Bernie Sanders and the Fallacy of the Great Man

There is a disconnect in American politics. One that prevents many partisans from internalizing the lessons of 2016. Incidentally, this is not just Democrats, since Republican partisans, and progressives suffer from the same error in judgement. It is a direct consequence of how we teach American history. The great man in history we use in basic, medium and even some college education is responsible for some of the dark spots in our collective rear view mirror. Partially it is easier to teach history though the lens of men (and at times women) who are essential in redirecting history. It is much harder to teach history as a trend, where actors are part of a larger movement. This includes men who we believe are essential in moving history forwards.

Let us take Christopher Columbus for example. He sailed East, thinking he would reach the Indies. And the stories we at times tell about his knowledge of the world are wrong. The well educated of his age, for example, knew that the world was round. He was not original in his thinking in this respect, We have known this since the Greeks sailed the Mediterranean. Yet, there is a folk legend that tells us that the earth was flat and he proved it was not, and he fought the elites to do it. He also got donations from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to do it because he convinced these two of this novel fact. Never in the story we at times tell is the role of Portugal, and the circumnavigation of Africa.

We ignore the role of Marco Polo, or the Silk Road. The Great Age of Discovery, which Columbus was part off, was a competition of the great powers of his age. Nor do we tell people that the existence of a new continent, which was never mentioned in either the Bible, or Greek and Roman authorities, did create an intellectual crisis. We had to invent this new continent, and justify its existence. This is one section of the story of ideas I spent a long time with during my training. It was fascinating, but also telling. Suddenly they had a land mass, that took some decades to map, that nobody knew about. We had people who were mentioned nowhere. This helped to create doubt regarding the ancient authorities. How could they be so wrong? And once that was accepted, it led to changes in how Europeans thought about Ptolomei, Plato, Aristotle, the Bible.

Then there is the way he teach the history of the United States. We do rely on the idea that great men have changed the course of history, instead of looking at the intellectual milieu that they grew up in. The Founders entered the American imagination as unique specially gifted men. Never mind that they were all products of the Enlightenment. This was a wide spanning movement, that went from the Scottish Highlands, to the European continent, the United States and Latin America.

The Enlightenment had local flavors. However, Ben Franklin scientific experiments are in line with Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. Thomas Jefferson’s writings are in agreement with Bacon’s works on Natural Rights. In fact, the famous line in the Declaration, “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, “ is homage to Bacon’s “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Wealth.” Jefferson read Francis Bacon, and he read the Greek and Roman classics. He was not a fan of Thomas Hobbes, who is also an early Enlightenment writer.

I can trace a direct line between these men and into the writings of Fray Servando Teresa de Mier, one of the intellectual fathers of Mexican independence. This intellectual movement goes all the way to Simon Bolivar and that continent spanning revolution against Spanish rule. The connection between all these men is a shift in how we think about science and reason. They started to trust themselves and their minds more than the ancient authorities. One reason for that, Columbus and the invention of America. They knew that they could start to understand the world in a new way. This intellectual revolution also led to the death of the divine right of kings, and the rise of modern democracy. However, it was not a single person who did that. It was many, who in a chain of ideas influenced each other. The age reaches to the present, and we can see it in the way we still do politics, and chiefly science. The method of enquiry has not fundamentally changed in 500 years. It started before the Enlightenment, and continues to this day.

The founders were unique partly because of circumstance. They were the generation that carried out that war of independence, and created the first self ruling republic since Rome. They were alive during a feverish time of intellectual pursuit. But thirty years either way, and we would not be talking of them the way we do today. Thirty years before the colonies saw the first Great Revival. Thirty years later, the Romantic era, and both the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars led straight to the Romantics. It also led to the first doubts of self rule. In France it contributed to a counter revolution.

Abraham Lincoln was also the product of the first half of the 19th century. Intellectually, he grew up in an era where there were deep discussions on slavery, and whether it was even moral. Many Americans before him decided to do something about it, and were active in the Underground Railroad. His election was the last straw for the Southern States, because the Republican Party that split from the know nothings and the Whigs. The new party was openly against slavery. The election of the first Republican president was too much for the South, in a series of events that led to that war.

What Lincoln did during the civil war is commendable, and the sign of an excellent national leader. But he is fully a product of his age. This is to the point of believing that the liberated slaves could not stay in the United States after the war. His plans, which are akin to ethnic cleansing, were never carried out.

Another person Americans think was exceptional, and in some ways he was in fact remarkable, was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He is the product of the early 20th century, and grew up in the shadow of the early 20th century progressive movement. He was extremely well connected and was part of the national elite. The Roosevelts traced the family origin all the way to the colonial period, and his cousin Teddy was the ever so archetypical man of action of the late 19th century.

The fact that FDR got involved in politics was no surprise. From our current age it may seem such, because noblesse oblige is almost alien to modern-day Americans. This is a sense that those who have received much, need to serve to pay back to the society that allowed them to become very wealthy for the sake of service, not personal gain. He came from a family with a tradition of service, and he got involved early. FDR also saw what his cousin Teddy Roosevelt did, and modeled his politics after those of his cousin. The Republican Party of Teddy’s was nowhere close to ours, and was a tad less friendly to industry. Why TR could enact legislation to cut down monopolies. It is his presidency that saw the first antitrust laws enacted. He also tried to get money out of politics, and to get balance between workers and management.

