In this unique retelling of American history, Seth Radwell claims that the origin of our political polarization lies in the 17th- and 18th-century European Enlightenment, and, more specifically, in the two separate and distinct Enlightenments that evolved over that time. Drawing on the work of the scholar Jonathan Israel—who has documented this schism in Enlightenment thought in meticulous detail—Radwell applies these alternative visions to US history in what turns out to be a highly entertaining and insightful new take on our country’s checkered past.
The argument is essentially that the European Enlightenment was split between the Radicals—Spinoza and the French philosophers, primarily—who embraced direct and representative democracy, the separation of church and state, skepticism towards religion, egalitarianism, and a broader conception of human rights, and the Moderates—John Locke, David Hume, Voltaire, and others—who opted instead for tighter controls on monarchical power (constitutional monarchy), a more prominent role for religion in politics, and aristocratic rule with more limited rights for those of lower socioeconomic status.
Since the US founders were products of the Enlightenment—and were well-versed in Enlightenment thought—it’s not surprising that they also found themselves split into Radical and Moderate camps. Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and Benjamin Franklin represented early US Radical thought while John Adams, George Washington, and Alexander Hamilton represented the most prominent voices among the Moderates.
These fundamentally different visions for the country would ultimately extend into every period of US history—up to the present day—mixing with counter-enlightenment thinking that would, more often than not, find support with the Moderates, who would use this reactionary pushback against Enlightenment principles for their own political gain. This dynamic continues to play itself out even today, according to Radwell.
But in progressing through the book, the reader may wonder whether or not our contentious past can really be best explained in terms of the schism between the two Enlightenments. In fact, there are reasons to think that this is not the best approach.
First, it’s very difficult—and at times it feels forced—to reduce every complex thinker in our country’s history to either a “radical” or “moderate,” as if each thinker entirely conforms to one of only two distinct ways of thinking (and isn’t this just encouraging the type of either/or thinking the author is trying to move beyond?)
For example, Jefferson is correctly identified as a Radical for his antipathy to religion and his declaration that “all men are created equal,” but his stance on limited federal government is fundamentally at odds with later Radicals that greatly expanded the federal government’s role in guaranteeing the protection of human and civil rights, especially from violations justified on “state rights” grounds.
The author also identifies FDR and Lyndon Johnson as Radicals, yet their call for an expanded role of the federal government seems to be directly at odds with the Jeffersonian model, making Jefferson, in this case, a Moderate. Radwell also labels Martin Luther King Jr. as a Radical, yet earlier defines Radicals as being skeptical of religion, believing that religious justifications for actions were ultimately harmful in the public sphere.
Clearly, the greatest minds of our country varied widely in regard to their preferred systems of governance, views on religion, embrace of equality and egalitarianism, and desire for broader democratic and civil rights—all of which cannot be neatly contained in a simple narrative consisting of only two sides. Radwell seems to spend a lot of pages explaining away exceptions to his framework, tipping the reader off that perhaps this isn’t the best way to categorize the country’s intellectual history.
It seems to me, based on Radwell’s own narrative, that the larger issue (by a long shot) has always been the schism between Enlightenment and counter-enlightenment thought. Consider for a moment the aspects of our history that are most shameful today: religious fundamentalism, racism, sexism, white supremacy, xenophobia, bigotry, and the violence that each of these reactionary ideas produce. But these sorts of things have little to do with the Enlightenment other than that they stand in direct opposition to its espoused ideals of reason, tolerance, and peaceful dialogue (even among the Moderates).
And further consider the greatest threat to democracy today: the cult of trump. Trumpism has little to do with either Enlightenment camp, and while the founders were split between the Radicals and the Moderates, neither camp would have tolerated any Trump-like figure that had embraced his particular brand of counter-enlightenment anti-intellectualism, religiosity, disdain for institutions, and complete disregard for science and truth. We should remember that the founders (whether Moderates or Radicals) were Enlightenment-brand philosophers and scientists before they were politicians or businessmen—and therefore intellectually and morally the complete antithesis of Trump.
The thing is, Radwell does a fantastic job explaining all of this (which is why I’d rate the book higher than the preceding criticism would suggest), which makes it all the more puzzling as to why he doesn’t consider the schism between Enlightenment and counter-enlightenment thought to be the more consequential conflict, especially considering—as he himself describes in great detail—how the modern Republican party has essentially replaced all of its Moderates with reactionary radicals that live in an alternate reality of their own construction. The Republican party is now the party of counter-enlightenment anti-intellectualism, conspiracy theories, and outright plutocracy. These are the forces we’ve been battling all along.
In the last part of the book, Radwell lays out his plan to reunite the country. As Radwell writes:
“I vote for a renewed and vigorous democracy that guarantees a voice for all citizens; a clear separation between church and state in all civic arenas; a restoration of meaningful public discussion anchored in objective facts; and an openness to collectively enact much-needed reforms to our civic culture, governing structures, and social policies.”
Some specific recommendations—all well-founded—include the elimination of Gerrymandering, the election of the President by popular vote, terms limits for supreme court justices, expanding civic-based education in public schools, more progressive taxation, making it easier to vote (by instituting a national voting week where people can pick a one-day holiday to go vote), campaign finance and advertising reform, and providing a $20,000 baby bond to every eligible child (adjusted for family wealth) to provide the funds to help pay for an education, buy a business, or purchase a home (this is a great way to even the playing field between children born into wealth and those born into poverty).
But our ability to achieve any of these outcomes depends—not on the dynamics of the Radical versus the Moderate Enlightenment—but on the ideals of the Enlightenment of either variety to overcome the assault on our institutions and our sanity by the counter-enlightenment establishment currently led by Trump. If Trumpism wins, and we can no longer distinguish fact from fiction, can no longer trust in institutions or experts, and can no longer engage in substantive debate about actual policy issues (rather than simply engaging in ad hominem attacks), then the democratic experiment in America is over.
Check out these additional titles on the dangers of counter-enlightenment thinking in US politics and possible paths forward: