Now the warriors of politics and their faithful media companions trek to New Hampshire. That and South Carolina will be sterner tests for Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee. Will they pass? Possibly. If Iowa is indicative of anything, Americans want something more than a new person in the White House. They want some new thing as well.
What is that thing? I’m not sure. Obama and Huckabee both draw very self-consciously on their religious roots; so it is reasonable to assume that a certain sincerity of faith is important. Or at least the ability to fake it.
Cynical, am I not? Not necessarily. The ability to fake something and the ability to project that same thing in sincerity over the media are perilously similar skills. Even the politician can lose track of the distinction and confuse his or her own acting with conviction.
Time and experience in observing candidates can help us separate the two (as well as let us know if that sincerity helps them in making good decisions). But we have had little time in the case of these two candidates to know just exactly how their faith and decision-making intersect.
So, in truth, those voters who see the faith of candidates as important have little to base their decisions on, other than faith itself.
Or is economics the key to finding that new thing?
It will be interesting to see if the new unemployment numbers affect the first primaries. Obama’s domestic policy is not that different from his rivals; so any shift away from Obama will suggest either that Hillary Clinton’s argument that experience should trump ”false hopes” is having an impact. Or it may indicate that John Edwards “two Americas” rhetoric is gaining some traction.
The impact of the unemployment news on the Republicans seems even less predictable to me. As the same article that I linked for Edwards indicates, immigration is becoming the focus for many Republicans who fear the new economic trends. That would tend to weaken the prospects for Huckabee’s unorthodox (for Republicans) approach to economic problems. However, immigration was supposed to be the most important issue to Iowa Republicans; so maybe I am wrong about that.
Quite honestly, I’m not sure which Republican (if any) has this issue cornered. Even Ron Paul has adopted an anti-immigration stand that has saddened some of his strongest libertarian supporters (though they are still sticking with him). If John McCain does not catch fire next week despite the weakening of Mitt Romney’s candidacy, it could well be his stand on immigration that killed his candidacy.
Probably, of course, there is no one new “thing” that people want. And the only uniting passion in the electorate is for something different from what they have now. Seeing those different hopes clash and evolve will be fascinating to observe, but more than a bit scary to experience.
So let us hope, as the primary season finally begins, that just as good second marriages occur despite the odds, so will hope triumph in our public lives as well.
Tim Russert tried hard but failed to knock Huckabee off his stride. Russert showed that Huckabee's immigration policy is wholly incoherent. A few years ago the former governor conceded we can't throw all undocumented workers out of the country without severely damaging the economy. But his immigration policy announced a few weeks ago envisions requiring them to leave the country in 120 days (that's all 15 million of them!) before they can apply to be readmitted. But Huckabee succeeded in brushing off Russert's attack, burying the TV host in a flurry of generalizations.
The last pol I saw who was as agile on his feet was a fellow from Arkansas who came from a town called Hope.
Here's the relevant transcript excerpt. Decide for yourself. As you follow along watch carefully how Huckabee's rhetoric is designed to appeal to both liberals and conservatives:
MR. RUSSERT: But, Governor, this is, this is important, because this is what you said back in 2005. "Responding to a question about illegal aliens, Huckabee said `our economy would collapse' without them."
GOV. HUCKABEE: Mm-hmm.
MR. RUSSERT: Do you believe that?
GOV. HUCKABEE: I think it would be very, very difficult to do construction and agriculture without them. That's why we need a policy that puts everyone in this country in a legal position. And, Tim, let me, let me go further.
MR. RUSSERT: But, this, this is...
GOV. HUCKABEE: Let me explain why.
MR. RUSSERT: ...important, because your plan says send them all home.
GOV. HUCKABEE: No, I did not send them home. They will go home within 120-day window, and then they have the process of starting to return.
MR. RUSSERT: But that's 15 million people. You're saying to do that would collapse the American economy, and now that's exactly what you're proposing.
GOV. HUCKABEE: No, I don't think it would collapse the American economy if people went back and did their process of becoming legal. And all of them aren't going to go back on the same day. There's going to be a window of time. How long it's going to take for them to come back, I don't know. But part of the process, the first process, if you read my entire plan, is seal the border. Seal the border. If you don't do that, then you don't have any control of who's here, why they're here and what they're doing. This process has to be modernized. It's our government that's been dysfunctional.