FDR was also a deeply self-aware man, who realized his cabinet could not just come from the elites. He was elected to office during extreme economic hardship. One should ask if FDR would have enacted many of the policies he did in less extreme times. However, he was not bashful about taking ideas from anybody. Social Security is a very good example. It was the prime example of extreme politics, at least to some, and he took many elements of what became Social Security, the early version, from the American Socialist Party platform. Social Security has changed and expanded over the decades. The early years it was truly old age insurance.

This concept of social insurance for old age and the disabled was part of the discussion during the progressive era. However, the two major parties did not want to get involved with it. That is, until the crash of ’29 and the economic crisis that came after that. FDR and his advisors, in particular John Maynard Keynes, advocated for social security, and a series of economic reforms that increased federal spending. It was a revolutionary way to deal with the recurrent economic crashes. Most people do not realize from today’s perspective that the normal response to any economic crisis was austerity and protectionist policies. They tended to make things worst, and depressions at times were very deep. This is exactly how President Herbert Hoover responded to the crisis in 1929. Roosevelt ran against the accepted way of doing things, and his policies expanded the economy. They did something else, they grew the deficit short term.

FDR entered the mythical space because these policies worked. He managed to save capitalism from itself, and in the process implemented a very American version of Social Democracy and a mixed economy. When he died in 1944, in the middle of World War Two, he had been working on the Second Bill of Rights, that treated work, and housing the same place as freedom of speech. This bill of rights was revolutionary, but with his death it never left the conceptual stage.

FDR fit in a trend towards deeper government involvement in the economy. He did not start this, nor did it end with him. Though his successor did not follow through with many of FDR’s ideas. Harry Truman had a new Cold War and the Korean War to contend with. He was also more conservative than his predecessor. And he never touched the idea of a Second Bill of Rights. We can only wonder if that was ever implemented, and housing and medical care were treated as civil rights. Never mind that some of these ideas made it to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

Lyndon Baines Johnson was the next fundamental change in History. Under traditional teaching he went against his southern upbringing and was responsible for the 1965 Civil Rights Act. Don’t get me wrong. He had a critical part in the events leading to the Act. He also followed through with many of the civil rights reforms started by the Kennedy brothers. With the assassination of President John F Kennedy, these laws became possible. Partly because the young president was now a national martyr.

It is critical to understand that Jack and his brother Bobby adopted reforms, and I know I am about to speak heresy, because circumstance forced some of them on their presidency. Civil unrest and the freedom rides, as well as television images coming from the South forced both men to do something about this. And both tried to coop Reverend Martin Luther King early in the presidency.

The movement, as the civil rights era is known, did not start with the Kennedy brothers. It flourished under them, but in some ways in-spite of them. The movement started to take final shape the mid 1950s. One of the early victories was Brown v Board of Education. President Dwight Eisenhower was forced to send troops to Arkansas to enforce the Supreme Court decision. However, this movement started taking shape in the 1910s at least. It was slow progress, but progress nonetheless.

Reverend Martin Luther King was the best voice and strategist for the movement. But like all movements, it came from a long trend historically. The ground was carefully prepared for these changes. And most of the voices that were part of this most Americans are unfamiliar with.

The big Men (and women) of history are important because they become symbols of social change. They embody in their writings and actions what they stand for. They matter, but when we think that a person is so important, that nothing else matters, we lose track of the ciultural milieu that shape movements. There is a lot of work done by many faceless people in every movement, who most of us will never hear about. These people are the forces behind these movements, because in many ways they are the ones willing to die for the cause.

And here we come back to Bernie Sanders. He is either thought off as a great man by many progressives, or vilified by center -right Democrats and Republicans alike. He is seen as a symbol, and the center of something that is deeply threatening. However, the movement that he is identified with started to take shape back in the 1980s, and first manifested itself as the World Trade Organization protests in 1999 in Seattle.

After 2000 and the election of George Bush went under ground. There are many moving parts to this movement, and some of them are a threat by the establishment, while others are curious, even at times just annoying. Part of this is the perennial peace movement, that is critical of American Imperial designs.

This movement has taken many forms, why it is difficult to understand for most external observers. Whether it involves economic reform, minimum pay increases, health care for all, prison reform, or banking reform it is a threat to status quo. In recent years it has added a few elements , including civil rights, in the form of Black Lives Matter, and prison reform. However, all these are parts of a whole intellectual environment that is critical of the current state of American life.

This open critique is also coming from many in minority communities, that are less propagandized by the mainstream. These communities have a stronger identify of self, and what changes are needed to advance their cause. In some ways, minorities, especially the young, feel betrayed by both major parties for leaving them behind, or taking them for granted.

Internally this movement is fractured. This is why Senator Bernie Sanders became a good spokesperson for it. Why he continues to be demonized by forces that believe everything is mostly alright.

“Our Revolution” is not an expression of the will of one man. It is one result of decades of movement politics. These are the kinds of politics that are alien to the meritocrats in the Democratic Party, but threatening as well. It is definitely not something that Republicans want to see.

Is Sanders a god? No. However, he has gotten the same hate that MLK did, and so did the Kennedys. He has suffered from the same slings and arrows that FDR lived though. It is this that tells me that Sanders will have more of a role in American history when distance develops. However, I will not make the mistake of thinking him unique, or outside history. Neither should you. Great men in history theories are part of the problem. Why?

As a historian, who prefers movement and intellectual history, it is quite amusing to see people falling for that particular fallacy. Granted, this is what most were taught in history class. So many partisans have been blinded to the background of history where these men belong. A few years either way, and these great men would have been forgotten by history, and the present.

Written by

Historian by training. Former day to day reporter. Sometimes a geek who enjoys a good miniatures game.

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