2016: Zinn’s Revolt of the Guards Has Arrived

I have the good pleasure to share this piece which Rob Barthelmess invited me to collaborate with him on. The substance is his; the “flair,” as well as all remaining errors, are my own.

Gentlemen, he said
I don’t need your organization, I’ve shined your shoes
I’ve moved your mountains and marked your cards
But Eden is burning, either getting ready for elimination
Or else your hearts must have the courage for the changing of the guards

-Bob Dylan, “Changing of the Guards,” Street Legal (1978)

I’m not a big Howard Zinn fan, but a high school history teacher assigned A People’s History of the United States before the start of my junior year. One of his later chapters stuck with me more so than most – chapter 24 (or what used to be Chapter 23 in a previous version), entitled “The Coming Revolt of the Guards,” and is described by Zinn as “not a prediction, but a hope . . . .”

The chapter seems prescient now in light of the current political climate. In this chapter, Zinn envisioned a utopian revolt of the proletariat who prop up – or “guard” – society while nevertheless being taken advantage of by the “elites.”

The past decade in American politics has felt like such a revolt was brewing. 2008 was a year that hinted of revolt, both in the form of the tea party emerging in reaction to the Bush administration bailouts, as well as in the form of the Democratic establishment picking a fresh, young change candidate over the heir apparent.

Obama’s tenure as President, whether fairly or not, has only stoked the fires of rage on both right and left. The popular constitutional movement driven by conservatives in the late aughts and early 20-teens subsided just in time for the socialist movement driven by Sanderistas to emerge in the mid-teens. And so here we are today.

Both of these movements share in common a bedrock suspicion of their respective “establishments” and a desire for a radical change from the current status quo. Though much could, and undoubtedly will, be said about the latter group, our focus is on the former. We both more-or-less came of age politically in the context of this popular constitutionalist movement; and we both were deeply dismayed when, expecting 2016 to be the year where the Republican party nominated someone sharing and voicing the concerns brought to the fore by the so-called “tea party” (e.g., concerns about executive overreach, systemic abandonment of founding principles, unsustainable federal spending, etc.), a populist demagogue took over the party and became its nominee. This essay is a reflection on what happened to get us here; why 2016 finally feels like the year in which Zinn’s vision became reality (at least in part); and what that means going forward.

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The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy. The people do not want virtue, but are the dupes of pretended patriots.

-Elbridge Gerry

[L]iberty is endangered when [political] power finds no obstacle which can retard its course and give it time to moderate its own vehemence….

-Alexis de Tocqueville

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Howard Zinn’s Predictions

Zinn begins with a general observation about the history of the United States. In somewhat Hobbesian fashion (and despite the Framers’ clear indebtedness to Locke), Zinn believes the Founding Fathers and Presidents called on the American people to “choose among saviors” by going to the voting booth to decide between “two white and well-off Anglo-Saxon males of inoffensive personality and orthodox opinion” when going to vote for President. This idea of saviors is built into the culture and politics, he writes.

Zinn believes there is a system of control built into our nation – wealth disparity illustrates this. Zinn writes that “[o]ne percent of the nation owns a third of the wealth. The rest of the wealth is distributed in such a way as to turn those in the 99 percent against one another.” This leads to groups in constant tension. He surveys a number of instances in which these means of control failed and particular groups broke free of the oppression he believes was intentionally constructed by the “elites.”

The system functions due to the obedience and loyalty of those who keep the system going, i.e., the “Guards” – “the soldiers and police, teachers and ministers, administrators and social workers, technicians and production workers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, transport and communication workers, garbage men and firemen.” These “somewhat privileged” are in a partial alliance with the elite, as they act as a buffer between the upper and lower classes. If these groups stop obeying the power structure, the system falls. This is Zinn’s hope.

After discussing all this, Zinn shifts to begin predicting how he envisions an uprising of the “Guards” to occur. Technology, economics, war, enemies overseas, internationalization of the economy, etc. will lead these Guards to become increasingly dissatisfied. Nostradamus-like, Zinn states:

There is evidence of growing dissatisfaction among the guards. We have known for some time that the poor and ignored were the nonvoters, alienated from a political system they felt didn’t care about them, and about which they could do little. Now alienation has spread upward into families above the poverty line. These are white workers, neither rich nor poor, but angry over economic insecurity, unhappy with their work, worried about their neighborhoods, hostile to government – combining elements of racism with elements of class consciousness, contempt for the lower classes along with distrust for the elite, and thus open to solutions from any direction, right or left. (emphasis added).

Zinn thinks that, growing ever more distrustful of government and business, the Guards who are now arguably experiencing the plight historically experienced by the lower classes will rebel. He sees signs of this everywhere: 

[T]he high rate of alcoholism, the high rate of divorce . . ., of drug use and abuse, of nervous breakdowns and mental illness. Millions of people have been looking desperately for solutions to their sense of impotency, their loneliness, their frustration, their estrangement from other people, from the world, from their work, from themselves. They have been adopting new religions, joining self-help groups of all kinds. It is as if a whole nation were going through a critical point in its middle age, a life crisis of self-doubt, self-examination . . . . The threat of unemployment, always inside the homes of the poor, has spread to white-collar workers, professionals. A college education is no longer a guarantee against joblessness, and a system that cannot offer a future to the young coming out of school is in deep trouble. If it happens only to the children of the poor, the problem is manageable; there are the jails. If it happens to the children of the middle class, things may get out of hand. The poor are accustomed to being squeezed and always short of money, but in recent years the middle classes, too, have begun to feel the press of high prices, high taxes.

Zinn believes this might lead Americans to demand more than the small changes of the past, more than even another “New Deal.” Shifting to a Utopian dream, Zinn hopes for a taking of power from the “giant corporations, the military, and their political collaborators.” The economy requires a reconstruction, for “both efficiency and justice,” in order to put all idle “skills and talents” to use. In his world, “[e]veryone could share the routine but necessary jobs for a few hours a day, and leave most of the time for enjoyment, creativity, labors of love, and yet produce enough for an equal and ample distribution of goods.” He believes this will lead to friendly communities with nonviolent cultures and new values of cooperation and freedom. Bringing this about requires the combination of energy from all previous movements in American history. Although this is imaginary, it is “not totally removed from history.”

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[B]efore our day, the hereditary usages formed our foremost men, and they on their part retained the usages and institutions of their fathers. But our age, receiving the republic as a chef-d’oeuvre of another age which has already begun to grow old, has not merely neglected to restore the colors of the original, but has not even been at the pains to preserve so much as the general outline and most outstanding features. For what survives of that primitive morality which the poet called Rome’s safeguard? It is so obsolete and forgotten, that, far from practicing it, one does not even know it. And of the citizens what shall I say?  Morality has perished through poverty of great men; a poverty for which we must not only assign a reason, but for the guilt of which we must answer as criminals charged with a capital crime. For it is through our vices, and not by any mishap, that we retain only the name of a republic, and have long since lost the reality.

-Cicero, De Re Publica, as quoted by Augustine, City of God

In the government of this commonwealth, the legislative department shall never exercise the executive and judicial powers, or either of them: the executive shall never exercise the legislative and judicial powers, or either of them: the judicial shall never exercise the legislative and executive powers, or either of them: to the end it may be a government of laws and not of men.

-Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, Part the First, Art. XXX

It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. Different interests necessarily exist in different classes of citizens. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure.

