Anyone who studied the socio-cultural behaviors of everyday Americans in the US over the past decade will notice a growing “nostalgia” for the 1980s-2000s. What began as “nostalgia for the 1980s” a decade earlier has since become a “nostalgia for the 1990s.” These trends are discernable from the readoption of earlier trends and tropes once commonplace during the 1980s and 1990s. Some notable examples include the ongoing rehashing and remaking of earlier media like television, movies, or video games. This tendency became apparent among the so-called “Millennials” a decade ago, back when I was beginning my investigations into the Work-Standard. Much of the fixation was centered on the 1980s and 1990s, which was during their formative years before the 2000s. More recently, my generation, the so-called “Generation Z,” are now exhibiting similar social behaviors, except the focus has since been broadened to include the 1960s and 1970s.
I have written whole Entries in The Work-Standard and The Third Place, where I had stated that most of these efforts are emanating from Liberal Capitalist propaganda. Developing “nostalgic sentiment” over anything, especially within the context of my own research, derails serious inquiry into historical events that had already happened in the past. It also prevents all possibilities of creating the necessary social changes capable of setting the precedent for something like the Work-Standard. After all, our everyday perceptions about the past are often shaped from hindsight. The ability to develop an understanding of the past based on foresight is a rare occurrence. This is not about whether somebody could “predict” anything and more about having enough insight into contemporary events to grasp the intentions and actions of the historical forces shaping them.
I still stand by this particular conclusion over a decade later. Therefore, what else can be said about so-called “identity politics” in these United States as a recurring meme across various Blog posts on The Fourth Estate? How much of this is partly spearheaded by spectacle and the rest backed by “nostalgia?” Are there any other correlations to be made regarding the shift away from socioeconomic questions and toward identity-oriented questions? Can we begin to ascertain the real fundamental questions presented by the American Essence itself? And is it possible that the ethical and moral premises behind identity politics in the US have Jeffersonian origins?
All of these questions were on my mind while I was reading a 1994 essay entitled “American Sphinx: The Contradictions of Thomas Jefferson” in the Library of Congress. The essay is a discussion about the American Collective Consciousness, particularly how the American people as a Totality interpreted and understood Jeffersonianism throughout the 20th century, and its implications for the 21st century. While it may have been written during the Clinton years, the essay itself remains timeless. And given the contemporary tendencies among younger generations to develop strong inclinations toward the 1980s-1990s, the essay warranted further investigation.
The author, an historian named Joseph Ellis, began his essay by describing a cosplay reenactment of Thomas Jefferson in the early 1990s. Even though the whole fanfare comes across as being frozen in the historical circumstances of that moment within recent memory, there was an important statement made by Ellis about its historical significance:
“[A]t the center of the silliness, however, is an idea that I had half-known but never fully appreciated until that night: Jefferson is America’s special addiction, and something is going on out there in the minds and hearts of ordinary Americans at this moment in our national history to make that addiction particularly powerful. It is as if the American citizenry harbors some worrisome questions about the state of the republic and looks to him as America’s oracle to provide reassuring answers.”
Once such an interpretive pattern lodges itself in the mind, of course, it quickly pulls half-forgotten odds and ends of one’s memory and aligns them within the new grid-work. What came to my mind was a thesis advanced [in 1960] by Merrill Peterson in The Jefferson Image in the American Mind.”
Peterson discovered that Jefferson had become America’s Everyman, the cult hero for wildly divergent and often antagonistic political movements throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The term Peterson used was “Protean Jefferson,” which gave a respectably classical sound to what others might regard as Jefferson’s disarming ideological promiscuity. Southern secessionists loved him; Northern abolitionists worshiped him; Gilded Age moguls echoed his warnings about federal power; Populists adored his advice about the evils of a banking conspiracy and the superiority of agrarian values. In the 1925 Scopes trial, both William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow were sure that Jefferson agreed with their positions on evolution. Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt both claimed him as their guide to the problems of the Great Depression. In the 1930s isolationists and interventionists cited him as their spiritual mentor.
At some point, as this Jeffersonian procession passed by, I began to wonder whether there was anything Jefferson did not stand for. Was he a real historical person who once lived ‘back there’ in time? Or was he a free-floating Rorschach test we carried around with us ‘up here’ in the present?”
