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America, Aziz Rana argues, began as a settler society grounded in an ideal of freedom as the exercise of continuous self-rule—one that joined direct political participation with economic independence. However, this vision of freedom was politically bound to the subordination of marginalized groups, especially slaves, Native Americans, and women. These practices of liberty and exclusion were not separate currents, but rather two sides of the same coin.

However, at crucial moments, social movements sought to imagine freedom without either subordination or empire. By the mid-twentieth century, these efforts failed, resulting in the rise of hierarchical state and corporate institutions. Rana envisions a democratic society that revives settler ideals, but combines them with meaningful inclusion for those currently at the margins of American life.

This relationship--expressed ideologically and structurally as "settlerism" p.

Rana's first chapter, "Settler Revolt," surveys the legal and political history of English colonization and eventual Anglo rebellion. This was the liberty that Anglo settlers would fight to maintain against a newly distended polyglot British Empire, insensitive to the territorial, racial, and religious biases of colonial society.

Rana aptly underscores republican freedom's fusion with millennial Protestantism, its dependence on continuous territorial conquest to sustain the independent citizenry at its core, and its hierarchical conception of the relationship between citizen and other. All that said, Rana seems least at home in the book's early going. His characterization of English colonizing relies on an unconvincingly sweeping characterization of Sir Edward Coke's opinion in Calvin's Case as the key text of Tudor-Stuart imperialism; his seventeenth-century history is excessively Virginia-centric, and too reliant for key demographic facts on George M.

Fredrickson's inaccurate White Supremacy. Postindependence, republican freedom as embodied in the likes of Thomas Paine and William Manning briefly evinces some capacity to shake off its hierarchical character, to assert a general "popular" will and entrench that will in government. Here was born a form of "producerist" populism that would reemerge at key points throughout the next hundred years. Yet producer self-assertion had to contend with the "harsh post-colonial reality" of a world still dominated by European colonial powers p. Elite power-brokers meeting in Philadelphia constructed a framework for national independence that insulated the Republic from external threats and populist participation.


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Frustrated settlers recast their populism "as a politics wary of any prerogative authority" that concentrated its attention outward, on the economic security to be won from physical expansion and on the civic security to be ensured by "maintaining the duality separating settler insiders from excluded outsiders--be they native, slave, or later Mexican" p. The Republic thus reincarnated settler empire, fueled by aggressive territorial growth, unrestricted white immigration, and racism.

It would prove to be "a form of political association even more virulently exclusionary than that of the comparatively hierarchical colonial period," climactically crowned by Dred Scott p.

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The Two Faces of American Freedom by Aziz Rana

American freedom is constantly at war with itself, its potentially universalizing promise of "broad-based individual proprietorship" always fatally contradicted by the means--empire--of achieving it p. At key moments, distinct forms of populist political discourse emerge to suggest how the contradiction might be repudiated and substance given to the universalizing promise: Paine and Manning in the s, Thomas Skidmore and Orestes Brownson during the Age of Jackson. But they always fail. No greater challenge will occur than in the s and s, nor more agonizing failure.

Rana's third chapter, "The Populist Challenge," discusses challenge and failure in detail: the emergence of the most "robust" populist version of republican freedom so far seen, institutionally carried by the Knights of Labor, Farmers' Alliance, and the People's Party; the emergence of a political discourse indicative of a "universal and nonimperial mode of popular politics The whole sequence of events, expectations, and bitter endings will be familiar to historians of this momentous period.

In Rana's chapter, they are embodied in the familiar figure of Tom Watson, "agrarian rebel" and latent xenophobe, who first promoted populism's critique of settler empire, then undermined it. The territorial safety valve that was settler empire could not persist--it had run out of continent. This added potency to the populist challenge at the same time as it encouraged the turn to greater internally focused executive authority that politicians and judges reacting to populism had already begun to make.

The "unraveling of settler empire" thus moved the United States in the direction of forms of "bureaucratic and legal" rule that characterized Europe. Republican freedom had lost its settlerist moorings. These processes are considered in Rana's final chapter, which opens with a question: "What constitutional structures should govern a postsettler society and what account of freedom could justify these structures and ground a new ethical basis for citizenship? In fact, the normative query is postponed while Rana describes what actually came about--the continuous expansion of forms of plenary state power, culminating in the New Deal's security state, and the development of a "plebiscitary" political regime, which means a regime of politics "premised on executive leadership" that identifies the presidency "as the single body able to represent the nation as a whole" p.

Lynd, and Thurman Arnold.


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All were engaged from different points of the compass in debating the agenda of an interventionist state abroad and, increasingly, at home, and the possibility under these circumstances, of a mobilized public, of freedom as self-rule. Whatever intellectuals might think, actual outcomes emphasized elite, technicist means of intervention, both locally and globally, directed by executive authority, at the cost of public mobilization. Mostly, the intellectuals went along, though Rana notes honorable exceptions like Bourne.

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The long-term tendency of "postsettler" society is perhaps best summarized by Lynd and Arnold. In we find Lynd writing that "undiscriminating adherence to the forms of democracy operates to cripple the expert performance of essentially democratic functions," and that "There is no way our culture can grow in serviceability to its people without a large and pervasive extension of planning and control to the many areas now left to casual individual initiative.

Nor do they argue with the insane as to the soundness or unsoundness of their ideas. Their aim is to make the inmates as comfortable as possible. Life in America is going forward. Comforting, certainly.

I think not. What then of the normative, Rana's "should"?

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In place of a plebiscitary presidency and its "politics of substitution, in which the popular will quietly morphed into those policies implemented by an energetic executive," Rana seeks an energized public p. As in his earlier chapters, he finds his inspiration on the outskirts, in the s civil rights movement, and in the more recent immigrant mobilizations of As always the peril of cooptation is great. Though Martin Luther King Jr.


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This notwithstanding, Rana still ties his "emancipatory ambitions" to the agitations of the excluded, the "concerted activity" of those beyond the borders of belonging, the "men and women deemed unfit" p. These, rather than revered founding fathers, or the frameworks of fundamental law they created, are his last best hope.

The Two Faces of American Freedom

It is hard not to like the enthusiasm that Rana brings to his arguments, the palpable sense of urgency that imbues his book. David Greenberg, in the Washington Post, finds Rana's central argument "a bit of a reach" because "notwithstanding certain shameful presidential policies, such as the open-ended jailing of suspected terrorists without trial, most of the world envies the unprecedented freedoms enjoyed by Americans, even those in Guam, Puerto Rico or other parts of the 'empire. But of course not all of us are as smart, talented, and lucky as he his.

I myself have another answer, which among other ways takes the form of paying absurdly high local taxes for what some administrators would plausibly consider an absurdly inefficient read: small school district. That gives me the right to be a helicopter parent and to vote on an annual school budget.