Just who are “the people” in Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States”? One’s claim on membership, it seems, is in direct proportion to the amount of suffering at the hands of others, who in turn are somewhere in the gradient of minions and victims of “the Establishment,” a term Zinn takes care to capitalize. Zinn’s sympathies are with Marxists and anarchists, and for all the people’s history this book contains (at times it reads like a long catalog of revolts, insurrections, uprisings, riots, strikes, and protests), he doesn’t have a high opinion of “the people”, as they are forever being duped into submission by the elites.
I studied American history in college but I never read Zinn’s “A People’s History” (though I now recognize Zinn’s interpretations in some of my professors’ lectures). I’ve just finished with a copy of the 2003 edition which ends with the 2001 terrorist attacks. I’m not sure what made me pick it up all of sudden; maybe the feeling that democracy is starting to slip from our grasp.
But Zinn might have said it was never really in our grasp. According to his book the rich and powerful subvert democracy by tilting the law in their favor and then insisting we all abide by its rule. For example, he writes of our revered Bill of Rights:
The Constitution became even more acceptable to the public at large after the first Congress, responding to criticism, passed a series of amendments known as the Bill of Rights. These amendments seemed to make the new government a guardian of people’s liberties: to speak, to publish, to worship, to petition, to assemble, to be tried fairly, to be secure at home against official intrusion. It was, therefore, perfectly designed to build popular backing for the new government. what was not made clear— it was a time when language of freedom was new and its reality untested— was the shakiness of anyone’s liberty when entrusted to a government of the rich and powerful.
Zinn argues that the system is not just inherently flawed, that it’s set up this way on purpose; for all its guarantees of individual freedoms and liberties, constitutional government is still in the hands of “the Establishment”— the fox guarding the hen house. But whatever the motives were behind the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and whatever the failures to live up to its principles, intent, or promises, does it not represent the popular will? Are “the people’s” wishes illegitimate when they align with those of “the Establishment?”
I’m not sure I buy Zinn’s thesis that American constitutional democracy is “the most ingenious system of control in world history.” I’m also not sure what kind of system he would replace it with. Perhaps a committee of pinko university professors who distribute collective rights and privileges after assessing their grievances.
I understand his point that elites use racism, nationalism, imperialism, and materialism– to divide the larger population against each other. Even before reading this book, I thought a lot about the darker aspects of American history and the only way I can reconcile our national ideals with our record of genocide, imperialism, slavery, and discrimination was an unofficial ideology of white supremacy. That unofficial ideology is now out of fashion, to the degree that even racists try to hide that they are so, a great contrast to the defenders of slavery, Indian removal, overseas expansion, and Jim Crow. An ideology of prosperity seems to have replaced it; we worship growth and security more than we worship democracy.
The greatest value in Zinn’s book is his skepticism and his refusal to follow the usual nationalist narrative about how we got so great. Another perspective, backed up by legitimate scholarship, is always refreshing. Now that we’re not so great, it’s worth taking a look at how we got this way too.