Tim, I stand by many of the state--all of the statements I've made, and one of them has been, let's thank God we live in a country people are trying to break into, not one they're trying to break out of. But let's have a rule of law. Let's make everyone live by it. And let me tell you why I believe my plan is not only a plan that respects the rule of law, but I think it's the most humane plan. Because nobody living in this country ought to live with his head down, ought to live in the shadows, ought to live in fear, ought to live every day looking if there's a police car or a border patrol, running and hiding. I want people to live in this country with their heads up. I want them to be able to, if they're going to work here, to work legally. I want them to be able to pay the same taxes, live under the same laws, and also to be able to have the kind of sense of liberty that this country is bound by. That's what we're trying to achieve. Let's not forget that our federal government has made a mess of this. As a governor, I had to deal with their mess, and I believe, as president, one of the highest priorities is to fix the problem.
I had come to Columbia University in the fall of 1960 to do an M.A. in American history and expecting to write a thesis on as recent a topic as feasible. I quickly discovered that the M.A. seminar on the U.S. since 1920 was taught by a professor who was a much-loved undergraduate teacher without a professional profile. Even then, I knew enough to check on the alternatives. I discovered that the 1877-1920 seminar was handled by someone named Garraty, who had published five books. I spent a year in that seminar with about a dozen other people.
John Garraty had just turned forty then, was also chairing the history program in Columbia’s School of General Studies, and had his sixth book in press. A busy man, he was nonetheless unfailingly helpful, affable, and good-humored in guiding a motley group of inexperienced pupils through the business of selecting researchable topics for a thesis and developing chapters that passed the basic literacy standard. I could not have asked for a better mentor. I learned a lot about writing from him.
A good many graduate students at Columbia could not get past the fact that Garraty was the de facto third-string 20-century U.S. historian at Columbia—that he was not Richard Hofstadter or Bill Leuchtenburg. Perhaps not, but his professional accomplishments were large all the same. His New York Times obituary [http://www.nytimes.com ] emphasizes his last big project—American National Biography—and tosses in an incomplete list of his books.
In fact, he wrote standard accounts of three important, if peripheral, figures in American history—Silas Wright, Henry Cabot Lodge, and George W. Perkins—authored a little gem on Woodrow Wilson, and produced a thoughtful guide to writing the lives of others, “The Nature of Biography.” He did a fine survey of Gilded Age America, “The New Commonwealth,” for the “American Nation” series. Later in his career, he grappled with big issues in two small books—“Unemployment in History” and “The Great Depression.” It is the latter book that features the important essay that compares the America’s New Deal to Nazi Germany’s economic program. All this adds up to a life of remarkable accomplishment.
He also served a term as a Vice-President of the American Historical Association. I had something to do with his nomination, but it was an easy sell to the nominating committee and his election an easy choice for the voters.
Garraty was a dynamic classroom lecturer with real empathy for undergraduate students. He once told me that he had turned down a visiting appointment at Berkeley in which the main assignment would have been to teach U.S. survey as a television class; he needed to be in the same room, however large, with those to whom he spoke. His major teaching impact, however, was through his textbook, “The American Nation,” of which he was sole author for many years. Mark Carnes became his collaborator for the later editions.
Few people today understand just what a landmark “The American Nation” (1966) was with lavish color portfolios unlike any that ever had been included in a college text before. It was written with one voice by an individual who understood the capabilities of average students. I used it for my U.S. survey classes; students loved it. Garraty, who acted as his own agent, told me that he negotiated a $30,000 advance, a very large sum for an academic author in those days, from Harper and Row and agreed to a lower than standard royalty rate to cover the high multicolor printing costs. Both parties had made shrewd decisions. The text sold about 100,000 copies in its first year and, more recently published by Longman, is about to go into its 13th edition. I have no idea about total sales. When I last saw Garraty several years ago, he would only say that he had lost count.
I appropriated the subtitle of John Garraty’s short life of Woodrow Wilson as the subtitle title for these thoughts. One might argue about whether his life was really “great.” I thought it was a splendid example of professionalism carried through by a fine person.
Anyone who thinks they can predict the consequences of a political assassination is a damn fool.
-- Eric Rauchway
So true, so true. Yet there is nothing more human than to try to master events by understanding them.
