To track the meaning of American democracy through The Atlantic's archives is to be reminded how slippery, but strong, it has always been. No one, of course, rejects the principle trumpeted by Ralph Waldo Emerson at the outset of these selections that “Emancipation is the demand of civilization.” (What American would go on record trashing freedom?) But succeeding thinkers voice unease about just how to put it into action.
Woodrow Wilson wonders if democratic government, as established, can cope with entropic times, when “voters of every blood and environment and social derivation mix and stare at one another at the same voting places.” Walter Lippmann sniffs at “the prevailing public opinion,” worrying over how to strengthen “the judgments of informed and responsible officials.” But both men were writing when, from our standpoint, civilization’s demand for emancipation had not remotely been met. Wilson wrote when women had not yet gotten the right to vote, and Lippmann when blacks were still blocked from exercising that right, ninety years after the liberation that Emerson dreamed of. Indeed, Jack Kennedy had yet to demonstrate that a white and male—but Catholic—candidate could overcome the prejudice that the Happy Warrior, Alfred E. Smith, so powerfully inveighed against in 1927.
Looking backward, Isaiah Berlin sees in Roosevelt’s New Deal the right balance between state power and personal freedom, the reconciliation of “individual liberty and a loose texture of society with the indispensable minimum of organization and authority.” But less than twenty years later, another friend of the New Deal, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., fears that executive power under a Republican administration has run amok, resulting in “the imperial presidency.” A thread running through all these selections is the view—still a commonplace of American politics—that those charged with implementing the noblest American ideals are not quite up to the job. Wilson worries that democracy anoints “petty men of no ambition,” while P. J. O’Rourke contends that politicians are mostly “just ridiculous people—and therefore justly representative of their constituents.
Our present representative in chief, George W. Bush, declared in his second inaugural address, “Freedom is the permanent hope of mankind.” We may well hear a meaningful echo there of Emerson’s declaration of 144 years ago. Still, as the archives suggest, and as Mr. Bush’s efforts abroad have demonstrated, summoning the lofty sentiment—while important—is the easy part. —James Bennet
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By Ralph Waldo Emerson
As the Civil War ground on, and the fate of the young nation hung in the balance, Ralph Waldo Emerson argued vehemently for a federal emancipation of the slaves. “Morality,” above all else, he asserted, “is the object of government.” He lauded President Lincoln for his principled moves in that direction.
Emancipation is the demand of civilization. That is a principle; everything else is an intrigue …
The end of all political struggle is to establish morality as the basis of all legislation. It is not free institutions, ’t is not a republic, ’t is not a democracy, that is the end—no, but only the means. Morality is the object of government. We want a state of things in which crime shall not pay. This is the consolation on which we rest in the darkness of the future and the afflictions of to-day, that the government of the world is moral, and does forever destroy what is not …
President Lincoln has proposed to Congress that the Government shall coöperate with any State that shall enact a gradual abolishment of Slavery. In the recent series of national successes, this Message is the best. It marks the happiest day in the political year. The American Executive ranges itself for the first time on the side of freedom. If Congress has been backward, the President has advanced. This state-paper is the more interesting that it appears to be the President’s individual act, done under a strong sense of duty. He speaks his own thought in his own style. All thanks and honor to the Head of the State!
Volume 9, No. 54, pp. 502–511
By Woodrow Wilson
At the turn of the twentieth century, future President Woodrow Wilson—then a political-science professor at Princeton—explained that America’s governing structures had served their purpose well throughout the nation’s early years, but that the time had come for them to become more sophisticated, in order to cope with a burgeoning population and the growing complexities of modern life.
