Advancing a Free Society

Democracy in America

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Foreign policy has not figured prominently in this election, partly because we’re not selecting a commander in chief. Mostly because bigger issues are at stake than America’s role in the world. We are instead debating what makes America America.

While every campaign is about two candidates in their constituency, and therefore local, it is striking how grand the issues defining the 2010 elections are: the expanse of state power, the risk of debt, how to create jobs, the immorality of leaving our country worse off for our children. These are ideas that shape a free society, and we should celebrate that average Americans are debating them.

It is stylish among academics to despair over the inability of our political system to solve problems. In The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, Paul Kennedy concludes it as a major factor in America’s decline. But the political debate we have had this election demonstrates the rejuvenating power of returning to first principles, and the genius of design in our political system to hold elected officials so accountable (unlike Parliamentary systems in which the government is insulated from public opinion by also controlling the legislature).

The debate would be recognizable to the founders of our nation, and for those like John Adams that despaired of the ability of the mob (rather than an elite selected to represent them) to govern, it is another repudiation.

The current political mood feels very much like the election of 1828 that brought Andrew Jackson to power. He was the first President genuinely Of The People. Some earlier Presidents, like Adams, were self-made men, not landed gentry. But they were all educated and respectable before Jackson. Jackson was a British prisoner of war at twelve, orphaned and self-educated, won honor on the battlefield, took on the Bank of New York. We are experiencing another Jacksonian moment in American history, refreshing ourselves with the spirit of scrappy, free people not in thrall to elites.

As Alexis de Tocqueville writing at that time put it, “America demonstrates invincibly one thing that I had doubted up to now: that the middle classes can govern a state…despite their small passions, their incomplete education, their vulgar habits, they can obviously provide a practical sort of intelligence and that turns out to be enough.”