By John Burt
Richard H. King’s Arendt in America is such a thorough, thoughtful, clear-sighted, and balanced treatment of Hannah Arendt’s thirty-four year engagement with American politics, culture, thought and society that it is hard to single out which of its strains of argument demand the most attention. King shows how, even as she shared many common European prejudices about the United States, Arendt nevertheless saw in America a tradition of practical republicanism of considerable power. Arendt learned from America, but she also taught America, and some of the things she taught America were aspects of American political culture that Americans of her own generation had not clearly understood.
The first thing the United States showed to Arendt was a society in which language, culture, and blood were not the basis of nationhood. One can become a citizen of France, but becoming French is more problematic, both because its unified ideal of republican citizenship seeks to efface all cultural distinctions, and because no amount of effort quite seems to make one wholly French. The United States, Arendt observed when she first arrived, did not demand cultural uniformity as the price of political inclusion. But the naturalized immigrant is, in America’s theory of itself if less precisely so in its practice, not only as American as any native but perhaps even paradigmatically American. As Lincoln pointed out in a speech in Chicago in 1858, becoming an American does not require a historical connection with the society of the founders, only an embrace of the promises of the opening sentences of the Declaration of Independence.
In founding its sense of nationhood, not merely its political citizenship, in political ideals, America provided Arendt with a new model of how the political and the social may be insulated from each other yet work together. King points out that Arendt had a curious experience of allegiance to political values in the face of cultural heterogeneity in the first few months of her time in America. The family she lived with in Massachusetts was headed by a rather snobbish matriarch, full of unthinking prejudices of many kinds. But when the Japanese were interned, this rather prejudiced lady and her friends, who certainly did not like racial others, extended themselves mightily against relocation.
It is a common European assumption that because the United States is a consumer society, and because it is often a socially conformist and anti-intellectual society, that it is also a deracinated, world-less mass society ripe for dictatorship at every moment. But unlike, say, the Frankfurt School or indeed unlike many American intellectuals to this day, Arendt was not tempted to treat the American bourgeois as a Nazi-in-waiting. Writing to Jaspers at the end of the McCarthy era, Arendt had noted that totalitarian developments were possible within this society, but even Eisenhower, “who, taken as an individual is a ‘dummkopf’,” was capable of making sure that the political tradition of the country would win out, and that for all their materialism and shallowness, Americans were often able, because of their instinctive commitment to political process, to grope their ways out of the corners they blundered into.
Arendt understood that the durability of America’s free political culture arose from its having internalized republican values. In seeing this, King shows, she saw rather more deeply into American political mores than most American thinkers of her day. Louis Hartz and Richard Hofstadter described a philosophically impoverished liberalism devoted chiefly to the conservation of private property and the encouragement of material accumulation, what Hofstadter called “a democracy in cupidity rather than a democracy in fraternity.” This view of liberalism tends to see politics chiefly as a matter of individuals, and of pressure groups, seeking to advance their private interests at each other’s expense, and therefore sees politics only in an opportunist way, as an arena in which the spoils of the social world are to be divided among more or less honorable thieves.
Barely escaping from the cauldron of totalitarian Europe as she did, pragmatism and interest liberalism must have seemed to Arendt to be capable of accounting neither for what America had to offer to a world wrecked by totalitarianism nor what it was in American republicanism which enabled it to hold its own against totalitarian regimes. Sociological jurisprudence and legal realism, as King pungently notes, could speak to the economic injustices of the Gilded Age, but had little to say in a political world in which the powers that be are prepared to exterminate millions of people in the service of the triumph of a master race or of the victory of the proletariat. Economic interpretations of history, such as those of Charles Beard, were capable of challenging inequality and of using positive social science to equalize society, but they could not hold their own in a world in which the chief opponents of progress were not the conservative faction of the United States Supreme Court but a ruthless and brutal cadre of gauleiters and commissars. Indeed, perhaps the hegemony of pragmatism explains something of the inability of American intellectuals and politicians of the 1930s to take the measure of any of the great mid-century tyrannies.
Arendt’s prescient account of American republicanism, anticipating and enriching the accounts of later scholars like Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood, is far from uncritical. King shows that what readers have usually taken to be Arendt’s argument about the American revolution (that it succeeded because it did not embrace the desire to remake society all the way down, having chosen not to see the miseries that were at the foundation of that society) is a caricature; Arendt understood that the Founders were critical of slavery, and saw something of the tangle of issues about slavery and race they were unable to sort out. The problem of misery, whether for those who are shocked by it, as the French revolutionaries were, or for those who try to blunt their sense of it, as the American revolutionaries did, places every revolution in a double bind. Resisting the temptation to adopt a radical solution to the problems of misery and oppression seems at once shallow and feckless. But to be stampeded by a sense of that misery into destroying the political institutions through which one might hope to remedy that misery seems self-defeating too.
