We often think of Karl Marx or the progressive movement as the main source of our political troubles; but the more fundamental source of America's political conflicts goes back to a time before America's founding, finding its most powerful expression during the French Revolution, and seeing its most honest and enduring trademark in that revolution's Reign of Terror.
The source of the emotional power behind the left's influence in America is one sad, strange man from Geneva, whose inspiring emotional tone swept across France, and who, through expressing some compelling emotional sentiments mixed with bizarre anti-reason ideas, spread those ideas like a virus through the adolescent body of modern civilization.
Jean Jacques Rousseau had a romantic vision of his native early 18th century Geneva, with its relatively free peasants and its rural absence of snobby elite airs – even while he was one of only eight percent of the population who could call themselves legal citizens. He disliked the attitudes of the elite in Paris, even while he was sponging off and enjoying the intellectual company of those very people whom he so harshly would criticize. He lectured people on childrearing practices while he personally abandoned his five children to an orphanage.
So he was a hypocrite.
But he was also a writer who was able to move people with his words. He dressed down where people dressed up, and would speak plainly in circumstances where people did not speak plainly. He was rude in such a way that people felt he was being insightful. He was brutally honest in his self-disclosure, and could be just as brutally honest in his critique of others. He was the model for today's vulgar and irresponsible celebrities and yesterday's hippies and beatniks.
His earthiness was refreshing to the glitterati of Paris, even while he longed to get away from them and back to his idealized Geneva.
But along with the hypocrisy and his irrational thinking, there was a compelling emotional quality that Rousseau captured, and if you look to unwind the emotional sense that was the effective carrier of the deadly virus of his ideas, you will find a bit of something that you probably resonate with; because part of his emotional tone is the sentiment of earthy, authentic, common humanity, which is very much the emotional spirit of America.
America was founded by people who left Europe and carved their lives from a wilderness. Even what became the landed aristocracy of America had very close ties to the hard truths of making life work from gritty conditions.
But America as a country was founded on reason. We were founded with a vision statement in our Declaration of Independence that was clear and true. We created a constitution in order to cement those self-evident truths into a working structure for a government to secure our rights from government.
The pioneer spirit of equality, the attitude that inspires a man to get in the trenches or build a firewall or dive into a hands-on project with his fellow man to solve a problem together, the congregational spirit that values individualism, industry and success while at the same time recognizing that we are all human, that we all wrestle with our personal hardships and demons – these are the American spirit of equality.
The American spirit of equality is recognition of our common humanity, an inclusion within our moral circle of people from all stations and abilities in life. It is not equality of outcome.
Among the great triumphs of America is that we have been able to capture this sense of common humanity and blend it with the very practical ideal of individual liberty to form a system of government and commerce that, because of its validity and effectiveness, has brought forth the very best of what mankind is capable of.
But these are not Rousseau's ideas. To the contrary, he argued against reason and consciousness itself:
"I venture to declare that a state of reflection is a state contrary to nature, and that a thinking man is a depraved animal."
He glorified the primitive over civilization:
"When we think of the good constitution of the savages – at least of those whom we have not ruined with our spirituous liquors – and reflect that they are troubled with hardly any disorders save wounds and old age, we are tempted to believe that in following the history of civil society we shall be telling that of human sickness."
He saw science as a threat:
"Let men learn for once that nature would have preserved them from science as a mother snatches a dangerous weapon from the hands of her child."
He argued against democracy and for the rule of the elite:
"In order to prevent self-interest and ill-conceived projects, and all such dangerous innovations as finally ruined the Athenians, each man should not be at liberty to propose new laws at pleasure; this right should belong exclusively to the magistrates."
He specifically justified mob rule over individual liberty:
"The body politic is also a moral being, possessed of a will, and this general will, which tends always to the preservation and welfare of the whole and of every part, is the source of the laws, and constitutes for all the members of the state, in their relations to one another, the rule of what is just or unjust."
And he foreshadowed the sneering resentment of our modern day left-wing cynics toward civilization:
"The justice and futility of my complaints left in my mind seeds of indignation against our foolish social institutions, by which the welfare of the public and real justice are always sacrificed to I know not what appearance of order, which does nothing more than add the sanction of public authority to the oppression of the weak and the iniquity of the powerful."
When Rousseau sent his friend Voltaire a copy of his second "Discourse," Voltaire began his brilliant reply with:
"I have received, Monsieur, your new book against the human race."
What inspired people about Rousseau was the implied drop of emotional authenticity that he brought. But that drop contained the virus that inspired the left during the French Revolution to murder thousands during the Reign of Terror. While ideals of individual liberty, natural rights, representative democracy and private property were growing in influence throughout the West, Rousseau argued against them.
While the American founders sought to integrate the reality of human nature into a system of government that would secure the freedom of the individual, the influence of Rousseau in France was so tangled and unreasonable (literally) that it made a clear vision of exactly how his ideal would work impossible, and that ambiguity, along with the allowance he made for unchecked government power and armed with the emotional fire in which it was spread, opened the door to full-on totalitarian socialism.
When we argue for the founding principles of America against the liberal/progressives of today, we are not arguing with Karl Marx, nor are we arguing with any systematic vision of a rational goal or end point to government purposes. We are arguing with the emotional passion of this strange man from Geneva, Jean Jacques Rousseau.
When Al Gore's followers manipulate data and skew facts, they are moved to "love nature" like Rousseau, longing for a time when mankind could live in harmony with nature like the noble savage with his pure goodness apart from the evil influence of the constructs of civilization.
When Obama's followers seek to spread the wealth around, they are riding the feelings of equality generated by Rousseau; they are driven by emotion, a longing for the feeling of community, of belonging, of a vision of harmony idealized by Rousseau in his memories of Geneva.
And when we see the tantrums of the Democrats as they feel their power dissolving beneath their feet, collapsing like the walls of a drying sandcastle, we are seeing the rants of a utopian visionary who can't understand why he cannot have the object of his desire.
We have trembled in the face of this threat to our civilization for too long. We have compromised our magnificent founding principles with what we thought was a powerful adversary, thinking that we could maybe forestall the collapse of our spark of liberty. Like the fear of the myths of an unconquerable foe – the Bear of the Soviet Union, the invincible Afghani tribesmen or the mighty British Empire of the late 1700s – we have been too acquiescent to the emotional ravings of philosophical lunatics.
We have been spending our political capital trying to untie the tyranny of progressive political presumptions one strand at a time.
But while France pillaged and slaughtered their own in a nightmare of cultural cannibalism inspired by the very ideas now fueling the modern day left, the newborn creation that was America was already beginning to flourish toward the miracle we have become.
It is those principles of our founding, based upon reason and individual liberty, which are the most powerful, the most effective and the most inspiring political forces that the Earth has yet seen. Our principles are understandable; they can stand the light of day and the light of honest scrutiny.
Rousseau's vision is not actually comprehensible because it is not based upon what is true. It is based upon an emotional dreamer's fiction. That is why it cannot bear close scrutiny. And we have been fighting his followers as though they have possession of something powerful.
As Rousseau depended on the support of the elite that he scorned, and as they gave him his substantial podium, we have conceded our power to the left for far too long. I believe that we will find, when we look back at this turning point in history, that the only power they ever had was everything that we ourselves timidly conceded to them.
Time to stop conceding to the emotional indulgence that was inspired by Rousseau.