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Could there ever be a second American Revolution?

Ben Schreckinger wrote at Slate that “there will never be another American Revolution.”

Of course there won’t be another American Revolution, you might be thinking—the American republic—imperfect as it may be—is the best regime around. We don’t need another revolution! Certainly the Founding Fathers intended the American regime to be a new order for the ages, not merely a transient set of arrangements.

But Schreckinger offers a different reason that we won’t have another revolution. Why no second American Revolution, on his account? It’s because “our bars are too loud, our cafés are too quiet.” (Hold it, don’t we Americans have coffee shops rather than cafés?)

As Schreckinger relates, bars and cafés were the meeting places for revolutionaries, from the Sons of Liberty plotting the Boston Tea Party in the Green Dragon tavern to call to arms issued at the Café de Foy at the beginning of the French Revolution to the Arab Spring. Revolutionaries became acquainted with one another, share ideas, and urge each other toward revolutionary action in coffee houses and taverns.

Now it’s all over—at least for us in America, Schreckinger writes. Bars have gotten louder and louder, while coffee shops have become quiet spaces where solipsistic students and professionals type away on laptops. Instead of plotting revolutionary action, or even enjoying a robust discourse about civic life, we “sip coffee and beer right next to our neighbors without the opportunity to take each other’s confidences, shout about politics, or engage in acts of spontaneous persuasion.”

The essential point is that Americans are less and less engaged with one another when it comes to serious political conversations. But Schreckinger mistakes cause for effect: it’s not the case that Americans aren’t have rich conversations about political life because they don’t have a convivial setting in a bar or cafés, but bars and cafés are not long used to hold such conversations because Americans are no longer having as rich conversations about political life and because our civil society is so much more frail than it once was.

We’re missing at least two things that used to ground serious political conversations.  The first is a robust education in political philosophy and history. The Sons of Liberty who plotted the Boston Tea Party at the Green Dragon were reading and quoting philosophers like Cicero and Plutarch. Most well-educated Americans today have not read Cicero and Plutarch—in fact, they’ve not read even the Founding Fathers! Did you ever hear an Occupy Wall Street leader quote from the Federalist Papers? Or the Constitution? No wonder we’re not having the kind of public debate in bars or coffee shops—or elsewhere—that was held of yore.

The second thing we’re missing today is a mixing of people from varying socioeconomic classes and backgrounds—a mixing that brings together and women with the talent and intellect to become political leaders.  The Sons of Liberty brought together men from a range of stations in the middle class and was connected to elite members of Boston society such as Sam Adams. As Charles Murray has documented in Coming Apart, Americans mingle much less than they used to with those of different classes—and so miss the chance to learn about America from different vantage points.

If Americans truly wanted more public places to “shout about politics, or engage in acts of spontaneous persuasion,” there would be a bar or coffee house that made that opportunity available in every neighborhood. It is indeed a shame that such lively political conversations are no longer so common as they used to be—but it would require broad changes in American education and society to bring those conversations back.

1 thought on “Tavern talk: The decline of political discourse”

  1. Chip Watkins says:

    The revolutionaries (and those who plotted to kill President Lincoln) gathered in bars and taverns because their homes were too small for such gatherings, and because bars and taverns had enough ice to keep the beer cold. Larger homes (3,000-4,000 square feet is common, nay, de rigeur, for new homes in Northern Virginia) with modern conveniences tend to isolate us from having to mix with others at the tavern. And it’s much less expensive to buy beer at the grocery store!

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