Sunday, September 3, 2017

Labor Day

Jack Delano. Spectators at labor day parade in Du Bois, Pennsylvania. September 1940. FSA-OWI Collection, Library of Congress.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Republic or Democracy?

Is the United States a Republic or a Democracy?

This non-issue is sometimes raised by those on the right--it was a favorite claim of the John Birch Society that America is "a republic, not a democracy," meaning the people should not rule. The same dichotomy is sometimes claimed on the Left, but as a complaint that the United States is not actually a direct democracy, or that at its founding the franchise was not universal. You will be hearing the claim coming from the Right in the days ahead -- be ready for it. Democracy and Republicanism are not contraries or mutually exclusive -- the United States is a republic (there is no monarch) and a representative democracy (despite the worries of the founders about the hazards of Democracy). Yes, the democracy is imperfect--how could it not be?--and it could be improved. But it's not one or the other, it's both.

see also

 See also Abraham Lincoln, The Lyceum Address (1838)

Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Thank You, Secretary Clinton

It's hard to sort out Hillary Clinton the person, Hillary Clinton the evolving political actor (Senate, Secretary of State, presidential nominee) from the lies and smears, mostly baseless, directed against her for decades now. As a politician she has--perhaps often rightly, sometimes mistakenly--taken positions on issues, and sometimes changed positions. When looked at with any degree of seriousness, the scandals seem to evaporate into smears and lies and distortions--hypocrisies flung by other politicians. I'll admit that as the presidential election began to come into focus a couple of years ago, I hoped that someone other than Hillary Clinton might step forward, but not because I had any real belief in the smears against her--to which I have paid close attention since about 1990. But my hope for "someone else" was not really about doubts I had towards her so much as a sense of all that ugly bad memory. If nothing else, what other people believed about her would be a millstone--and it was. But when she emerged as a candidate, and then as the nominee, I found her direct, smart, profoundly serious and well informed. I supported her with confidence and hope--even recognizing what seemed to me some limits. She wasn't FDR, but she wasn't George W. Bush, either. I'm sorry she lost and I don't blame her for it.

It is hard for me not to think that we are seeing a resurgence here, and a victory, at least for the time being, of an old fashioned American brutalism, nativism, racism, misogyny, and homophobia, along with 20th-21st century authoritarianism. Those elements of our national experience have always been present and now they are taking new forms and new strength with this election. We have sometimes, in our history, managed to overcome -- but never to eliminate -- these parts of our history and character. It is easy for us at colleges and universities, perhaps, or in our comfortable cities and suburbs, to imagine that those forces were gone or shrinking to a manageable level. We were wrong. The work is not finished. We can only make a difference together.

Okay, mourn. Then what? Most of my friends are teachers and parents, and we all have elderly relatives and children who are relatives. They need your wisdom, your patience, and your love now. And then, organize. And teach. 

Progressives will have differences as we pick up the pieces, but though we do now need tough self appraisal we do not need factional infighting -- a historically likely development at a moment like this.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Get in the Scrap

Salvage. School children get in the scrap. The school children of America were officially organized for a nationwide salvage program starting on Monday, October 5, 1942. The children are going into the field as a junior army engaged in a major campaign for victory. Plans included the laying out of definite areas in each community to be assigned to specific groups of children. Plans were also made for holding meetings, collecting scrap, storing it and getting it to central points for shipment. Roanoke, Virginia has already gotten its program underway. This picture shows scrap being dug out of an attic by the "junior commandos." Photo by Howard Liberman. October 1942. Office of War Information. FSA-OWI Collection, Library of Congress.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Why Debate Preparation Matters

Who cares about debate prep? The press, sadly, seems to depict debate prep as about pretty much nothing but preparing one-liners, put-downs, and elegant evasions. And yet debate preparation for a president or a presidential candidate has an important substantive and systemic function, as it requires the principal to listen to and to read briefings on a range of important and difficult policy matters, to try formulating sensible and persuasive responses, and to hear those responses criticized by smart aides -- forcing the candidate or president to try again--and to think again. In a fine book called the Fourth Branch of Government, Douglass Cater wrote, many years ago, that a presidential press conference has the beneficial effect not only of providing an occasion for presidential communication, but also as requiring the president and crucially the presidential staff to see to it that they had a grasp of everything that was happening in the administration, so as not to be surprised. Without such occasions, the temptation of subordinates to hide bad news from the principal is strong. Debate preparation matters -- as a function of self government.

If Donald Trump does not bother to prepare for the current round of presidential debates but instead treats them as an occasion for extemporaneous mud-slinging and lies, what does that predict about how a Trump presidency might unfold?

Mud Wrestling for the Oval Office

Headlines: the face-off, the battle . . . Granted these are not actually "debates" as we academics would describe them, and of course they are dramatic mysteries as well as a rehearsal of presidential speech, but Donald Trump is already programmed to win the sort of encounter that our press describes in its metaphors of conflict. If we sell ourselves on the idea of the debates as mud wrestling, we have decided it before it has begun.