Americanism is an interesting concept: one form is a heresy, while the other just refers to the native genius of America. Pope Leo XIII wrote in his encyclical Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae about these two forms: “certain endowments of mind which belong to the American people, just as other characteristics belong to various other nations, and…your political condition and the laws and customs by which you are governed…” or 2) “…the confounding of license and liberty, the passion for discussing and pouring contempt upon any possible subject, [and] the assumed right to hold whatever opinion one pleases on any subject and to set them forth in print to the world…” Delighting in the first is not only lawful but necessary for any red-blooded American. The second describes the malaise of our times: nothing is sacred and everything is permitted.
To the wrongheaded Americanism, I might also add the confounding of America’s will with God’s will. We are right to think that God has especially blessed this country; but, we are only blessed to the extent to which we adhere to God’s will. We can and have erred in our history. Our particular endowments, characteristics, and political conditions do not count as the universal human standard.
That being said, Mark Levin’s Rediscovering Americanism and the Tyranny of Progressivism highlights what makes our civilization unique, and describes how the founders drew upon the best of Western philosophy and tradition in order to form our Constitution. He contrasts this to the efforts of Progressives to change our civilization into a utopia. One cannot but come to the conclusion that the central conflict of our times is Aristotle’s conception of government vs. Plato’s Republic–the government of aristocrats and commoners vs. the government of bureaucrats. I really appreciate that Levin invokes Aristotle, Cicero (a great admirer of Aristotle), and St. Thomas Aquinas in his defense of the American system.
This book does much to remedy people’s ignorance of both the classical roots of America and the Enlightenment tradition upon which America was founded. John Locke should be required reading at both high school and college. It was from Locke that we acquired the understanding of government as something formed by the consent of the governed. Locke also discussed the Western tradition of limited government and natural rights.
In contrast to the American system, Levin describes the roots of the Progressive order, describing thinkers like Rousseau, Marx, Hegel, and Dewey and their effect upon American politics. Theodore Roosevelt is also brought up alongside these Progressive thinkers, and many of his theories, particularly in the Square Deal Campaign of 1912, bear a socialist mark. But, Roosevelt might be said to be the last patriotic Progressive: he lacks the anti-American and elitist opinions held by most other Progressive thinkers and politicians.
President Wilson stands as the exemplar of Progressive politicians who would come after him in the 20th century. Unlike Roosevelt, he contemns the Founders and the Constitution, which he felt hindered the goals of the Progressives in reshaping America. Instead of seeing the American people as the motive force behind better government, Wilson much preferred the government of the elite. Wilson and other Progressives then looked to public education as the means for transforming American citizens into the Progressive mold. Their work can easily be seen in the present day.
The most important thing to take away from Levin’s book is a better knowledge of who we are as Americans and why the American system needs to be preserved. It reminded me that I need to study so much more: Alexis de Tocqueville, Montesquieu, Russell Kirk, T. S. Eliot, The Federalist Papers, Alasdair MacIntyre, and so many others. At times, it felt as if too much information was given for me to digest properly; but, this book is a good starting point for further reading.