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From Jamestown to San Clemente

The Americans: The Colonial Experience

by Daniel J. Boorstin
Random House, 434 pp., $3.45 (paper)

The Americans: The Democratic Experience

by Daniel J. Boorstin
Random House, 717 pp., $3.45 (paper)


How in the world did we get from the Federalist Papers to the edited transcripts?” This question by a member of the House Judiciary Committee is both improper and proper to consideration of these volumes by Daniel Boorstin. Improper because he has not been concerned with the aspects of the American past which might bear on the question; and proper because he has composed a history of “the” American experience in which these aspects are omitted on grounds of principle rather than of mere selectivity.

Boorstin is a prolific and fluent writer, serious and dignified, perceptive, cultivated, and wide-ranging; he has enjoyed both popular success and the highest forms of professional recognition. With the publication of The Democratic Experience he has completed his magistral work, The Americans; and in Democracy and Its Discontents he has presented simply the main themes which inform his understanding of the American past and present.

Like the society it describes, The Americans is unique and somewhat unconventional. It is not a detailed account of great and familiar political events. Instead, it addresses the questions of how America became the most dynamic, expansive, productive, affluent, and equalitarian society in history and what this has meant for the quality and texture of everyday life. The task is a difficult one. It is not like tracing the “growth” of an institution, but of making sense of a society in which old landmarks are being forever erased, the pressures of expansionism take a thousand varied forms, and familiar measures of time, space, and achievements seem inadequate. There is also a special difficulty of composing the history of a society in which the rhythms of life are linked to the stepped-up tempos resulting from modern science, technology, and largescale production. Such a society is constantly devouring its past. The historian’s task becomes even more formidable if he should claim, as Boorstin does, that, despite the awesome structures of power and its grossly inequitable distribution, the results have promoted “community” and “the democratic experience.”

Boorstin attempts to overcome these difficulties by metaphors, some deliberate, others unintended. He uses the metaphors of “process” and “flow” to supply meaning and continuity to our history. Thus, from its beginnings, America followed the form of an ever-widening stream of energy, opportunity, expansion, innovation, and movement; an outpouring of new forms—of homes, settlements, diets, vocations, knowledge, language, law, production, and organization. It has been a continuous process of “breaking down barriers” of class, status, skill, knowledge, and culture. The process of America has been infinite and futurist. We might however add that while “process” may lend an impression of continuity between the landing at Jamestown and the landing on the moon, it may also promote mystification by smoothing over discontinuities, spiriting off the casualties, and deodorizing the scent of radical evil.

The endless flow of goods, opportunities, and new desires is the foundation of “democracy.” Democracy, according to Boorstin, means giving “everything to everybody,” and so everything is produced in order that it can be given to everybody and everybody is made to want it. Advertising, market surveys, polls are the new democratic arts; food-packaging, which is how we come to know things, is the democratic “epistemology”; department stores the democratic palaces; and ready-to-wear clothes the democratic badge. And “democracy” is Boorstin’s second, unintended, metaphor. Democracy has nothing to do with participation in power*—power itself is absent from Boorstin’s democratic experience—and has no political content whatsoever. Ours is a “democracy of cash” (Democratic Experience, p. 89); our Idea of the Good is the idea of consumption.

Community,” which Boorstin intends as a functional equivalent, is only another metaphor. Americans are depicted as history’s greatest community-builders. Beginning with Boonesboro and ending in Levittown, Americans have invented new communal forms which have nothing in common with older notions of community. Instead of the stabilities of place, shared intimacies over time, perduring and common involvements, American communities have been evanescent, functional, and composed of strangers. The ghost towns and still-born cities are the monuments to community; today we are still at it, with our “everywhere” and “invisible communities.” “Never before had so many been united by so many things” (Democratic Experience, p. 90). We have “fellowships” in hotels, “fellowships of consumers” founded by Sears, Roebuck, and peoples “united” by their car models and cereals, and “held together by their common use of objects so similar that they could not be distinguished even by their owners.” The ultimate expression is the “statistical communities” created by advertisers, marketing men, and social scientists, “communities of the insured,” of similar tax brackets, IQ levels, and credit cards (Democratic Experience, pp. 90, 165).

The hollowing out of the political content of “democracy” and “community” and their reduction to consumerism are crucial to Boorstin’s larger strategy of eliminating politics from the remembered experience of The Americans. For Boorstin it is a matter of pride, and an object-lesson, that America’s greatness was achieved because of a studied indifference, bordering on contempt, toward politics. Boorstin excludes politics, not because he is writing a “social” history, but because he believes that in the development of a technological democracy, politics, at best, is occasionally useful, and, at worst, a tempting vehicle for pursuing utopian visions. History, he writes, is “the only proven antidote for utopianism” and for the “most dangerous [of] popular fallacies…that democracy is attainable” (Discontents, pp. 52, 120).