Traders in international markets scurry for cover; presidential spokesmen give answers to questions that they cannot easily answer. No one can. Presidential candidates try to show that they can give better answers. (They can’t, though they might be better leaders when clear answers are hard to come by.)
This is not uniquely political, or uniquely selfish. Traders are supposed to protect their clients with their knowledge. Politicians are supposed to do the same for their constituents. Their constituents and clients “hire” them to protect against an uncertain future with leadership and knowledge. Often the clients (and that includes me) demand too much, and out of pride and the desire to keep or gain a job, often the experts and leaders pretend they know more than they can. It is a foolish but very human dance.
I feel the desire to take part myself. I would like to add some understanding to the event, something to tell my students or tell those who read this posting, but I know far too little to make even a bad guess. Perhaps Christopher Hitchen’s lament or Nicholas Schmidle’s comment on Musharraf’s dilemma are close to the truth. Both do echo the early conventional wisdom that Musharraf had nothing to gain from her death, particularly in a locationso drenched in politics and violence. But I truly do not know.
So, simply as an American, I look abroad at those events, I ponder our nation’s long and entangled relationship with Pakistan, and for one of the rare times in this past 7 years, I have a bit of sympathy for President Bush. His job is to know what to do. American’s demand it, regardless of the circumstances. But even he may know that, in this case, certainty is something only “a damn fool” would feel.
Like it or not, and I don’t, President Bush and his congressional allies have done a masterful job of thwarting the Democrats. Some of this may be fecklessness on the part of Democrats, but a lot of it is the Bush Administration’s very clear understanding of presidential powers.
Whoever the next president is should study this closely—along with Bill Clinton’s ability to use his powers to restrain the Republican Congress of the mid-1990s.
That doesn’t mean that the Democrats in 2007 have done nothing. Actually the domestic accomplishments do mark a sharp change from the previous session. But it indicates clearly that, hard as some Congresses may try, it is just impossible to return to the 19th century ideal in which Congress has the leading role. From the standpoint of both public perception and policy accomplishments, either the president leads, or Washington is a mess.
The first 6 weeks of 2008 are going to be an extraordinarily frantic time in American politics. Neither party has a clear front-runner. Probably, one candidate in each party will catch fire just enough to win quickly.
However, I still think this is the best chance in my adult life—maybe my entire life—for one or both of the conventions to actually choose a nominee. That would be truly fascinating.
Whatever your persuasion, religious or political, may you find joy in this season!
But maybe we're asking the wrong question. A better question, I think, is this:
Would Barack Obama be plausible as a candidate for the presidency at this stage in his career if he weren't black?
I doubt it.
What other senator with as little experience in national politics has ever run for the office after just 2 years in the Senate? Even John Edwards (elected 1998) had more experience under his belt when he first ran for president in 2004--and he was making a run for the White House earlier in his career than any other candidate in modern history except for Estes Kefauver. (Elected in 1948 from Tennessee, Kefauver ran for president in 1952 after winning acclaim for his nationally televised crime hearings.)
Obama's blackness, far from being a liability, is an asset. He has exploited it to gain a prominence he otherwise couldn't hope to achieve as quickly.
In his non-threatening manner--which he augments at every turn by emphasizing his reasonableness (he's the anti-Jesse Jackson)--he is everything white America would want in a BLACK president.
But is it what we should want in a president? Don't presidents have to be unreasonable at times? Politics isn't rational. It's more like a hockey game where defiance and hard sticks count for as much as talent and luck.
Obama could grow in office. After all FDR did. Roosevelt in 1932 had tried to be all things to all people, and by 1936 he was wailing that the rich hated him and "I welcome their hatred." But Obama is trapped by the myth of his own making. He's not a snarling pit bull like, say, Al Sharpton. That's what makes him plausible as a candidate. And were he to change in office into a harder-edged politician white America would likely respond negatively.
Having elected a nice black man, they wouldn't know what to make of a tough version.
No white man of course has to worry about this kind of reinvention. We expect our (white) leaders to be tough. But a black man does. It could reinforce all the negative stereotypes Obama has so successfully evaded until now.
In a way he's got the woman's problem Hillary faces--in reverse. She has had to prove in life that she's tough even though she's a woman. He's had to prove that he's soft. Both are battling stereotypes.
