SPEAKER: This is a production of Cornell University.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Hello, and welcome to the Faculty Forum of the Cornell University Cybertower. I'm Glenn Altschuler, the host of a monthly conversation with a member of our faculty. Today, I'm delighted that my guest is Jason Frank, the Gary Davis Professor of Government at Cornell, who's been here for about a half dozen years. Welcome, Jason.
JASON FRANK: Thank you very much for having me, Glenn.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Jason, I want to talk quite a bit today about the founding fathers, about whom you have written--
JASON FRANK: Something to say.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Quite a bit about whom you have something to say. And perhaps, as well, about the book that you have written, called Constituent Moments. But why don't we begin by having you tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, and also how you became interested both in political science and political theory, and also this topic.
JASON FRANK: Yeah. Well, it's-- I am a political theorist, not a historian, primarily, even though I do work on 18th century America. And I guess my interest came-- I went to graduate school to get a PhD in political theory, really contemporary political theory, 20th century. And as I was beginning to think about a dissertation project, an earlier kind of love of mine in American political thought really took hold.
And so, I tried to figure out a way to write a dissertation that was kind of animated by the questions of contemporary political theory, and especially democratic theory-- I really do a kind of democratic theory-- while being historically situated. So, the work, I describe the work that I do as historically-inflected democratic theory. And there is, of course, a long history in political theory, you know, using history as a way to theorize politics. Right? So you can think of Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War, Machiavelli's Discourses on Livy's History of Rome.
But I guess the most recent, or more recent influence on me would be Hannah Arendt's work on the American and the French Revolution, On Revolution, which is a book that I have many disagreements with when it comes to, especially her interpretation of the American Revolution, but as a general approach to political theorizing, kind of theorizing politics through historical examples. That, I am very taken by. And I think I've tried to take some of her approach and use it in my own work
GLENN ALTSCHULER: There's a fascination, and has been, I think, for some time with the founding generation. And the founders are much cited, I would say not always well understood. Why do you think that is, Jason? Why-- it hasn't always been the case. It's often been the case.
JASON FRANK: No. I mean, there's been a, you know, there's been a real variation over the course of American history, in terms of what kind of authority is attributed to the founders. I mean, we're arguably living through a time now where the founders are enjoying a kind of unprecedented authority. But why I think that is, I mean, I think there are many reasons for that. It's in part the role that founding plays in Republican politics, where at the time of a political founding, the basic structures of a society or a constitutional order are laid down.
And then, within that kind of imaginary, the subsequent political history never dramatically breaks from those principles, but rather extends them over time as different political issues emerge because of social, economic, and cultural change. So there is a tendency to attribute a kind of special authority to these founding figures. The founders, the framers, I mean, the very language that we use to talk about them is bound up with this, the kind of supra-authoritative role that they play in democratic politics. You know, there are interesting tensions there, I think, with-- in a democratic politics--
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Yeah. You talk about authority in a democratic environment. In fact, let's just-- before we return to the founders, per se-- why don't we talk a little bit about some ideas that have emerged in your book, Constituent Moments.
JASON FRANK: OK.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: First of all. I'm intrigued. What is a constituent moment?
JASON FRANK: OK. I'll define what a constituent moment is, and then I'll try to contextualize it a bit. I have a very pithy definition. I call a constituent moment a moment where claims to speak on the people's behalf, claims to speak in the people's name-- so kind of a political set of claims-- are effective, right? They have a kind of felicity. They work. They elicit a politics. They generate a movement of one sort or another, even though they explicitly break from the established channels for representing popular voice. Right?
So you have, you have electoral systems set up that kind of channel the will of the people. We elect representatives. And those representatives are then authorized to speak on the people's behalf. But what I'm interested in are moments in American history where there is a claim to speak on the people's behalf that has some kind of effectivity, even though it explicitly breaks from those established channels of representation.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: So, what would be an example of that?
JASON FRANK: Well, an example, I mean, I talk about several of them in the book. For me, it's really a legacy of the American Revolution. This is a part of, this is one important legacy of the revolution. So I'll give you an example and then I'll try to set up why I think the revolution sets this up as a possibility in subsequent American politics. In the 1790s, which is a very volatile decade in American political history, you have the emergence of these, what are ultimately called Jacobin clubs, or Democratic Republican societies-- societies that are not only influenced by the emergence of Jacobin clubs in revolutionary France, but similar associations in Britain at the time.