Some utopians, however, are welcome and some crackpots are amiable. The extravagant visions of, say, Henry Ford, Edison, or the apostles of “scientific management” are praised as “practical,” while the eighteenth-century Quakers are ridiculed for being “an international conspiracy for Peace and for primitive Christian perfection” (Colonial Experience, p. 64) and the Mormons are lauded for being practical organizers (National Experience, pp. 62-65). History, Boorstin tells us, offers no “panaceas,” only a “palliative” (Discontents, p. 52)—and, we may note, one meaning of palliative is to cover up by excuses and apologies.

Accordingly, Boorstin’s history is of westward migrations, the flow of immigrants, the appearance of new technologies and techniques of mass production, the democratization of culture and everyday life. Its heroes are the founding fathers of the cattle business, railroads, hotel systems, department and chain stores, and industrial invention and research. There is little or no place in the American Experience for: the Declaration of Independence, the revolutionary war, the Constitutional Convention, the Bill of Rights, the politics of nullification or the struggle over the National Bank, the Mexican War, the abolitionist movement, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, reform movements, or the great wars of this century. But we can learn about what Boorstin calls the “gogetters” and “Boosters,” the organizers, wheeler-dealers, the slick lawyers and entrepreneurs who have made our history; that is, we can learn of their deeds, rarely of their misdeeds.

One would hardly suspect from Boorstin’s work that there have been great financial scandals, or that American businessmen and politicians concocted a system of bribery and corruption of which we are the residuary legatees; or that the monopoly movement was anything but an admirable case study in business acumen and legal ingenuity; that conditions in factories and mines were slightly less than invigorating; or that the status of women may have suggested a problem. And while Boorstin is forceful and eloquent on the treatment of blacks, his Indians—howling and scalphungry—are vintage Hollywood. The problem of poverty is mentioned in connection with the rise of statistics.

If Boorstin did not, in the third volume, begin to hesitate, one might suspect a satire. In The Democratic Experience, Boorstin’s exuberance falters, and most of his chapters end on a questioning note. Maybe consumption communities are “shallower” than the old neighborhoods (p. 112); maybe statistical communities lack a “moral guide” (p. 166); maybe it is troubling that goods are produced according to a standard of “no better than they need to be” (p. 195); maybe everything has become too homogenous, and our experience too “impoverished” (p. 389); maybe “the very power of the most democratized nation on earth had led its citizens to feel inconsequential before the forces they had unleashed” (p. 558); maybe….

To be sure, Boorstin ends on an upbeat with a glowing account of the greatest collective endeavors in history, our atom bombs and space programs. Yet the need to end on an affirmative note hints at a growing suspicion that the emptiness of our personal lives may be connected to the emptiness of our public life. To fill the void, a pseudo politics is introduced; its familiar outline reminds us that while Boorstin was at work on The Americans Richard Nixon was working on the republic; and the rhetoric of Boorstin’s study has a familiar cadence:

Our inventive, up-to-the-minute, wealthy democracy makes new tests of the human spirit…many of our national ills are imaginary…we may not be up to the daily tasks of a healthy life…. We talk about the war in Vietnam as if it were the first war in American history to which many Americans were opposed…. The great movement of our history has been to bring peoples together…. We must abandon the prevalent belief in the superior wisdom of the ignorant…give up the voguish reverence for youth and for the “culturally deprived”…cease to look to the vulgar community as arbiters of our schools…and of all our culture…. We suffer from a disease…”over-communication” [and lack of] silence….[Discontents, pp. 3, 6, 11, 45-47, 50-51]

This pseudo politics is the illusion of politics necessary to a technological society in crisis. Its secret is fear, the fear which comes from knowing that society has moved too fast, forgotten too much, and squandered all of the intangibles which its scientific, quantitative, and manipulative logic despised. Fear, too is outfitted in metaphor, perhaps the most revealing of all. Boorstin makes the point repeatedly that America has been held together by “vagueness,” by a genius for blurring distinctions of public-private, truth and advertising, private property and corporate property, and all manner of identities and boundaries. But when technological society encounters political crisis, “vagueness” ceases to be an account of reality and becomes an injunction against thinking critically about it. This injunction is applied in two ways: it attacks and ridicules as un-American the primary means by which Western man has reflected critically upon the common human condition; and it encourages a politics in which democracy is identified with passivity.

Whenever “political theory” is taken seriously, Boorstin asserts, it is a sure sign that the body politic is sick. The proof (and it is offered with a straight face) is that “the Great Age of American Political Theory” occurred in the era of the Civil War when “the pinnacle of political speculation in America” was established by Taylor, Calhoun, and Stephens, “a trilogy of political theoreticians…without match in American history” and “virtually” on a par with European theorists (Tocqueville, Marx, and Mill?) (National Experience, p. 218). The joke here lies not in the weird judgment that Boorstin makes, but that in seeking to fend off political theory while defending vagueness against the dissolvent of critical thinking, Boorstin ignores the fact that both the achievements and the problems of technological society are the result of the most sustained application of theoretical knowledge in human history.

  1. *

    Our real “enemy,” Boorstin notes, has not been “powerlessness” but “discrimination” whereby one group is unfairly prevented from getting what everybody else has. Boorstin warns that social movements which began with “just demands for rights” have “ended in hollow demands for power” (Discontents, p. 58).

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