defenders of a Christian America appeal to tradition—a lost “golden age” when America was somehow Christian. Most professional and critical historians argue that such a “golden age” never existed, but this does not stop the Christian Right from utilizing this understanding of the American tradition to inform policy decisions.

Or how about Christmas—a topic first introduced in Fox’s opening essay and picked up later, albeit briefly, in a response from James Poulos. Those defenders of a “traditional” Christmas, void of commercialism or secularism, believe that Americans need to get back to the true “reason for the season.” But in reality, as Stephen Nissenbaum and Leigh Eric Schmidt have argued, and as I have argued here, Christmas in America has always been connected to rampant consumerism and generally un-Christian merriment. Yet each December the so-called “battle for Christmas” rages as conservatives appeal to “tradition.”

What about the Tea Party? If you have been to a Tea Party rally, you know that this political movement draws heavily on its understanding of an American tradition tied to a libertarian rejection of big government. As historian Jill Lepore has recently shown, the Tea Party has run roughshod over American history, choosing to cling to what its members believe are the traditional values—freedom, resistance to taxation, rebellion against tyranny—that define America. In this sense, they are partially correct, but the history of the American Revolution is much more complex than this simple formula.

The traditions of a Christian America, a Jesus-centered Christmas, and a liberty-driven resistance to government intrusion, all play a vital role in American politics today.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s lead essay, communitarian political theorist Russell Arben Fox considers the role of tradition in orienting, or perhaps even in fashioning, the individual. Tradition is under assault, we are told, by market forces, global integration, and the ubiquitous media. Marxist and postmodern thinkers have even suggested that under such conditions, all traditions must be somewhat inauthentic — the product of conscious fashioning, and, thus, not really a tradition at all. At times, traditionalists have called for group rights and group protections in an attempt to prevent commerce from eroding tradition, and thus, they hope, they can avoid the postmodern critique entirely.

    But traditions have always been subject to re-invention and re-interpretation, Fox argues. The supposedly new challenge of liberal commercial society is neither new nor even much of a challenge. Traditions are and always have been opportunities for creativity, appropriation, and self-conscious cultural critique. The political implications of traditionalism may be considerably fewer than traditionalists or their critics appreciate.

Response Essays

  • Eve Tushnet argues that liberalism has tended to strip away traditions in a very troubling fashion. “One of the most challenging cultural tasks we face now,” she writes “is to put flesh and costume back on traditions which have been stripped almost to the skeleton.” At the very least, she argues, traditions fill an important gap in the liberal project. Where liberalism values reason, material comfort, and autonomy, tradition helps us make sense of life’s more senseless and painful aspects. Tradition helps us to understand and, yes, to obey deserving authority. Given that it is human nature to experience frustration and constraint, tradition promises solace, connection to others, and even transcendence.

  • John Fea notes the peculiar place of tradition in American political culture. The United States was the first country self-consciously founded on Enlightenment principles. As such it called many traditions into question. Tom Paine urged his fellow citizens to “begin the world anew.” As a result, progress and tradition are constantly in tension in American political culture. To preserve national traditions from a “cultural holocaust,” Fea defends government funding for historical sites, museums, and other aspects of our heritage.

  • James Poulos argues that what’s eroding tradition today isn’t commercialism or secularization. It’s equality. The democratic ideal of equality is also in some senses a Christian ideal, too. But it often calls into question traditions that presuppose social hierarchy. Traditions emphasizing inequality or privilege have fared badly, while traditions emphasizing equality have flourished. Poulos draws on Friedrich Nietzsche and Alexis de Tocqueville to ask a very large question: Does the vital core of traditional Christian social thought survive? Or is God really dead in the age of equality? Traditional marriage is offered as an example.