But they also hearken back to the Revolutionary Committees on Correspondence and Sons of Liberty of the American revolutionary history itself. And these clubs, you know, what George Washington kind of derided as self-created societies-- he held them largely responsible for the Whiskey Rebellion-- but they were self-created political associations that emerged across the states in this period of time and really claimed to be extra-governmental checks on what they saw as abuses of governmental authority under Washington's administration. So these were kind of Republican associations before we had established political parties.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: And they're checks because they're watchdogs--
JASON FRANK: Yeah. [INAUDIBLE] Republican language of vigilance, right? That the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, these kind of ideas. The societies thought that that kind of vigilance could only be fostered or elicited among a free citizenry if you had actual associations that claim to speak on the people's behalf. It was a kind of claim to speak on the people's behalf, above and beyond those who were officially elected by the people, those who held government office. It's very obvious to see why the Federalist administration was not very fond of these associations. But nonetheless, they did have a kind of effectivity.
I mean, there are really interesting debates that emerged in the period over, you know, questions like-- and these are kind of unresolved questions in the period about-- who is the ultimate interpretive authority of constitutional law, for example. What role does the people play in a republican, soon to be a more robustly democratic politics, after the elections have been held? Right? And these are kind of unresolved questions. And these democratic Republican societies, I take a kind of example of a constituent moment because they claim to speak on the people's behalf even though they break from the established kind of electoral mechanisms that were set up for representing popular authority. That's why the language of self-creation is so interesting to me.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: So why would a group that says that it's speaking in the name of the people, or on behalf of the people, why would a group be effective? When would such a group be effective? And when might it not be effective?
JASON FRANK: These-- it's very hard to, I guess, theoretically determine what those conditions would be. You've put your finger on an interesting theoretical problem.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: It was an accident, I assure you.
JASON FRANK: Because in the definition, I use the language of felicity, right? So these claims are felicitous, even though they break from established rules or procedures for representing popular voice. And the language of felicity is a very specific kind of philosophical language. It's associated with Austin's theory of speech acts. And what I'm interested in is the kind of indeterminate character of those claims. In other words, it would be very difficult to outline, in advance of the claims themselves, the sufficient conditions wherein they would be effective. There's something powerfully contingent or indetermined.
I'm interested in the claim, in the claim itself, in the kind of fraught nature of the claim one made from the perspective of those who are claiming. Right? Not from our perspective looking back kind of retrospectively and being able to retrospectively understand and elaborate the conditions in this or that context, but instead there's always a kind of not fully determined nature to those kinds of democratic claims. So it's kind of, you know, run it up a flagpole and see who salutes, that I'm interested in kind of capturing through a description of these moments, a kind of powerful democratic indeterminacy. There's something about a democratic claim, I want to argue in the book, kind of in a broader theoretical level, that is inseparable from that experience of not being fully authorized, right, and therefore being kind of indeterminate, opening up to a kind of unknown or unexpected futurity.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: So, a constituent moment involves a group that is not authorized, that is somehow outside the system, that is addressing in some way a political problem or a moment. And that group invokes the people in some way in its behalf.
JASON FRANK: Yeah. It doesn't always-- I mean, one of the kind of organizing principles of the work, and I think hopefully something that's interesting, is that I think these constituent moments can occur in relatively formal political contexts. Constitutional conventions, the Philadelphia Convention, I think, could be understood as an example of a constituent moment because the people that met in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 were not fully authorized to do what they set out to achieve.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Right. They were supposed to revise the Articles of Confederation, and they came and said, let's get rid of it and have something new.
JASON FRANK: Right. So that kind of, the under-authorization of a Constitutional Convention that then produces a document that is retrospectively authorized by the people that gather in state ratifying conventions convened expressly for that purpose is an example of a kind of formal political institution that enacts a constituent moment. The democratic Republican societies are examples of political associations, but still formal, relatively formal political institutions. In the book, I'm interested not only in those formal moments, but also how the dilemmas, what I refer to as these dilemmas of popular authorization also appear in very informal political contexts.