-James Madison

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Constitutional Conservatism – Signs of Unrest

Many of the issues described by Zinn are similar to the experience of a number of Americans today. There is, however, one major difference Zinn fails to recognize – in the United States we have the Constitution and, by extension, federalism and the separation of powers. Although history is filled with identifiable Constitutional failures to protect those it is supposed to protect, this infrastructure was established, and it still exists today, in order to insulate individuals from the vicissitudes of oligarchy and democracy, of monarchy and mob rule. The rise of the Tea Party and the revival of a call for Constitutional government could have and should have been the appropriate means to combat some of the problems experienced by Zinn’s Guards. Other problems, such as xenophobia, nativism, trade protectionism, etc., are much harder to address via structural safeguards such as the separation of powers (indeed, some solutions to social maladies require a change of heart which cannot be effected by even the most persuasive of politicians or campaigns). Nevertheless, the ability of the Constitution to deliver some of the answers sought could have been enough to direct this anger towards those who have perverted the system and might have led to a rectification.

Instead, our institutions failed us when we needed them. When large swaths of the people were upset by Bush-era excesses and expressed concern about expanded powers in the Executive Branch, Obama took over and doubled down on these excesses. When the people responded accordingly, and rejected the attempt to overhaul an industry that comprises roughly twenty percent of the economy through top-down central-economic-planning-style reforms (I refer to the Affordable Care Act, dubbed Obamacare by friends and foes alike), the Supreme Court – the final check on the excesses of the other branches and the final enforcer of constitutional norms and principles – rolled over and rubber stamped this takeover. When the people’s frustration grew even greater, leading them to continue to send “outsiders” to Congress to change the status quo, the outsiders either proved impotent or became “insiders” in short order.

The Counter-Constitutional Revolt of Today

For these and other reasons, it appears that the individuals involved in this movement no longer saw the Constitution as a means of preserving the Republic or the ideals the nation was founded upon. Rather, like Zinn suggests, they resort to looking for a “savior.” Unfortunately, the quality of present-day “saviors” appears to have diminished compared to former “saviors.” Whereas in the past the people (according to Zinn) turned to Lincoln to preserve the Union, or Roosevelt to save us from the brink of ruin, or Carter to restore faith in government after corruption hit its zenith (or so we thought), the people now turn to nativist populists (and corrupt plutocrats, we might add, though they are not our focus here) who are long on rhetoric and short on solutions.

With astonishing foresight, Zinn called it – the (right-wing) Guards’ combined contempt for the lower classes, along with their distrust of the elite, has led to the Trump movement, which is beholden to no political ideology but is a thing unto itself. Although Trump is running on the Republican ticket, Trump’s constant flip-flopping on historically-meaningful issues demonstrates that the people have turned to a “leader” (we use the word liberally) who is almost completely removed from the right-left spectrum, preferring to focus on id-based problems and simplistic solutions. The concerns felt by the rising number of Donald Trump supporters is not entirely unfounded; yet they seek a solution that is not forthcoming from their chosen “savior.” The people have turned to a panderer-in-chief. Donald Trump is embracing the concerns of the Guards and “gladly accept[ing] the mantle of anger” – about unemployment, illegal immigration, imbalanced trade policy, etc. – and the people love him for it. Largely gone is the rhetoric about returning to first principles; instead, we now have unmediated rage being channeled by and through a comparatively uninformed, center-left populist. 

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Unfortunately, much of this rage is misinformed and misdirected. And the people are once again being sold a bill of goods. We focus here on how this has happened on the right. But much the same could be said about what is happening on the left at present. The GOP, having become the party of Trump, is going through (possibly fatal) convulsions. These developments have been discouraging to those of us who hoped to see the GOP become more principled and forward-looking, but we are not without hope and optimism.

The sooner we embrace the reality that the fault lies not in our stars but within ourselves, the sooner we can begin to stop looking to a Zinnian savior (or a Nietzschean ubermensch, as the case may be) to fix things; but instead we can begin to look to ourselves to be our own solutions. After all, the Framers understood that it was “[w]e the people” who were responsible to maintain this delicate system of self-government – hence the preamble, as well as the “truism” that is the Tenth Amendment. We will never have a savior on Capitol Hill; and the sooner we realize that, the sooner we can begin the difficult process of mending the wounds that still exist in this country, and restoring the first principles that have been abandoned, in order that we may continue to strive to make this nation a “more perfect union.”

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