Tocqueville predicted the stability of the government of the United States, not because of its intrinsic excellence, but because of its suitability to the particular social, economic, and political conditions of the people and the country for whose use and administration it had been framed … Democracy was with us, he perceived, already a thing of principle and custom and nature, and our institutions admirably expressed our training and experience …
During the first half century of our national life we seemed to have succeeded in an extraordinary degree in approaching our ideal, in organizing a nation for counsel and cooperation, and in moving forward with cordial unison and with confident and buoyant step toward the accomplishment of tasks and duties upon which all were agreed. Our later life has disclosed serious flaws …
We printed the SELF large and the government small in almost every administrative arrangement we made; and that is still our attitude and preference.
We have found that even among ourselves such arrangements are not universally convenient or serviceable. They give us untrained officials, and an expert civil service is almost unknown amongst us. They give us petty officials, petty men of no ambition, without hope or fitness for advancement. They give us so many elective offices that even the most conscientious voters have neither the time nor the opportunity to inform themselves with regard to every candidate on their ballots, and must vote for a great many men of whom they know nothing. They give us, consequently, the local machine and the local boss; and where population crowds, interests compete, work moves strenuously and at haste, life is many-sided and without unity and voters of every blood and environment and social-derivation mix and stare at one another at the same voting places, government miscarries … Methods of electoral choice and administrative organization, which served us admirably well while the nation was homogeneous and rural, serve us oftentimes ill enough now that the nation is heterogeneous and crowded into cities …
Leadership and expert organization have become imperative, and our practical sense, never daunted hitherto, must be applied to the task of developing them at once and with a will.
Volume 87, No. 521, pp. 289–299
By Alfred E. Smith
In 1927, Alfred E. Smith, New York’s governor and the first Roman Catholic to run for president, argued against the charge that a Catholic could not, in good conscience, fulfill his duties to his country. Though he lost the election the following year to Herbert Hoover, his candidacy helped pave the way for John F. Kennedy thirty-two years later.
Charles C. Marshall, Esq.
In your open letter to me in the April Atlantic Monthly you ‘impute’ to American Catholics views which, if held by them, would leave open to question the loyalty and devotion to this country and its Constitution of more than twenty million American Catholic citizens. I am grateful to you for defining this issue in the open and for your courteous expression of the satisfaction it will bring to my fellow citizens for me to give ‘a disclaimer of the convictions’ thus imputed. Without mental reservation I can and do make that disclaimer. These convictions are held neither by me nor by any other American Catholic, as far as I know …
I should be a poor American and a poor Catholic alike if I injected religious discussion into a political campaign. Therefore I would ask you to accept this answer from me not as a candidate for any public office but as an American citizen, honored with high elective office, meeting a challenge to his patriotism and his intellectual integrity …
I summarize my creed as an American Catholic. I believe in the worship of God according to the faith and practice of the Roman Catholic Church. I recognize no power in the institutions of my Church to interfere with the operations of the Constitution of the United States or the enforcement of the law of the land. I believe in absolute freedom of conscience for all men and in equality of all churches, all sects, and all beliefs before the law as a matter of right and not as a matter of favor. I believe in the absolute separation of Church and State and in the strict enforcement of the provisions of the Constitution that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. I believe that no tribunal of any church has any power to make any decree of any force in the law of the land, other than to establish the status of its own communicants … And I believe in the common brotherhood of man under the common fatherhood of God.
In this spirit I join with fellow Americans of all creeds in a fervent prayer that never again in this land will any public servant be challenged because of the faith in which he has tried to walk humbly with his God.
Very truly yours,
Alfred E. Smith
Volume 139, No. 5, pp. 721–728
By Walter Lippmann
In the wake of two devastating world wars, and with the specter of communism looming, Walter Lippmann fretted that Western democracies were becoming too beholden to an ill-informed and frequently “destructively wrong” mass of public opinion.
There has developed in this century a functional derangement of the relationship between the mass of the people and the government. The people have acquired power which they are incapable of exercising, and the governments they elect have lost powers which they must recover if they are to govern …
The unhappy truth is that the prevailing public opinion has been destructively wrong at the critical junctures. The people have imposed a veto upon the judgments of informed and responsible officials. They have compelled the governments, which usually knew what would have been wiser … Mass opinion has acquired mounting power in this century. It has shown itself to be a dangerous master …
There have been men worth listening to who warned the people against their mistakes. Always, too, there have been men inside the governments who judged correctly because they were permitted to know in time the uncensored and unvarnished truth. But the climate of modern democracy does not usually inspire them to speak out …
With exceptions so rare that they are regarded as miracles and freaks of nature, successful democratic politicians are insecure and intimidated men. They advance politically only as they placate, appease, bribe, seduce, bamboozle, or otherwise manage to manipulate the demanding and threatening elements in their constituencies. The decisive consideration is not whether the proposition is good but whether it is popular—not whether it will work well and prove itself but whether the active, talking constituents like it immediately. Politicians rationalize this servitude by saying that in a democracy public men are the servants of the people.
Volume 195, No. 2, pp. 29–36
By Isaiah Berlin
In 1955, the philosopher and historian Isaiah Berlin paid tribute to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose New Deal policies, Berlin contended, had forever “altered the fundamental concept of government and its obligations to the governed.”
When I say that some men occupy one’s imagination for many years, this is literally true of Mr. Roosevelt’s effect on the young men of my own generation in England, and probably in many parts of Europe, and indeed the entire world. If one was young in the thirties and lived in a democracy, then, whatever one’s politics, if one had human feelings at all, or the faintest spark of social idealism, or any love of life, one must have felt very much as young men in Continental Europe probably felt after the defeat of Napoleon during the years of the Restoration: that all was dark and quiet, a great reaction was abroad, and little stirred, and nothing resisted …
The only light in the darkness was the administration of Mr. Roosevelt and the New Deal in the United States. At a time of weakness and mounting despair in the democratic world, Mr. Roosevelt radiated confidence and strength. He was the leader of the democratic world, and even today upon him alone, of all the statesmen of the thirties, no cloud has rested—neither on him nor on the New Deal, which to European eyes still looks a bright chapter in the history of mankind …
His internal policy was plainly animated by a humanitarian purpose. After the unbridled individualism of the twenties which had led to economic collapse and widespread misery, he was seeking to establish new rules of social justice. He was trying to do this without forcing his country into some doctrinaire strait jacket, whether of socialism or state capitalism or the kind of new social organization which the Fascist regimes flaunted as the New Order. Social discontent was high in the United States; faith in businessmen as saviors of society had evaporated overnight after the famous Wall Street crash, and Mr. Roosevelt was providing a vast safety valve for pent-up bitterness and indignation, and trying to prevent revolution and construct a régime which should establish greater economic equality, social justice and happiness, above all, human happiness—ideals which were in the best tradition of American life—without altering the basis of freedom and democracy in his country …
It is not too much to say that he altered the fundamental concept of government and its obligations to the governed … The welfare state, so much denounced, has obviously come to stay: the direct moral responsibility for minimum standards of living and social services which it took for granted, are today accepted almost without a murmur by the most conservative politicians …
Mr. Roosevelt’s example strengthened democracy everywhere—that is to say, the view that the promotion of social justice and individual liberty does not necessarily mean the end of all efficient government; that power and order are not identical with a strait jacket of doctrine, whether economic or political; that it is possible to reconcile individual liberty and a loose texture of society with the indispensable minimum of organization and authority. And in this belief lies what Mr. Roosevelt’s greatest predecessor once described as the last best hope on earth.
Volume 196, No. 1, pp. 67–71
By Arthur M. Schlesinger
As a steady stream of disturbing revelations surfaced in the Watergate investigation, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.—a Pulitzer Prize–winning historian and a former adviser to President Kennedy—argued that under Richard Nixon’s insidious influence, the power of the presidency had spiraled out of control.
Today the pessimism of the Supreme Court in an 1866 decision, ex parte Milligan, seems … prescient. The nation, as Justice [David] Davis wrote for the Court then, has “no right to expect that it will always have wise and humane rulers, sincerely attached to the principles of the Constitution. Wicked men, ambitious of power, with hatred of liberty and contempt of law, may fill the place once occupied by Washington and Lincoln” …
Whether Nixon himself was witting or unwitting, what is clearly beyond dispute is his responsibility for the moral atmosphere within his official family. White House aides do not often do things they know their principal would not wish them to do—a proposition which I and dozens of other former White House aides can certify from experience …
This is not the White House we have known—those of us, Democrats or Republicans, who served other Presidents in other years. Appointment to the White House of Roosevelt or Truman or Eisenhower or Kennedy or Johnson seemed the highest responsibility one could expect and therefore required higher standards of behavior than most of us had recognized before. And most of us look back at our White House experience, not with shame and incredulity, as the Nixon young men do, but as the most exhilarating time in our lives …
The nature of an activist President … in Samuel Lubell’s phrase, is to run with the ball until he is tackled. As conditions abroad and at home have nourished the imperial presidency, tacklers have had to be more than usually sturdy and intrepid.
How to make external checks effective? Congress can tie the presidency down by a thousand small legal strings; but, like Gulliver, the President can always break loose. The effective means of controlling the presidency lie not in law but in politics. For the American President rules by influence; and the withdrawal of consent, by Congress, by the press, by public opinion, can bring any President down. The great Presidents have understood this …
I would argue that what the country needs today is a little serious disrespect for the office of the presidency; a refusal to give any more weight to a President’s words than the intelligence of the utterance, if spoken by anyone else, would command; an understanding of the point made so aptly by Montaigne: “Sits he on never so high a throne, a man still sits on his bottom.”
Volume 232, No. 5, pp. 43–55
By P. J. O'Rourke
“It is no bad thing,” suggested the humorist and Atlantic correspondent P. J. O’Rourke in 2002, “that our politicians are fools.”
After thirty years of making fun of politicians, I have decided, contrary to all rules of good humor, that I don’t like them. Not that politicians are dislikable. It is their job to be liked. They are very busy at this job and at many other jobs. A politician’s day is long. He gets into the office early, reads newspaper clippings with his name highlighted, submits to a radio interview with Howard Stern, goes to a prayer breakfast and an ACLU lunch, checks opinion polls, meets with an NRA delegation, makes a friendly call to Al Sharpton, sits in the Inland Waterways Committee hearing room drawing pictures of sailboats and seagulls on a notepad, proposes National Dried Plum Week, votes “yea” (or is it “nay”?) on something or other (consult staff), exercises with the President, recovers from a faked charley horse after being lapped on the White House jogging track, watches the signature machine sign letters to constituents, returns a corporate campaign contribution to WorldCom, speaks at a dinner supporting campaign- finance reform, goes home, gets on the phone, and fund-raises until all hours …
What is obnoxious about the motives of politicians—whatever those motives may be—is that politicians must announce their motives as visionary and grand. Try this with the ordinary activities of your day:
My dear wife and beloved children, I say to you this—I will mow the lawn. Lawns are a symbol of America’s spacious freedoms and green prosperity. Such noble tokens of well-being and independence must not go untended, lest we show the world that liberty is mere license and see the very ground upon which we stand, as Americans, grow tangled with the weeds of irresponsibility and be fruitful only in the tares of greed. I will give the grass clippings to the poor.
Politicians are not, as a class, outstandingly evil or insane. For the most part they’re just ridiculous people …
It is no bad thing that our politicians are fools. We mortals all famously are. And the theory of democracy is that we can rule ourselves. If exceptionally wise and able men were required to run our democratic system, we’d have a lot of explaining to do to the other fools around the world, from Zimbabwe to North Korea, upon whom we are always urging democratic institutions. Anyway, the history of kingdoms, oligarchies, and dictatorships indicates that ordinary fools do a pretty good job in politics, comparatively.
Volume 290, No. 4, pp. 34–35