Political oratory, I have a chapter on the political speeches of Frederick Douglass during the 1850s, Walt Whitman's claim to be the poet of the people, so political oratory literature. I have a chapter on crowds, how debates around the legitimacy of crowd actions in a post-revolutionary context also seem to invoke or revolve around these dilemmas of authorization. I mean, a crowd doesn't only claim to be speaking on its own behalf, right, at least in a post-revolutionary American context, but claims to represent a larger symbolic or normative entity-- the people. So it really comes down to this, you know, this very powerful but kind of ambiguous figure of the people and the important role that it plays in American political discourse.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: And Jason, in these moments, whether it's an individual or a group invoking the people, is the phrase, the people, used differently? Is it obvious what is meant by the people? Is there some significance in the invoking of the people?
JASON FRANK: There's a great significance in the invoking of the people. But the people, is itself, a very indeterminate category. So, let me take a step back. One of the important kind of shifts in political thought, American political discourse over the course of the revolution, is that the people, this entity, are enthroned as the ground or the source of legitimate public authority. Right? Now, this is not--
GLENN ALTSCHULER: That they're sovereign.
JASON FRANK: They're sovereign. This is the emergence of a change in the discourse of popular sovereignty that occurs over the period. It's not that the colonists rebelling against British rule in the middle of the 1760s, during the Stamp Act crisis, already articulated a full vision of popular sovereignty. The American colonists, historians persuasively tell us, kind of backed into this position over the course of that decade.
But 1776, Paine's Common Sense, you know, the Declaration of Independence, you have the emergence of a relative consensus around the legitimacy of popular sovereignty, that the people should be the ultimate ground of public authority. And this, then, sets the terms, right, for the debates that come after. What is deeply disagreed on, however, is how the people will be institutionally embodied, how the people will be represented, right? So you have a consensus around popular sovereignty, the authority of the people, and deep political disagreement over how that authority is represented. That's a real problem. Because the people, I say in the book, you know, they never speak in their own name.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Yeah.
JASON FRANK: The people never speak in their own name. The people are always produced through a representation of the people. And those representations are contestable, right? So, so, so, so, I'll just say one more thing. I mean, I think that there is an interesting, there's almost like a kind of paradox-- not kind of, I think it is a paradox-- that underwrites these. And this is these dilemmas. And this is one moment where the historical work and the contemporary theoretical work come together. And that is, you can never determine who is a part of the people, democratically, by appeal to the people. Right?
Because the very premises of that question's-- or the question itself undermines its premises. Right? Because who are the people that are going to decide democratically? So there's a kind of indeterminacy around who gets to constitute the people who, how they're going to be represented, how they're going to be institutionally embodied. And rather than seeing that as something to be deeply worried about, a kind of gap, right, at the heart of democratic legitimacy, I see it as an invitation to these new claims, to ever new claims to be included within that We the People.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: So, if the people are sovereign and power adheres in the people, then how is it that we invest so much authority in the founders?
JASON FRANK: Yeah. That is another very good question, Glenn. It's another very interesting, historical, and theoretical question. I guess it could be phrased as a tension between, really between democracy and constitutionalism. So you can say, why is it that we, at the beginning of the 21st century, should feel-- and this we being a we that believes in our own capacity to legislate for ourselves and to be self-determined, politically-- why is it that we are bound in very important ways to the decisions made by a very small group of white, propertied men at the end of the 18th century.
And, you know, theorists have different ways of going about resolving or trying to address that question. I mean, we're no longer traditionalists. You know, we're not Burkeans. We don't believe that authority legitimately resides in the mystic, you know, the depths of our tradition, but that we should be self-determined. So there are different theoretical ways of addressing that tension between constitutionalism and democracy, between the laws that structure a democratic politics and the right of the people to be fully self-determining.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: I mean, Jefferson talked about the dead hand of the past. And he talked about it not binding--
JASON FRANK: Exactly.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Any more than one generation, that maybe every 20 years or 25--
JASON FRANK: 19.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: 19. That maybe each time we should, in the modern language, sunset everything that had been dictated or determined by one generation, and start from scratch.