King is right to bring to bear an analysis of the American Civil War to make sense of Arendt’s analysis of the Revolution, even if Arendt herself treats the subject sketchily at best, for his analysis casts a new light on Arendt’s famed (and vexed) distinction between the social and the political. Arendt is sometimes taken to argue that the political world must never concern itself with social conflicts at all, but that seems overdrawn; it is fairer to her to take her to mean that social questions must not completely swamp political ones, lest they not only destroy the political world but put the redemption of the social world out of reach. Arendt does not discuss the example, but the way Lincoln managed his dual obligation to union and to emancipation (or to constitutional process and to ideals of justice) is good model of how the tension between the social and the political, which cannot be resolved at the level of theory, might yet be mediated in concrete political practice.
Arendt had a weak understanding of day-to-day politics. Arendt seems, as King notes, to have always underestimated Madison among the founders, partly because of his embrace of interest group politics in the tenth Federalist (which seems to give social questions the power to dominate the political arena), partly because of his embrace of representative as opposed to direct democracy (which seems to restrict participation in the political sphere to professionals), and partly because of his role as a designer of a party system (which ties political processes to parties, about which Arendt was programmatically skeptical, because of her experience of European parties). She did not seem notice that in all three areas Madison provided a satisfactory way of mediating between the claims of the political and the claims of the social. If interest politics turns on a zero-sum conflict about only one interest issue, it is easy to see how interest conflicts can undermine democratic culture. But Madison understood that interests were heterogeneous, and that conflicts along one axis can moderate conflicts along other axes (addressing the social problem) and at the same time turns the political system in the direction of fair-minded mediation (conserving the space of politics). To Rousseau and to Schmitt, and for that matter sometimes to Arendt, the culture of heterogeneous, fair-minded deal making on interest issues looked like corruption. But in America what it amounts to is respect for the political world, which is rather different from a mere democracy in cupidity, because it teaches one to approach differences about interests in a truly political spirit, to see them as more than merely as occasions to talk other people out of more of what we want from them.
Madison described in the tenth Federalist how heterogeneity mediates and moderates conflicts on interest issues, but his ultimate model of how heterogeneity supports a culture of freedom was how having a multitude of sects made possible religious toleration, and extending that model to include a multitude of ethnicities would almost seem to go without saying. Racial conflict in the US has always been different from ethnic, interest, or religious conflict, because the (increasingly out of date) habit of seeing the US as organized around a racial binary of black and white that trumps any other social fact has compromised the ability to treat racial difference as just another case of ethnic difference. Arendt, like Tocqueville, was aware that Americans had difficulty treating race as they treated other forms of difference, and, like Tocqueville, she saw that it was the way race was used to blunt class conflict by enabling the poor white to claim the privilege of shared whiteness with the rich white (what George Fredrickson called herrenvolk democracy) that made racism so intractable. But Arendt, like Crevecoeur and for that matter like Tocqueville, also saw racism as a kind of exception to a general democracy. Nowadays, following Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom, it is more plausible to argue that slavery and racism were deeply intertwined with the development of American civic freedom (indeed, that they were mutually dependent), and that the great story about American politics of the last two centuries is how democracy and racial exploitation came to be (or, better, are coming to be) disentangled from each other. In King’s view, Arendt never fully understood this story, because she did not see what it was that gave racial difference its hypnotizing power over the American mind, and saw it as a social conflict like the conflicts over class, religion, or ethnic heritage that differed from these other conflicts chiefly in being more easily enflamed.
King describes how Arendt wound up adopting a double position about the labor movement, seeing it sometimes as a mere interest group, contending for benefits for its members, but also sometimes as a force for the enlargement of the political world, as an instrument through which the society as a whole, not just the union members, could express their concern with the flourishing of the republic, stabilizing the republic by broadening its basis and seeking a fresh grasp on republican values. The struggle over Emancipation and Civil Rights played out in the same double way, both in the social and in the political world. It is easy to see that emancipation was a subject of moral and political interest to far more than the slaves. And in our own day, the struggle over Civil Rights has been a struggle over the meaning of democracy, something in which all Americans have a stake. That Arendt was slow to see this was a blind spot in her personality, but not, as King points out, a weakness of her philosophy, since to see the struggle over civil rights as a struggle over the meaning of democracy is far more in Arendt’s spirit than was the argument Arendt herself made in “Reflections on Little Rock.” The story of American politics is the story of its gradually coming to terms with the problem of race; Arendt did not tell that story, but that doesn’t mean that that story cannot be told in an Arendtian way. King’s book provides us with a more Arendtian way to read Arendt.
John Burt is Paul Prosswimmer Professor of American Literature at Brandeis University. His most recent book is Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism (Harvard University Press, 2013). He is the editor of The Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren (Louisiana State University Press, 1998), and the author of Robert Penn Warren and American Idealism (Yale University Press, 1988), as well as of three volumes of poetry.