PEACEFUL REVOLUTION: CONSTITUTIONAL CHANGE AND AMERICAN CULTURE FROM PROGRESSIVISM TO THE NEW DEAL by Maxwell Bloomfield. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000. 224pp. Cloth $35.00. ISBN 0-674-00304-7.
Reviewed by Ken I. Kersch, Department of Political Science, Lehigh University.
Of the forces common sense would tell us must be among the most important influencing constitutional development, culture is doubtless the least discussed. A mess to operationalize, cultural discourse was predictably marginalized in an age dominated by the behavioral study of courts, judges, and politics more generally. The burgeoning field of American political development, which is self-consciously attentive to historical change, had done significantly better in bringing cultural discourse back in (the work of Ronald Kahn is a case in point), but the field's materialist roots can end up pushing sustained discussions of the culture of constitutionalism to the epiphenomenal sidelines. There is, of course, no shortage of discourse analysis by the cultural studies set, but its preoccupations have been narrow, with "culture" typically serving as a means of "interrogating" the racist, sexist, and homophobic assumptions of the American legal system and of American society more generally. This set's rigid fixations have left huge swathes of constitutional culture wide open for scholars of a more capacious cast of mind.
Along comes Maxwell Bloomfield with PEACEFUL REVOLUTION, an illuminating, old-fashioned, and very un-cultural studies cultural study. Bloomfield ably examines (amongst other things) the cultural discourse surrounding the 1921 Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill and the campaign for women's suffrage, but his cultural study engages them alongside questions concerning constitutional fights over the income tax, prohibition, and child labor laws. Also, he is concerned not solely with the Fourteenth Amendment and the Bill of Rights and with cultural argument over the commerce clause, the general welfare clause, executive prerogative, the Article Five amendment processes, and other constitutional provisions. The result is a history of the culture of constitutional argument that roundly reflects the preoccupations and battles of the era under study rather than simply mirroring the obsessions of our own. The book is a welcome and original addition to the literature on the culture of American constitutionalism.
The closest scholarly kin to Bloomfield's book are Michael Kammen's A MACHINE THAT WOULD GO OF ITSELF (1986) and Eric Foner's THE STORY OF AMERICAN FREEDOM (1998), both works of eminent historians. In devoting sustained attention to what has lately been referred to as "the constitution outside the courts" and then using that material to speculate theoretically about the dynamics of constitutional change, however, the author makes a useful contribution to the discussions now being undertaken by a
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lively group of historically-oriented political scientists.
PEACEFUL REVOLUTION surveys the popular media -- novels, cartoons, plays, magazine articles, and movies -- as sites of discourse regarding constitutions present, possible, and ideal. The book's stated purpose is to describe "the interplay between constitutional developments and media coverage from the turn of the century to the coming of the New Deal." Let's be clear: that's "to" and not "through." Although toward the end of the book, the author claims to look at constitutional change "[d]uring the first three decades of the twentieth century" (p. 168), the book, with a handful of exceptions, stops dead in its tracks at FDR's 1932 inaugural address.
Following a background chapter on popular understandings of constitutionalism -- broadly understood -- and the
nature of constitutional change in the founding era through the late nineteenth century, the author trains his
eye sequentially on the constitutional utopianism and revolt against formalism of the late nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries, the defenses of and attacks on World War I era war socialism, the anti-statist"normalcy"
backlash of the 1920s, and the subsequent - and quite unexpected -- proliferation of popular proposals for a new
constitutional order in response to the sustained economic collapse of the Great Depression.
Bloomfield's sources and subjects are many and come at the reader in a vivifying cascade. They will, I am certain, be new to most readers - including most constitutional scholars. There is very little overlap with either Kammen or Foner. What makes Bloomfield's book interesting - aside from the fact that he has cast a wide net and not simply trawled up and reinterpreted the usual decisional suspects (allusions to court opinions are few and far between) - are the novel theoretical implications.