JASON FRANK: No. It's a great example. So, in other words, it's not only contemporary theorists that wrestle with this problem. Right? I mean, some theorists try to say it's the extraordinary wisdom of the founding generation. They set the terms of our political discourse. And for those reasons, we should-- and other theorists talk about pre-commitment and enabling constraints-- we don't have to go into the details-- of those different approaches. But already in 1789 and 1790, this Jefferson-- you have a very interesting exchange of letters between Jefferson and Madison.
So Jefferson writing-- it's important to think about the context that they are both writing from-- Jefferson writes his letter that deals with the dead weight of the past, that the dead have no rights, that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living, et cetera, et cetera. From revolutionary France, he writes in September of 1789, kind of caught up in the heady enthusiasm of that summer and the possibilities of a new revolution bringing about a new political world.
Jefferson's argument, as you said, implies that the people-- you know, he, in many of his letters, you know, writes about not treating constitutions like the Ark of the Covenant. Right? Or in the Notes On the State of Virginia, he criticizes the magic that seems to attach to the word constitution. So he makes a very radical argument, as you said, every 19 years based on actuary tables, that people should not only be able to radically revise the institutions of governance under which they live, but that it's not, the agency is not left up to the people themselves.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: They should be compelled to do it.
JASON FRANK: They should be compelled. They should be compelled. Otherwise, inertia [INAUDIBLE].
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Yeah. They just won't do it.
JASON FRANK: Right. So he writes this letter to Madison. Madison responds, you know, February of 1790, sometime early in 1790, you know, constitution, it's fairly recent that there has been a successful ratification of the United States Constitution. The institutions are still perceived as somewhat fragile, right, and vulnerable. And Madison does not have a whole lot of time for the radicalism of Jefferson's argument. I mean, in his response, he admits that, for a philosophical legislator, for somebody who's kind of approaching these things from a very abstract perspective, that there is some real persuasiveness to the arguments that Jefferson is making.
But he pragmatically refuses. And in doing so, he kind of reiterates some of the central arguments that he made writing his Publius in Federalist 49. But he is very dismissive of the kind of, like, think about that practically. And he's so invested, you know, Madison is the great architect of American political institutions. And thinking about how that principle could-- he thinks it would not lead to a more robustly democratic or Republican government, but that it would lead to the collapse of Republican government.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: And he may have been right.
JASON FRANK: He may have been right.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: He may have been right. One of the things that-- I'm not myself a political theorist and I don't even play one on TV-- but one of the reasons why I think that we need political theorists is that so many of us hold contradictory propositions simultaneously, without really knowing that they're contradictory propositions. And so for many of us, maybe for many of the people watching us talk today, we embrace the notion of the democratic sovereignty of the people.
And we embrace the notion of the authority of the Constitution and the authority of the founding fathers. And so maybe we can try to explore this a little bit further by me asking you, have the founders always been considered authoritative? Is this, is in 2008 as we're speaking, is this an unusual time for them to be considered as authoritative as we do or appear to?
JASON FRANK: Yeah. Well, I think that the short answer is no. They've not always been considered as authoritative as we treat them now. Not only within our political debates and discussions and our political discourse-- and we can talk a little bit about that-- but also in kind of constitutional jurisprudence, it's not always been this way. It's been a varied career. You know, there's often times taken to be-- an important question is, how is it that in the wake of constitutional ratification-- around the period that Madison is writing to Jefferson, 1790-- you have this remarkably vehement and fascinating debate over whether or not the Constitution should be ratified. You have the Federalists. You have the Anti-Federalists.
Deep disagreement, the Constitution is by no means self-evident it's going to be successfully ratified, when you're thinking about these things from the perspective of the participants. But in the wake of this deep debate, right, a debate that touches on really core, fundamental questions of how to organize your political life-- it's always amazing for me in reading those ratification debates how quickly they move from kind of relatively particular kind of superficial policy concerns to a great depth, you know, fundamental rights, questions of how to organize, fundamentally, a Republican polity. But in the wake of that deep division, all of a sudden-- so the story goes-- you have the myth of the kind of sanctity of the Constitution. Once it's ratified, it's sanctity is agreed upon by all.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Yeah.