But Hillary has it easier. She can pivot and soften her image without penalty. He can't harden his image ever
without worrying that millions will resent him the way they resent Jesse Jackson.
Is Obama our Grover Cleveland? America turned to Cleveland because he was fresh and people were desperate for a candidate who wasn't soiled by a corrupt system. That has a familiar ring to it.
The video suggests that negative campaigns were every bit as nasty in 1800 as in our era.
That may be true, but leaves a false impression. As Thomas Patterson points out in The Vanishing Voter, the ubiquity of negative TV ads and overall TV coverage of news makes political attacks today inescapable. There was nothing comparable in impact 200 years ago.
Still, the video's fun and it suggests that our politics grew out of the past, which is always a good point to make.
What I have here is a germ of an idea, nothing more.
But here goes.
Is it possible that we would have been better off in Iraq if we had simply acted the part of a colonial power?
This thought came to me as I was reading Jay Winik's fine book, The Great Upheaval. Winik says that when Catherine the Great made war on the Turks she carefully instructed her officers to respect the prejudices of the people. Winik doesn't spell out what prejudices she had in mind. But it's not too hard to guess that one of hem might have been their preference for their own religion and the right to practice it as they always had. Not only did she not try to convert them, she actually gave money to the support of the mosques.
I dare say we would probably be in a better position today had we followed a similar approach in Iraq. But that of course would have meant giving up on the idea of an American-style democracy, something Jerry Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, was loathe to do. (He was adamant that the Iraqi constitution include an American wall between church and state.)
I suppose Niall Ferguson may say something along these lines in his books in which he argues in favor of an American empire. Note to self: I really need to read his books.
Am I the only one who thinks this is like two criminals on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List each claiming they're innocent, but that other guy, well ... he's bad, really really bad.
If there were a Nobel Prize in ambitiousness these two should share it.
Obama has apparently been actively conniving for the presidency from the moment he was elected to the US Senate in 2004. And he thought about running, if the Clinton campaign's opposition research can be believed, back in 1992 or maybe even 1988. (Did he or didn't he tell his friends it was his secret desire to be president? It's not exactly as spicy as Watergate's Big Question, "What did the president know and when did he know it?" but for now it's all we've got.)
And for a fellow who announced he's running for president after serving just two years in the Senate, he's in no position to be accusing anybody else of ambitiousness.
Hillary was probably bitten by the presidential bug sometime back in the last century when she had long straggly hair and still wore big ugly glasses.
Does it matter if they are ambitious?
History suggests we should fear the ambitious person. We don't want a Napoleon running for president. But at the same time--this is the little truth we seldom admit--all the presidents were ambitious and most were more ambitious than we'd like to think. Even Abraham Lincoln was too ambitious. Desperate for political success when he ran for Congress, he neglected to tell his constituents he opposed the Mexican War that most of them supported. When upon taking his seat he began to denounce the war the voters back home were stunned. Later, as president, he declined to place General Grant in charge of the army until after he had received assurances Grant wouldn't use his success at Vicksburg to challenge Lincoln in the election of 1864. No wonder Lincoln's law partner said of him: “His ambition was a little engine that knew no rest.”
How much ambition is too much ambition? Presidents obviously need a measure of it in order to succeed. Every generation there aren't just one or two people who wish to be president--dozens do. Unless we are ready to scrap our democracy and go to a monarchy in which the top office holder inherits the job, we shall have to put up with the fact that necessity requires the winner to compete for power and that requires vast ambition.
Moreover, I am not sure we'd want anybody in the office who isn't ambitious. Ambition is essential to getting things done.
But before we can say how much ambition a person has we have to be able to define ambition. The easiest way to do so is to measure the sacrifices presidents are willing to make to obtain power and keep it.
Are they willing to sacrifice their families? Their health? Their principles? Their friends? The People's interests in order to accommodate special interests?
If the answer is yes to all of these questions you are entitled to conclude only that they are willing to do what just about every president has done with the exception of George Washington, who was given the office. As Lincoln said, “No man knows, when that presidential grub gets gnawing at him, just how deep it will get until he has tried it.”
We have inherited from the Founding Fathers a deep suspicion of ambitiousness. This is healthy for a democratic society. What we need to remember is what the Founders figured out. We cannot banish ambitiousness so we must marry it to the public's purposes.
The Founder's solution was to convince the politicians in their day that the highest honor was to help in the creation of a commonwealth. (See Douglass Adair, Fame and the Faming Fathers.) In the pursuit of this distinguished honor (fame) the Founders would help themselves by helping the community at large.
We have long since stopped worrying about creating a republic. We have one (more or less). The question we face then is deciding how we can inspire our pols in a new way to do the public's bidding rather than merely their own.
One of his observations deserves wide dissemination. Taking issue with John Agresto, the St. Johns academic brought in to reform Iraq's university system, Chandrasekaran says it wasn't a mistake for the Coalition Provisional Authority to provide quotas for Sunnis, Shiia and Kurds in the government. It was a recognition of reality. Much as we would have liked to build a nonsectarian government we couldn't.
Agresto believed that we could. He argued that before the war Iraqis didn't identify themselves by their ethnic background. Chandrasekaran says this is a myth created by Sunnis. Sunnis pretended that all Iraqis were equal in order to disguise the fact that a minority--Sunnis--was actually running the country. Meanwhile Shiia and Kurds went along with the myth to avoid incurring Saddam's wrath--and to get ahead. Only Shiia and Kurds who publicly embraced the myth could hope to land a job in the government (the biggest employer of Iraqis). Those who dissented faced discrimination or worse: imprisonment or death.
Once the CPA took over the natural tensions among the three groups surfaced. This was one of the awful prices of freedom.
Assuming this trend continues, the debate will shift from whether we expand nuclear power to what different reactor technologies we will use and where we will store the mess. (Look out Nevada!)
This shift is a reminder of the perils of using science in politics.
When science is invoked in a political campaign in support of an issue, it is usually as a source of utterly secure facts which no intelligent person should question. The problem there is that for many controversial issues, the science is still evolving.
Consider global warming. There has been for some time a general consensus among scientists in this field that global warming is occurring and that human action plays a significant role. However, consensus is not the same as unanimity, and opponents of policies to slow global warming can point to that. They can also show that even within the consensus there is a wide range of conclusions concerning the speed and severity of the crisis.
So what’s a policy maker to do?
Go with the flow. In the 1990s, the thought of global warming was, indeed, inconvenient. The Clinton Administration support a BTU tax only to have the politics of the issue bite back, badly. For the rest of Clinton’s administration, global warming was a backburner issue.
Now the flow is in favor of doing something. Republicans want to build nukes; Democrats are fonder of other alternatives. Neither side wants an electricity shortage, which is why ripping the landscape for big power lines and why moving away from coal powered plants is so hard to do despite their emissions.
So right now we are likely to get more windmills, more nukes, and even more coal-fired plants (though perhaps fewer than the industry once hoped.)
So what happened to the science? Scientific knowledge can inform a general popular consensus. But, in the absence of a clear danger to the daily lives of Americans, it cannot overwhelm on its own other political concerns.
This is particularly true in a nation like ours, whose majority is not scientifically literate in even an elementary fasion. (Alas, we are not alone.) A literate majority might not be able to do science, but it would be better able to determine when science is being simplified and distorted in the pursuit of political ends. That’s why it is particularly scary when presidents and presidential candidates show themselves to be woefully ignorant about science. That George Bush and Mike Huckabee both believe in intelligent design is a minor thing. That each believes that religious faith alone should result in a bogus hypothesis like intelligent design being taught as equal to one of the more settled major theories in biology is nothing less than having teachers tell their students that 2+2=5.
As a nation—as a world—we can’t afford that kind of nonsense. Evaluating the importance of scientific findings in the context of politics would be hard enough with a scientifically literate population, which we do not have. The last thing we need is a president who would reduce the current quality of scientific literacy even more.
The Times reports that 31 percent of both legal and illegal immigrants over the age of 25 have not graduated from high school.
But to put this into perspective: In 1940, according to the US Census, 6 in 10 Americans had not gone past the eighth grade.
In other words, our era of highly educated Americans is an anomaly. We should not allow ourselves to think that our prevailing standards of education are either commonplace or essential to democracy. Simply because somebody is uneducated doesn't mean that they are 1. incapable of participating in a democracy, or 2. are a burden on society.
Obviously, I am not trying to minimize the disadvantages of low education levels. Our society needs more educational opportunities not fewer. In the 21st century education is more vital than ever. But we need not fear a population that is more schooled than most Americans were in 1940.
There are two reasons for thinking that education is vital to the prosperity of the United States: 1. People with more schooling are better equipped to deal with a 21st century economy. 2. People who are better educated are less likely to fall for demagogic appeals by politicians.
But we shouldn't overestimate the benefits of education. Studies show that schooling alone does not seem to make people into better citizens. If anything, better educated Americans today are less knowledgeable than Americans two generations ago about how our political system works and who's in charge. I won't go into it here, but there is a complicated explanation for this, having to do with the development of television and the increasing isolation of Americans from political parties.
A century ago when we witnessed the first great wave of immigration to the United States we worried about the challenge of turning immigrants into"good Americans." All sorts of schemes were concocted to achieve this goal including building parks in cities so that immigrants could supposedly absorb the lessons of rural life (I am not kidding). Today's debate about immigration seems wholly lacking in this dimension. No one talks about what we need to do to help acculturate immigrants. It's assumed that they will just become more and more like the rest of us over time.
Maybe that's what should give us pause.
The article, by Patrick Healy, argues that the question the voters face is not whether Obama has as much experience as Hillary but whether he has enough experience. A parallel is drawn with Nixon-Kennedy in 1960. Nixon was more experienced but Kennedy had enough experience to assure the voters he'd know what he was doing.
Why do I find this article so infuriating?
Because it has a pretense of historical grounding and none of the substance.
The reporter should have been asking not if Kennedy had enough experience to convince the voters he was capable of serving as president but whether he actually in fact had enough experience.
We soon got our answer. He bumbled his way through the Bay of Pigs disaster and then nearly set off World War III by the clumsy way he handled our relationship with the USSR. (One glaring error was to leak to the media numbers indicating we enjoyed a dramatic superiority in missiles, which directly led to Khrushchev's decision to put missiles into Cuba. JFK acted after being humiliated by Khrushchev at Vienna.)
Kennedy was not inexperienced. He had served in Congress for 14 years (compared with Obama's 2 years). But he had the wrong kind of experience. In the Bay of Pigs disaster he got steamrolled by the CIA. To his credit, unlike Bush, he immediately admitted his error. But he went on to make the missile mistake, another error by a tyro who thought he could make up by a bad performance at Vienna with a damaging leak.
The NYT story should have gone beyond merely asking if Obama has enough experience to win and ask if he (or any of the candidates) have enough experience to provide prudent leadership.
In my first draft, I started giving examples of why I think that, but I have rejected it. Instead, I want to focus on tomorrow.
Thanksgiving is a day in which, if the tradition is at all true, people of different faiths and visions came together in a common celebration. Those moments of common celebration don’t always triumph, and there are those who fear more than one faith sharing it today. But it is our ability to remember and reinvent and try however fumblingly to make a City on the Hill that glows with the best that is in us that has saved us from dark times in the past, that has made the turning away from tyrannies of slavery and bigotry possible, and that I hope will make us again not a nation that celebrates its willingness to torture but it’s willingness to better itself, collectively and one-by-one.
So in my own way, Let Me Give Thanks:
For my family and my friends,
For my wife who keeps me rooted to the ground,
For my career and my colleagues and the joy of teaching,
For the challenging student who first seems to be a pain but who later becomes an inspiration,
For the source of tomorrow’s feast, the animals themselves, the plants, the farmers, the migrant and native-born Wisconsinites who work at the nearby Turkey Store,
For everyone whose labors have eased my life.
Let me be thankful for the chaotic history of this nation that can still be a beacon and still rouse us from malaise to aspiration,
Let me give thanks for those who challenge my thinking and force me to grow (even if I do grouse about it).
May this be a time when all of us find something in our lives, no matter how small and fleeting, for which we are truly thankful.
The latest issue of the “American Historical Review” has an especially interesting list of featured book reviews. The most interesting, to my mind, is Sven Beckert’s analysis of Thomas Bender’s “A Nation among Nations: America’s Place in World History.” Bender’s book, an important and impressive achievement by any reckoning, is a sustained argument against the idea that the history of the United States has been truly unique in comparison to that of other nations. He even questions the idea of uniqueness against civilizations outside the orbit of what we call “the West.” The work begins with a sentence that grabs attention: “This book proposes to mark the end of American history as we have known it.”