Take, for example, the unusually round portrait PEACEFUL REVOLUTION provides of the nature of early twentieth century constitutional progressivism. Because New Deal regime constitutional scholars looking backwards have taken Pre-New Deal progressives - with their anti-formalist, living constitutionalism, and their concern for labor and abhorrence of dog-eat-dog capitalism -- as their intellectual and political progenitors, they have shied away from emphasizing less flattering - but integral - aspects of constitutional progressivism. Only recently, as the New Deal Regime has begun to disintegrate have scholars such as Mark Graber and David Rabban begun to take apart the Manichaean progress versus reaction narratives that have been so familiar for so long in constitutional history and take a harder and fuller look at actual progressivism - let the chips fall where they may.
You may be forgiven if the progressives presented in this book give you the willies. Edward Bellamy's lawyer-free and capitalist-free utopia, it turns out, is also rights-free. In the world of LOOKING BACKWARDS (1888), criminals are sterilized and imprisoned for life. Those who refuse to contribute their share to the well-being of society through work are quickly dispatched to isolated wilderness camps. The inclination to march to the beat of a different drummer doesn't fare any better in muckraking hero IdaTarbell's World War I era novel, THE RISING OF THE TIDE (1919), which equates political dissent with enemy propaganda and argues vehemently for the political repression of counterproductive ideas.
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A striking number of early twentieth century constitutional progressives, PEACEFUL REVOLUTION demonstrates, pined for a military coup (literally) and for rule by enlightened engineers as a solution to seemingly intractable early twentieth century problems of constitutional governance. From 1931 to 1932, the pages of THE NATION were graced by a series entitled "If I were a Dictator" in which an array of progressive contributors insisted upon the indispensability of a stupifyingly vast new administrative state. One contributor to this series, economist Stuart Chase, recommended funding the project (on the eve of Hitler's rise to power) by eliminating the U. S. Army and Navy. In the novel and MGM film, GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE (1933), a populist President with an abiding anti-greed, anti-suffering message, assumes dictatorial powers in the name of the impoverished and disenfranchised, scoops up all the nation's guns, creates a massive federal works project, and an international central bank (The New York Times praised the story for its "rare common sense."). In his 1932 book AMERICA MADE YOUNG, Duval McCutchen preached a revolution in republican values through a radical expansion of the welfare state made possible by a Twentieth Amendment- ushering in a "Constitution of Quality." McCutchen declared that government "ought to be almost a religion to its citizens" and to stimulate that civic religion recommended that American universities invest heavily in serviceable social science teaching and research, with students writing socially relevant papers and their professors turning them into policy proposals to be voted up or down in national referenda. And oh yes -- McCutchen added matter of factly - anyone who got in the way of republicanunity and progress, such as all criminals and physical and mental defectives, would be rounded up and removed so as to not gum up the progressive social works.
PEACEFUL REVOLUTION is not, I should emphasize, written as an "anti-progressive" history. It is well-balanced and full of similarly unsettling right wing and over-the-top proto-Objectivist visions as well. One such work is Garet Garrett's 1922 free-market novel THE DRIVER, which was first serialized, in the SATURDAY EVENING POST and stars the intriguingly named Henry Galt. And then, there is, of course, the pro-capitalist, pro-individualist comic strip LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE, which Bloomfield argues was the nation's "first ideological comic strip." The outlines of the anti-socialist, laissez-faire, racist and sexist visions surveyed in the book, however, will seem familiar to readers, who were likely weaned on New Deal regime scholarship which has devoted itself to seeing through these ideologies. Because there has been relatively little seeing through those-who-see-through, however, most of the book's novel insights regard the odd fixations and ignored implications of progressive constitutional thought.
What is the relationship between all these proposals for and resistance to new orders in popular media and constitutional change itself? Bloomfield's theory of the relation of culture to constitutional change is, it turns out - perhaps inevitably - rather open-ended. "[F]ictional narrative and constitutional law seldom interact in any clear-cut fashion," he writes; the media play "an important, but complementary, role in the process" (p. 41).