JASON FRANK: And those founding figures are kind of immediately held to be what Jefferson would later call an assembly of demi gods. And it's not exactly true. Our colleague Michael Kamman has written a book on A Machine That Would Go of Itself, which really takes on this question, I think, in an interesting way, and shows the variability. So you know, sometimes the founders, their capital is up and sometimes [INTERPOSING VOICES] it's down. You know, an interesting period for me in American history-- and it's not a period that I am, you know, I don't claim any kind of expertise on this period-- but the progressive era of late 19th, early 20th century, you see very interesting debates--
GLENN ALTSCHULER: A lot of debunking at that period.
JASON FRANK: A lot of debunking of the authority of the founders. And this is in part, it can be explained politically. You know, in the 1790s and early 20th century, you had the Supreme Court, a very conservative Supreme Court, a very activist Supreme Court, but not activist in the liberal sense of judicial activism. Activist in a deeply conservative sense, preventing state legislatures from passing laws that would regulate the economy, for example. So you have a real political reaction to what is seen as the confinements, that the Constitution has confined the ability of the people to pass laws to address the economic and social concerns of their day.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Yeah. And a number of progressives in that period, of course, revealed or argued that the founders protected--
JASON FRANK: Absolutely.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Their own property interests--
JASON FRANK: Absolutely.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Their personal interests in that document. And that document, therefore, should not only be seen as the product of a moment--
JASON FRANK: Right.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: But as the product of a particular class of people--
JASON FRANK: Exactly.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: In opposition to The People--
JASON FRANK: Yeah.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: In some sense.
JASON FRANK: You get a very interesting example of how, let's say the historiography of a period. Because you're talking about progressive era historians. So Parrington, you know, Cornell's own Karl Becker--
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Charles Beard.
JASON FRANK: Charles Beard, crucially. Are, you know, they don't exist in a vacuum from their political time. And you get the emergence of a kind of historiography around the founding period that, far from being hagiographic, is deeply deflating. So Beard writes an economic interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, which makes an argument that, you know, not only were the founders not the virtuous wise men that more hagiographic approaches had taken them to be, but as you said, they're working in their economic interest, that the Constitution was a kind of coup by one commercial class over recently enfranchised, the lower orders recently enfranchised by the revolution, and that it enshrined things like property rights as a way of protecting that class's interest. Right?
Now, that's deeply, deeply deflationary of the authority of the founders. But it's not just the historians writing in the period. I think it's interesting to look at, if you think about how the authority of the founders has appealed to, in a much more widely available kind of public discourse, the debates we have around politics-- well, you know, I mean, even Teddy Roosevelt had problems with the kind of confinements of the Constitution in this period. It wasn't just a far left fringe, right?
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Jason, would have would it be fair to say that we should associate people who believe in the authority of the founders with conservatism, and people who are debunkers, who are skeptical of the authority of the founders as liberals or progressive?
JASON FRANK: Yeah. I think that's very misleading. I think from our perspective, from our little place in time--
GLENN ALTSCHULER: It looks that way a little bit in 2008.
JASON FRANK: Right. And for good reason, right? You have, as we mentioned, the emphasis on original intent or originalism in constitutional jurisprudence, which is clearly associated with a conservative approach to constitution--
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Justice Scalia, among others.
JASON FRANK: Scalia's textualism, Thomas's originalism. So there's that. But you know, you also have the emergence of what some historians have, and others have called Founders Chic. You know, you have, in the past 10 years, the remarkable appearance of biographies, you know, David McCullough's biography of John Adams, for example, which was turned into that wonderful miniseries on HBO, Chernow's biography of Hamilton, the writings of [INAUDIBLE].
There's a number, you know, the founders have really emerged again within, not just academic quarters, but more broadly. And the founders that have emerged or that are most valuable have been the conservative founders. John Adams is up and Thomas Jefferson is down. But it's not always been that way at all. I think one of the interesting things in looking at how the authorities of the founders, the authority of the founders has been appealed to at different moments in American history is that authority has been appealed to by wildly divergent ideological, by people holding wildly divergent ideological positions.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Yeah. And of course, I mean, one of the difficulties for anybody who's going to invoke the authority of the founders is, just to give one simple example, we have the Hamiltonian legacy and we have the Jeffersonian--
JASON FRANK: Right. Herbert Croly.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: If you invoke the authority of both, then you're invoking the authority of people who disagreed profoundly with one another. And how do you work yourself out of that box.