Ellis’s analysis of Jefferson is prescient of contemporary US politics, seeing how the Democratic-Republican Party is still in power nearly thirty years later. There was a growing interest among Liberal Capitalists to retrofit Jeffersonianism for the then-emerging conditions of the 21st century. Neoliberalism had achieved world domination through the Empire of Liberty, the Cold War (as the latter half of World War II) was over, and the 20th century was coming to an end. Anyone who wanted to understand the American Collective Consciousness as it currently exists, Ellis wrote, must realize that aspects of Jefferson’s personality traits were projected onto the American people. We can cite specific examples like Jefferson’s indebtedness (how many Americans struggle with paying off their Schuld?) or his lavish overspending (how many Americans identify themselves as “consumers” or “producers” spending beyond their own means?). Apart from the Empire of Liberty concept, those are two well-known cases where I have found Jefferson’s behavior to be very consistent to the extent where it becomes possible to justifiable Slavery and still condemn it on some conceivable moral scale.
Fortunately, Ellis was supportive of this conclusion, as evidenced by his mentioning of the poet Mary Jo Salter, who saw Jefferson as someone who reflected the many “contradictions” and “identities” that plague the American Collective Consciousness. These peculiarities, as I had suspected, were of immense interest to Americans with a keen interest in Postmodernism, employing its distinct methods like trying to deconstruct Jefferson’s personality to make sense of his continued relevance in US politics. It has even been suggested from various people cited by Ellis, one of whom was a psychiatrist, that Jefferson himself (insofar as most Americans understand him vis-à-vis Jeffersonianism) is an appropriate archetype of Postmodernity’s own contradictions. This is an important conclusion to make because we cannot understand the historical significance of Postmodernism without realizing why all of its conclusions were made in a world where the Empire of Liberty reigns supreme.
Grass-roots Jeffersonianism, what we might also call Jeffersonian fundamentalism, has a long history of its own, but for our purposes its most instructive feature is the change in its character over the past 50 years. For most of American history, Jefferson was cast in the lead role in the dramatic clash between democracy and aristocracy, with Alexander Hamilton usually playing the opposite lead. If this dramatic formulation often had the suspicious odor of a soap opera, it also had the decided advantage of fitting neatly into the mainstream political categories and parties: It was the people against the interests, agrarians against the industrialists, the West against the East, Democrats against Republicans. Jefferson was one-half the American political dialogue, the liberal voice of ‘the many’ holding forth against the conservative voice of ‘the few.’
Another important observation that Ellis, and is of immense relevance to my research, was FDR’s decision-making being fixated on a “Jeffersonian ends with Hamiltonian methods,” which is also the fundamental flaw of American Progressivism (aka “Social Liberalism”). Put another way, the ends do not necessarily justify the means because there is a fundamental difference between being someone and doing something.
“This version of American history always had the semifictional quality of an imposed plot line, but it stopped making much sense at all by the New Deal era, when Franklin Roosevelt invoked Hamiltonian methods (i.e., government intervention) to achieve Jeffersonians goals (i.e., economic equality). After the New Deal, most historians abandoned the Jefferson-Hamilton distinction altogether and most politicians stopped yearning for a Jeffersonian utopia free of all government influence. The disintegration of the old categories meant the demise of Jefferson as the symbolic leader of liberal partisans fighting valiantly against the entrenched interests. In a sense, what happened was that Jefferson ceased to function as the liberal half of the American political dialogue and became instead the presiding presence who stood above all political conflicts and parties.
And this, of course, is where he resides today, a kind of free-floating icon who hovers over the American political scene much like one of those dirigibles cruising above the Super Bowl, flashing words of encouragement to both teams. Formerly the property of liberal crusaders, he is now claimed by Democrats and Republicans alike. In fact, the most effective articulator of Jeffersonian rhetoric in the last half of the 20th century has been Ronald Reagan, the most conservative president since Calvin Coolidge, whose belief in less government, individual freedoms and American destiny came straight out of the Jeffersonian lexicon. Jefferson is not just an essential ingredient in the American political tradition, but the essence itself.”
Where Vladimir Lenin had consistently hammered this Jeffersonian phenomenon as “Socialism in Words, Imperialism in Deeds,” Heinz Guderian surmised it elsewhere in the closing pages of Achtung-Panzer!: “Actions speak louder than words.” Breaking the Aristotelian “Law of Non-Contradiction” has become a frequent necessity in order to comprehend the failures of Jeffersonianism in favor of Hamiltonianism.