Today, of course, we are often led to believe that Adams and his allies Franklin and Jefferson are liberals and Dickinson conservatives in the modern stripe.
That's not true at all.
In the context of today's politics, the conservatives are Great Britain. They've rejected all compromise. They demand total submission or total destruction. And even though not a single redcoat appears on screen (never mind Bug-Eyed George), the constant ratcheting up of pressure by the upcoming British invasion of New York is a constant feature of the story.
All the characters you actually see in the Broadway play or the movie are the opposition to the conservatives- Dickinson and Adams alike.
You see, Dickinson was a moderate- or, as we'd call him today, a centrist. He objected to the excesses of Parliament's acts to try to coerce the colonies into accepting Parliamentary rights of taxation, regulation of commerce, and even revocation of colonial charters in favor of direct rule by appointed officials. The Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer were a mighty influential step on the road to independence, encouraging active resistance to England and helping to topple Joseph Galloway, the Royalist and political party chief who effectively ran Pennsylvania for a decade.
But the thing is, Dickinson was also a staunch defender of the status quo. All he wanted was for things to remain as they were- even if "how they were" was intolerable and unsustainable in the long run. He sought compromise and reconciliation where none was on offer, and then demanded his colleagues keep seeking it. Dickinson worshipped compromise like an idol, and even after hostilities broke out, he believed that one or two military victories would be all that was required to bring the crown to the negotiating table for a mutual settlement.
Adams, on the other hand, was a liberal, if a reluctant one. He recognized that the status quo could not hold and that the other side of the conflict was never going to offer any good-faith deals. Under the circumstances independence and reform into a republic, as radical and revolutionary as those ideas were, were absolutely indispensable. The only other option was eventual capitulation.
So in the movie Adams is always saying, "Independence! Independence!" And Dickinson in turn accuses him of being an irresponsible rabble-rouser, a leveler, a malcontent and radical. Dickinson insists that stable, responsible, experienced leaders need to demonstrate their responsibility and goof management of government by seeking compromise... again.
Today we have the Republican Party, which is almost entirely conservative of the most radical, reactionary, monarchical, tyrannical sort.
And we have the Democratic Party, which is still dominated by 70- and 80-year-old alumni of Bill Clinton's Democratic Leadership Council, centrists-leaning-conservative, with a small number of liberals tacked on for lack of anyplace else to go. Both groups claim to oppose Republicans, and the Republicans would quite gleefully see both groups hung up in the streets by their ankles and their blood drained by slitting the wrists.
But the difference is, the liberal Democrats know that Republicans never negotiate in good faith. Republicans take hostages. Republicans break deals. Republicans offer temporary concessions at best while demanding permanent gains. In short, the liberal Democrats know that no true compromise is possible with the Republicans- only eventual surrender.
But centrists haven't got the message. They worship compromise, even if it means compromising away absolutely everything they claim to stand for. Again and again they fall sucker to Republican tactics- when they're not beating the Republicans to it in an attempt to look like "the responsible people in Washington", as happened with reauthorization of FISA warrantless searches recently.
The result has been a constant, consistent string of victories for conservatism, with Democrats often racing to claim credit for things like Clinton's welfare reform, privatization of prisons and public facilities, using public school tax money for private school vouchers, etc. The only long-term victories liberals have been able to claim have come not through Democratic action but through the courts.
Liberals realize that radical change must happen, and that the status quo is unsustainable.
Centrists believe that, if only they can "change the atmosphere," "show bipartisanship," and "come together with Republicans for the common good," no radical change will be required.
And Republicans smile at the centrists, because it's nice to have a mugging victim who not only keeps coming back but actively assists with each new mugging.
Andrew Hickey sees something similar in Great Britain, and I like some of his phrasing:
At its heart, centrism is a conservative ideology. In fact it may as well be another name for Burkean conservatism — the idea that the status quo is more or less correct, that no radical changes are necessary, and that basically all that is needed is tweaking around the edges. .Reforms may be needed, but they should be as minor as possible to avoid unforseen negative consequences.Right. For far too long the centrists have said, "Liberals, leave the driving to us. But you must keep voting for us, because otherwise you're just as evil as the conservatives." And look where thirty years of centrist Democrats have brought us.
Centrism is fundamentally about keeping the existing power structure, and retaining existing privilege. It’s Panglossianism as political philosophy, the idea that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds, and it’s generally a philosophy that can only be seriously held by immensely privileged people.
. . .
Now liberalism and centrism both have, in reactionaries, a common enemy. When you’re in a tolerable-but-not-great situation, and you have someone trying to make it much, much, worse in power, the people who want things to stay the same and the people who want things to get much better both have, as a short-term goal, stopping things getting much worse or at least slowing it down.
. . .
And when you have an enemy that just wants to destroy things to see them burn, liberals and centrists have a common cause, at least in the short term. But fundamentally it’s an unstable relationship. The tenant and the landlord both have a common enemy in firebombers who want to set fire to the flat the tenant is living in, but once the arsonist has gone it’s still in the tenant’s interest to get their own home and not have to pay rent, and it’s still in the landlord’s interest to charge so much rent the tenant can’t save for a deposit.
. . .
Think about that for a second. Let that sink in. Really understand what that means. There will be a generation of voters coming up who have no memory at all of the system working, even to the extent it did work for some people in the past. People in their twenties at the next election will have been in primary school for (British ex-PM Tony) Blair’s last election and for the financial crash. Hardly anyone much under thirty, by the 2022 (British Parliamentary) election, will have any real memory of what the “normal” that centrism is based on was like.
. . .
Right now, liberals and centrists share common cause in stopping the damage getting any worse, but centrism isn’t a viable solution to the underlying problems. And it’s not something that’s going to appeal to younger voters.
Centrism as an ideology is only coherent when there is a coherent centre. Right now there isn’t... they (centrists) have neither answers nor political appeal. They should be part of our big tent, but they shouldn’t be the tentpoles holding it up.
The last time the American economy worked for the American common man or woman, the ordinary line worker, was 1980. And on those rare occasions when Democrats have returned to power, they have routinely said, "We don't dare rock the boat, things are too unstable, we have to be the responsible people." And thus the damage conservatives have done continues to accumulate, while the centrists cheer their band-aid minor accomplishments and deny their blatant failures.
Don't talk to me about experience. Don't talk to me about "responsible people in government." All I see are a series of smug rich white men and women shrugging and saying, "Oh well, we tried, guess they win again, but vote for us because we're all you have."
Today Chuck Schumer is congratulating himself on having got the exact same deal he turned down on Friday plus an empty promise of a vote on DACA, in much the same tones John Dickinson might have used congratulating himself on the Olive Branch Petition of 1775. All we need is bipartisan compromise, a little tweak, and everything will be fine.
Bullshit. It's long past time to put the liberals back in charge. We may lose some fights regardless, but at least we won't be handing the cosh to our elephant-masked muggers and saying, "Thank you sir, may I have another?"