JASON FRANK: Right. Well, that's an interesting example, also from the progressive era. You know Croly's attempt, he has a kind of ambiguous relationship to the authority of the founders in his great book, The Promise of American Life. But how he tries to navigate it is by-- and it's not just him, but he makes this argument very clear, I think, the Jeffersonian tradition versus the Hamiltonian tradition. He wants to unite them in some way. But the founders were not of one mind. Right? So I guess what I'm hearing in the question that you're asking-- and this is something that I emphasize in some of the courses that I teach when I teach this period--
GLENN ALTSCHULER: And you've taught also to alumni, right?
JASON FRANK: I have. I have. I taught a course for the CAU summer program-- which was a very exhausting but fun week of teaching-- on the uses and abuses of the American founding. And one of the things that we did is first tried to emphasize the fact that there is no single founding. There certainly is no single founding idea. But there's a great divergence of positions around kind of fundamental questions in late 18th century American politics. And that, in part, explains, in part, the very different uses to which the founders have subsequently been put.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: We have, we have just a few minutes remaining, as time is flying by.
JASON FRANK: Wow. That did go quickly.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Let's talk about a couple of those uses and abuses. We've just gone through a pretty amazing presidential campaign. Whether you're a Democrat or a Republican, a conservative, a liberal, a radical, I think people have been fascinated by this campaign as much or more than any, certainly in my lifetime. Did the authority of the founders play some role? Were there uses and abuses of that authority that you might single out in that campaign?
JASON FRANK: Yeah. I think so. I think so. First of all, I think, let's talk about the primaries, maybe, for a minute. As I was teaching this course at Cornell this summer, one of the periods that we focused on to think about the uses and abuses of the American founding was how contemporary Americans have debated the role of religion in public life. And the debates that occur around that question, really, it's amazing. They almost invariably situate themselves in relationship to how the founders envisioned, for example, the separation between church and state, how high that wall was intended to be built.
So, in the primaries, you know, I would say that you have two very interesting speeches on this question, Mitt Romney's speech on his religious faith and his Mormonism, and therefore, following from that, kind of broader reflections on the role of religion in American politics. And the second speech that I would want to compare that to is a speech that Obama gave very early-- I think it's in the summer of 2006-- to the Sojourners group, that Christian magazine. He gave a speech on the call to renewal.
Now, what's interesting, Romney's speech is practically a lecture on American history. I mean, it really delves, spends the bulk of its time talking about religious persecution, the 17th century kind of Puritan background. It doesn't emphasize a strong separation between church and state. But Romney wants to, in that speech, I think, create, make an argument about the importance in American history of religion, that religion always has undergirded political freedom in this country such that they are almost inseparable.
You find something like this argument in Tocqueville's Democracy in America. But the effect of the speech is, of course, to draw another line between those people of faith, whatever their faith may be, and the secular humanists who do not have faith. So he talks about secularism, as itself, a religion and should be treated as a religion. So that's one kind of approach. And as I said, American history and the founding authority is appealed to at some length in that speech.
Now Obama's speech also invokes that historical background. But his arguments, they are very surprising in some ways because he does not, he refuses, explicitly refuses to simply reiterate the high wall of separation between church and state. His speech was sometimes discussed in the media in relationship to John F. Kennedy's famous 1960 address to the Protestant ministers--
GLENN ALTSCHULER: In Texas, yeah.
JASON FRANK: Where Kennedy kind of lays out the classic liberal secular argument, versions of which you can find in Jefferson, or behind him in Locke. But Obama does not go there. Obama does not. You know, in the course, I try to make an argument that what you see in his response is the emergence of maybe something like a postsecular liberalism. It's not, he refuses to take a kind of absolutist stance on the question of secularism, the secularism of the state. And instead, talks about the impossibility of keeping religion out of the public realm and the value of having religious perspectives as a part of our ongoing democratic conversation. And he certainly is on good historical grounds for making those arguments.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Well, yeah. That's what I was going to observe, Jason, that it seems to me that the material is there in the past for people across the political spectrum to tap the founding generation and to emerge with a plausible perspective that reflects the political agenda, which they would like to advance. To me, the more interesting question is why Americans, of all people, feel compelled to draw on that generation to make their arguments more persuasive. The French don't do that. The people from Sierra Leone don't do that. This seems to be, or maybe I should ask you, is it unique that, are Americans unique in tapping the authority of the founders in the way that they do?