Still, his research suggests the possibility of several distinct dynamics. "The media," Bloomfield does claim, "do not generally originate proposals for
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constitutional change at the national level; their function is rather to interpret important issues in terms that will be meaningful for their respective audiences" (p. 168). Constitutional discourse in popular media both keeps constitutional issues on the table, "promoting constitutional discussion," and helping shape debate about those issues.
This it does in a variety of ways. One of Bloomfield's major contentions --echoing a claim made by John Dewey about free speech -- is that cultural constitutional discussion is a sort of safety valve that steers the country toward peaceful revolution and away from revolutionary violence - hence the book's title. One sort of text doing this most directly is the text that sounds the alarm about the menace of revolution, in the process stimulating an array of reformist proposals. So, for instance, utopian novels like PRESIDENT JOHN SMITH 1897), WAITING FOR THE SIGNAL (1897), THE CITADEL (1912), and PHILIP DRU, ADMINISTRATOR (1912) become parts of the discourse surrounding the post-POLLACK (1895) campaign for a constitutional amendment to authorize a federal income tax. George Kibbe Turner's 1919 novel RED FRIDAY and Thomas Dixon's play THE RED DAWN (1919) raised the specter of Wilsonian War Socialism as a precursor to a Soviet takeover, tilling fertile soil for the Red Scare. Another sort sets out utopian plans to help spark the public aspirations, as was the case with the social change novels of the late nineteenth century (such as LOOKING BACKWARDS), the administrative power novels of the era of the World War I era, and the free market novels of the 1920s. Sometimes popular constitutional discussion is a way of helping people to acclimate themselves to the unusual. Wartime propaganda, Bloomfield contends, for example, eased public acceptance of the draft and the Supreme Court's decision ratifying it in the SELECTIVE DRAFT LAW CASES (1918). A series of films sponsored by the National American Women's Suffrage Association and Alice Paul's Congressional Union cast suffragettes as heroes who would clean up a corrupt, male-dominated political order (anti-suffrage films countered with the specter of newly-enfranchised women abandoning their child-raising responsibilities and launching jihads against smoking and drinking). Newspapers and magazines helped pave the way for FDR's call in his first inaugural for broad executive power. Bloomfield chronicles the debate surrounding failed - and expensive -- political campaigns, such as that on behalf of the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, whose defeat - justified in part on 10th Amendment grounds - switched the path of constitutional development by driving the NAACP to strategically shift its focus from the Congress to the courts.
Some works, such as Frederick Palmer's Depression-Era SO A LEADER CAME (1932), explicitly advance theories of constitutional change. In his book, Palmer posited that, "in times of extreme emergency, the sovereign people may exercise their power directly and approve of a course of action that violates constitutional norms." What Palmer has in mind, it turns out, is a temporary dictatorship and government by executive decree in the name of justice. SO A LEADER CAME points to another one of the pleasures of this book: to see currently fashionable theories of constitutional change (in this case Bruce Ackerman's) advanced at a time in which the implications of that theory are unclear and potentially quite dangerous, thus raising the question of whether innovative contemporary theories are persuasive only to the extent that they are retrospective.
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Although rich in pleasures, Bloomfield's book is not without failings. The absence of illustrations is frustrating in a book that relies so heavily on descriptions of political cartoons and other sources from popular culture. The decision to end the discussion in 1932 robs us of the climax that thewhole book seemed to lead to -- but perhaps this will be the focus of a subsequent book. The theoretical implications of the book - which I have tried to tease out here - are less express than imminent. However, it is pithy, well written, and fun. The litany of material presented is intellectually pregnant and novel. PEACEFUL REVOLUTION both delights andinstructs: in it Bloomfield helpfully advances our understanding of the relationship between popular discourse and constitutional change.
Foner, Eric. 1998. THE STORY OF AMERICAN FREEDOM. New York: W. W. Norton.
Kammen, Michael. 1986. A MACHINE THAT WOULD GO OF ITSELF: THE CONSTITUTION IN
AMERICAN CULTURE. New York: Vintage Books.
POLLACK v. FARMERS LOAN AND TRUST CO., 157 U.S. 429 (1895).
SELECTIVE DRAFT LAW CASES, 245 U.S. 366 (1918).