Friday Musings: Populism is East versus West

I share my classroom with a veteran history teacher, who teaches my school’s eighth grade South Carolina History course.  The students are currently covering the events leading up to the American Revolution, particularly the unpopular Proclamation Line of 1763.  His discussion of the topic led me to a minor epiphany.

First, some historical context:  after the British defeated the French and their allies in the French and Indian War (the Seven Years’ War in Europe), millions of acres of land west of the Appalachian Mountains were open to American settlement.  The Americans were bursting with pride in delivering a hard-fought victory against Britain’s major European foe, and were eager to enjoy the spoils of war:  the newly opened lands.

Unfortunately, Parliament stalled land-hungry settlers with a well-intentioned but misguided policy:  the Proclamation Line of 1763.  According to an act of Parliament, there was to be no settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains.  The land was to be left to the Indians living there.

The policy was not without merit:  the British spent a great deal of blood and treasure fighting Indians during the French and Indian War, and while the conflict was global in nature, most of the fighting occurred in British North America and present-day Canada.  A major source of bad blood was the tendency of Americans to move onto Indian-owned lands; similarly, rapacious Indians would raid vulnerable settlers in the western parts of colonies (such raids fomented an early populist uprising of farmers in western Virginia, Bacon’s Rebellion, in 1676).  The British sought to avoid another costly war with the natives by preventing their future antagonism:  keep Americans off that land.

Americans, understandably, were livid.  For one, they saw it as Britain rewarding the very foes they’d just vanquished (keep in mind, too, the ferocity of native warriors—there’s a reason we name our military hardware and athletic teams “The Braves” and the like).  They also believed this land was their destiny and their birthright—having defeated a tenacious foe, they were ready to head west.

What got me thinking was a comment my colleague made; to paraphrase:  “If Parliament had just sat down with the colonists and discussed it with them, they could have avoided a lot of disaster.”  That comment made me realize:  so much populism is a conflict between an indifferent Eastern (now bicoastal) elite, and an energetic, cantankerous Western settler-class.

That is, by no means, a novel insight (see also:  Bacon’s Rebellion).  The insight, however, is the repeated unwillingness of elite interests to try to understand or cope with the sources of the common man’s difficulties.  Some differences are, indeed, intractable, but it seems that, in many cases, elites could hear out and account for the problems of the common folk.

Indeed, in many cases, both are right.  Consider the historic struggles between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.  Thank goodness George Washington heeded Hamilton’s advice for how to structure the finances of the young nation.  Hamilton’s fiscal policies set the United States on firm footing, building investor confidence and shoring up the American government’s credit.

On the other hand, Jefferson was right that Congress had no explicit authority to establish a national bank, and that we shouldn’t become too dependent on urban industrialization and finance, lest we lose our sense of republican virtue.

There are, increasingly, fundamental disconnects between America’s urban elites and rural commoners.  Witness New York State’s catastrophic, plainly satanic abortion law, which (from all the discussion around it), seems to allow for abortion while a woman is still in labor.  There’s no compromising with an idea that is, unarguably, evil.

That said, elites should take seriously the common American’s keen sense for fair play.  Illegal (and mass legal) immigration is deleterious not only because it is illegal, but because it hurts native-born Americans, driving down their wages (for the benefit of the elites) and transforming their neighborhoods and towns.  Americans will welcome a reasonable number of legal immigrants with open arms, but they expect immigrants to come legally, to assimilate, and to become loyal American citizens (including breaking ties with their old countries).

The elites are people, too, and often act in what they believe is for the greater good, or for long-term national preservation (at least, this statement seemed accurate in America’s past; our postmodern elites seem largely committed to undermining core American principles).  That said, they’ve adopted the Left’s prevailing ethos of de facto nihilism and materialist self-indulgence, along with the Left’s disdain for the common man.

In short, the elites have lost any sense of noblesse oblige, of obligation to maintaining a good, happy, healthy society.  They are as far removed from their fellow countrymen as East is from West.

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