What we have here may be thought of as the anti-Hartz and indeed the anti-Tocqueville text that builds on a long interest among many American historians in transnational comparisons. As Beckert observes, “exceptionalist readings of North American history have fallen out of fashion a long time before Bender’s intervention.” All of us probably would agree that the transnational interest is a good thing, and perhaps it naturally leads into a denial of “exceptionalism.” Bender tells us that the American colonies existed in a larger Atlantic world, that the American Revolution was one of a number of “Atlantic revolutions,” that the American antislavery movement and the Civil War that it spawned was part of a much larger upsurge of nineteenth century liberalism, that American imperialism (beginning with continental expansion) was simply one manifestation of a larger surge of nineteenth century imperialism, that the social and political reaction to industrial capitalism was not that much different in the United States than in other major industrial nations. Where others have seen differences in kind, Bender sees differences in degree. The sweep of his work is remarkable and the argumentation fluent.
Why, then, do I think he overreaches?
A big part of the problem might be the way in which it is so easy and natural to project the present back into the past. Liberal democracy, mass affluence, and technological progress are widespread these days. New York, London, Paris, Tokyo, may all have interesting distinctive variations, but they and the societies behind them seem to have a lot in common. But we are, after all, historians. Was it always thus?
The late eighteenth century was indeed an “age of democratic revolutions,” as Robert R. Palmer reminded us many years ago. But only the United States emerged as a functioning democracy. Tocqueville’s reference point was the French Revolution, which brought forth terror, dictatorship, Napoleon, national defeat, and reaction. The attraction of America to this remarkable French intellectual was its perceived distinctiveness. The mid-nineteenth century surge of liberalism in Europe had a significant impact in Britain, but much less on the continent. Louis Kossuth’s triumphal tour was across the U.S., not through the streets of Budapest. France soon found itself with Napoleon III. Germany was ruled not by liberal forty-eighters (many of whom fled to the U.S.) but by Bismarck.
The concept of “American exceptionalism” is most directly derived from Werner Sombart’s “Warum Gibt Es Keinen Socialismus in den Vereinigten Staaten?” (1905) Bender dismisses the question as unimportant, since socialist parties were not governing anywhere when Sombart wrote. But surely it is notable that mass socialist parties committed at least in theory to the abolition of private property existed in Germany and other European states at the turn of the twentieth century; their American counterpart never mustered more than five percent of the vote in presidential elections. A difference in degree?
The differences persisted through most of the first half of the twentieth century. It is not surprising that the years immediately after World War II, when the United States finally accepted a leadership role in world affairs, saw an outpouring of scholarship on the issue of American distinctiveness by scholars such as Daniel Boorstin, David Potter, Louis Hartz, and Seymour Martin Lipset. Their writing reflected the impact of World War II and the phenomenon of twentieth-century totalitarianism. Few people doubted at the time that America was exceptional in its liberal-democratic character, industrial development, and mass affluence. Clearly, that is no longer the case. Today’s historians, like Boorstin, et al., search for a useable past.
The United States, it still seems to me, has been during most of its existence different in kind from most of the world. But, Frederick Jackson Turner or Daniel Boorstin notwithstanding, its values did not spring simply from the environment. They derived mainly from a Northwestern European blend of Calvinist Protestantism and British Enlightenment liberalism.
My own efforts to study the Great Depression through a comparative lens led me to believe that Britain and the United States in the 1930s were largely different in degree. At bottom, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Stanley Baldwin acted on, and were limited by, a set of common values. Roosevelt was often compared to Hitler during the 1930s and has been since. After all, both were charismatic orators, both used radio as a potent means of communication, both were power-seeking leaders. But to what ends and subject to what constraints? Roosevelt might seem dictatorial at times, but he observed democratic rules. American political culture would not allow him to do otherwise, even if he had wished. Hitler made himself the absolute ruler of one of the world’s most advanced nations. German political culture did not stand in the way.
Difference in degree? Or difference in kind? “American exceptionalism” is a categorical phrase that can easily become an intellectual strait jacket. But when acting as historians studying a relatively distant past we abandon the idea of enduring and substantial national differences at the peril of insufficient historical understanding.
One reason more than any other. As a newcomer, as Samuel Popkin pointed out many years ago, he hasn't had to "bargain and compromise." Popkin goes on: "When one candidate is all promise for the future and the other has a known record, the known candidate will often look insincere." (The Reasoning Voter, p. 203)>
Some (a certain former NYC mayor, for instance) argue that Hillary doesn't have much real experience and therefore should be considered as much of a neophyte as Obama. But this line of thinking isn't likely to convince many voters.
The rap on Hillary as first lady was that she exercised power. You can't now argue with a straight face that she has no experience exercising power. Either she didn't exercise power as first lady (in which case one wonders why so many Americans were upset with her) or she did.
I still would rather have a candidate who had run a war like Eisenhower than one who ran a failed health care initiative. But there aren't any Eisenhower's handy.
The bet you have to make is that Hillary actually learned something from her mistake. One certainly hopes so. But does she still believe in demonizing opponents? That may be the most critical question. Bill Bradley famously said that at the time of the health care debate she confided that the White House would demonize anybody who got in her way.
Politics ain't bean bag. But this demonization business is undemocratic and poisonous to the system. Let's hope she's changed her mind about the right way and the wrong way to win.
It's a quick read and full of fascinating insights into history and politics.
The theme of the book is that following the Great Depression there was the Great Compression, a startlingly egalitarian period that lasted a generation and witnessed the greatest period of prosperity for middle income Americans. As incomes went up more than 2 percent a year, the wealth of the rich came down, and politics became less extreme. (The theory he advances is that extremism in politics is induced by extremes of wealth.)
You may not agree with everything Krugman says (I know I don't) but you'll never see liberalism in the same way again, I promise.
Which brings up the question of Jimmy Carter.
Carter keeps making the mistake of speaking the truth. Should we be alarmed?
The latest contretemps is over his statement on CNN that the Bush administration has tortured prisoners or allowed them to be tortured. Pressed by Wolf Blitzer to elaborate, Carter said that President Bush knows that we have tortured people. "So is the president lying?" when he insists we don't torture people? Wolf asked. Here's what Carter said:
"The president is self-defining what we have done and authorized in the torture of prisoners, yes."
Has Carter gone too far? There's no question he spoke the truth. We have indeed condoned torture since 9-11. If a foreign government did to an American what we have done to some enemy combatants -- water boarding, for instance -- we'd be howling that that's torture pure and simple.
Carter also spoke the truth last spring when he declared that Bush's foreign policy is the worst in history. (Initially he said Bush was the worst president in history, which may or may not be true; he's got some stiff competition.) I don't see too many people anxious for another president to repeat President Bush's "successes." Aside from the deal with Libya I can't think of one unless you include Afghanistan, which we are in the process of losing if we don't change our policy and quickly.
Carter has also said some controversial statements that either aren't true or are misleading. In that same interview with Blitzer he said that the US never violated the UN human rights charter until Bush. This is nonsense. He's apparently forgotten what the CIA did in its first 30 years. Earlier this year he accused the Israel Lobby of manipulating US foreign policy, which is a gross distortion of the facts.
But the question is do we want our ex-presidents speaking out?
The general unspoken rule is that ex-presidents shouldn't criticize their successors. All in all I'd say it's a worthy rule to be broken only in exceptional circumstances. We can have only one president at a time. When an ex-president speaks out he limits the freedom of the incumbent to set policy and shape the national agenda.
Besides we need our ex-presidents to graduate from the role of politician to statesman when they leave office if only to enable them to all play together nicely when occasions arise requiring their joint presence.
Carter is too convinced, as always, of his own virtue to pause long enough to wonder about the wisdom of his comments. But he might give silence a try.
He might ask himself during this moment of silence how he would have felt if an ex-president had criticized him for selling arms to the Shah. A case can be made that these sales, started under the Nixon administration, led to the Shah's vain gloriousness and arrogance, which resulted in his overthrow. Would Carter have wanted to debate an ex-president about the wisdom of the policy he had adopted? I'm guessing not.
Carter has convinced himself he's consistently championed human rights. But he should remember those arms sales to the Shah. They are proof that when he was in office he sometimes gave a higher priority to power politics.
We have had enough of Jimmy Carter's sanctimoniousness. Much as I agree with his blunt statement about Bush's foreign policy and dreadful human rights record he should just shut up.