The Government We Deserve: Postscript

If we can trust a recent Rasmussen poll, nearly half the eligible voters in the United States believe the republic established by the mythical founding fathers has crumbled.  Predictably, Republicans are more inclined to this gloomy opinion than Democrats, and perhaps surprisingly, women more than men.

This should be a case of what my occasional sparring partner Ben Wattenburg used to refer to in his wacky book, The Good News Is The Bad News Is Wrong.  In this classic of neoconservative disinformation, Wattenburg argued that the usual signs of social decay cited, say divorce, were actually indications of an increase in human freedom.  So following Pollyanna's line of reasoning, it should be a cause for joy, if a significant number of Americans are finally waking up to the truth:  Our government is as much like the republic of Washington and Jefferson as Rome under Diocletian was like the same as in the days of Cato the Elder.

But what, in fact, do these skeptics know of the United States in any period of its history?  So far as I can tell, both from reading surveys and talking to people, just about nothing, and what little they think they know is an invention of ideological historians.  The main point made by those responding negatively was that the government no longer acted according to the consent of the people.  In other words, they think the Declaration of Independence is part of the Constitution, a mistake popularized by Mad Harry Jaffa at Claremont.

A few years ago, some wise guy went around asking people their response to various statements in the Bill of Rights.  A majority of the people he asked, so he claimed, were opposed.  But then, did the wise guy have any idea of why these amendments were drafted or what rights they actually secured?  Not so far as I can tell.

About 15 years ago, a "conservative"  professor ridiculed college students who could not correctly answer such questions as:  What was the issue that brought on the Civil War?  Slavery.  What caused US entrance into WW I.  German submarine warfare.  In other words, the prof's multiple choice understanding of history was nothing more serious  than the cliches of an older propaganda line.

At the beginning of  the bicentennial celebration of the American  Revolution, one of my colleagues at Miami, a philosophy professor, circulated a questionnaire that revealed, among other things, that the students of a good university knew nothing about the Revolution, the Declaration, or the Constitution, and most could not correctly identify the century in which the War Between the States was fought .  Those students are now in their late 60's, lawyers, doctors, business executives, and I can guarantee you they know even less history today.

So the Bad New is That the Good News is Wrong.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina