150 Years of The Atlantic October 2006

Politics

This is the ninth in a series of archival excerpts in honor of the magazine’s 150th anniversary. This installment is introduced by James Bennet, the editor of The Atlantic.
Democracy and Efficiency
March 1901
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

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