JASON FRANK: I wouldn't want to make a claim about, I wouldn't want to make an exceptionalist claim about American exceptionalism. But I do think that one of, you know, an interesting part of that question is, you know, it's not just the authority of the founders and the way that the founding authority has been appealed to by pro-slavery forces and abolitionists, by conservatives in the era of progressive economic reforms and by the progressives themselves.
But that you have a kind of-- this is about the persistence of an American exceptionalism. This is another issue that was raised in interesting ways, I think, in the presidential campaign-- not so much in the primaries, but in the general campaign. McCain regularly invokes-- and we know exceptionalism, when I teach exceptionalism to my students, I kind of, I turn it into a phrase, singular history with universal significance.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Right.
JASON FRANK: Right? So the particular history of this country is not a history that is only significant to us, but it has a kind of global significance. We are a city on a hill, right? This is the John Winthrop kind of early articulation of this. But you get different historical versions of it, iterations of it, the citadel of liberty, the last bastion of defense against communism, et cetera, the great hope, democratic hope. I mean, you find it very much in the speeches of George Bush and his administration.
But in the campaign, one of the things that was interesting about this question is that McCain regularly invokes except-- I mean, he would say things like, I believe in American exceptionalism. And Obama, too, has an exceptionalist account of America. I think it would be very difficult to run for the President of the United States and not have an--
GLENN ALTSCHULER: And win.
JASON FRANK: And win. But they gave, they gave this idea different inflections, I would say. When Winthrop invoked the city on a hill, you know, it was an exceptional nation, a chosen people. We have entered into a covenant with the Lord. The Lord brings us across the Atlantic. It will then be up to us to fulfill our side of the covenant. So the emphasis of that exceptionalism and chosenness was really on the sacrifice and the duty required. Right?
Other versions of exceptionalism-- and you get that sacrifice and duty version of exceptionalism most brilliantly captured in the speeches of Abraham Lincoln. There's another side of that exceptionalism, which is more triumphalist. We are the exceptional nation.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: And good stuff will come to us.
JASON FRANK: We're here to spread the good news. And I do think that there are kind of slightly different inflections in the way the candidates invoked exceptionalism over the course of the campaign. I would make that argument. I think McCain's invocation was a bit more of the triumphalist victory-oriented indication, and Obama talks about sacrifice all the time.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Yeah.
JASON FRANK: And I just think that it was interesting to see that difference so clearly on display in their two campaigns.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: And it'll be fascinating to see what the rhetoric is like in the new administration, especially given the challenges and some of the calls for sacrifice. And you know, you've really given us a lot to think about today. And perhaps you'll agree to come back and--
JASON FRANK: I'd be happy to.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: And we can take a look at some of these issues with some new material from--
JASON FRANK: It's on its way.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: From a new administration. So thanks for coming in today.
JASON FRANK: Thank you very much, Glenn.
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Jason Frank, the government department's Gary S. Davis Assistant Professor of the History of Political Thought, explores intriguing questions about the way we--as individuals, voters, and citizens--talk about, think about, and theorize about, the nature, origins, and operation of our government and political system. What does the phrase "the people" actually mean? Why do we (and our politicians) talk so often about Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, and the other "Founders," and what is the relationship between the system they created and "the people"?
Frank received his MA and Ph.D. in political science from the Johns Hopkins University, and a BA from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Before coming to Cornell, Jason taught at Johns Hopkins, Goucher College, University of California, Santa Cruz, Duke and Northwestern. He has also held research fellowships at UCLA's Center for 17th- and 18th-Century Studies, Duke's Franklin Institute for Interdisciplinary Research, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. His primary field is political theory and his research and teaching interests include democratic theory, American political thought, politics and literature, political culture, and the philosophy of political inquiry.