Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Fineman’s Thirteen American Arguments

August 16, 2010

Howard Fineman’s book The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring debates that define and inspire our country (2008) is an impressive attempt to categorize the essence of America’s political debate into thirteen grand arguments. I welcome the effort.

Ambitiously, Fineman (of Newsweek and MSNBC) presents what he sees as the “thirteen foundational arguments that comprise our public life” (p. 4). His definition of an argument is “something besides shouting or name calling, … a clash between at least two people (or regions, political parties, candidates, or economic interests) over facts or ideas in the search for answers—in this case, answers to questions about the future and fate of America” (p. 4).

The gist of Fineman’s book is that the United States is “the Arguing country, born in, and born to, debate”, and that “the habit of doing so” makes the United States “unique” and gives it its “freedom, creativity, and strength.” Contrary to the conventional wisdom that we argue too much, Fineman contends that “we in fact do not argue enough, about the fundamentals. If we fail to draw strength from our argumentative nature, we risk losing what made us great and gives us hope. Our disputes are not a burden, but a blessing” (p. 4).

By Howard Fineman’s count, there are thirteen American arguments:

  1. Who Is a Person?
  2. Who Is an American?
  3. The Role of Faith
  4. What Can We Know and Say?
  5. The Limits of Individualism
  6. Who Judges the Law?
  7. Debt and the Dollar
  8. Local v. National Authority
  9. Presidential Power
  10. The Terms of Trade
  11. War and Diplomacy
  12. The Environment
  13. A Fair, “More Perfect” Union

To be honest, it’s tempting to dwell on the inadequacies of Fineman’s categorization of American political debate. It’s always easier to critique than to create. However, while a critical approach would be in line with Fineman’s emphasis on the importance of argument, it wouldn’t necessarily be productive.

Importantly, The Thirteen American Arguments must be read for what it is: A well-written and interesting journalistic account of American political debate in a historical perspective. Fineman is, as he writes, “neither a scholar nor a historian” (p. 4), but a reporter. The book does not hold scholarly ambitions, and it describes historical events in broad strokes. Fineman writes that “genralizations are imperfect,” but that “they can be useful in sorting out the tribes and nations of the planet.” (p. 4). Although the political scientist in me would like to review Fineman’s thirteen American arguments on its merit as a potential analytical framework of American political debate, I’ve decided to embrace his generalizations instead.

In the concluding chapter, Fineman writes:

It is up to each of us to decide which parts of our heritage—which sides of which arguments—are the ‘right’ ones to meet the moment. If this book in any way enhances that process, then my two aims—to define and inspire—become one. So let the American Arguments begin—again.

It’s beautiful in theory. But it would seem as if shouting and name calling is the name of the political game these days. Sadly, encouraging Americans to dive into the quintessential American arguments is almost an academic exercise when no one seems to adhere to the most basic rules of argument. You need to see in order to draw and paint, and a constructive argument depends on the ability to listen. Let other people’s perspectives and insights color your own reasoning. Fineman colored mine.

Memorable quotations:

On Reverend Jesse Jackson Jr.:

Like any other successful and charismatic pol …, he was born without the gene that produces the emotion of embarrassment in the human soul (p. 36).

On former Virginia Senator George Allen’s “’macaca’ incident”:

Here is a rule in politics: If you are going to say something suicidally insulting, do not do it while looking at a video camera operated by the person you’re insulting, especially if that person works for the campaign of your opponent (p. 40).

Fineman, Howard (2008). The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates that Define and Inspire our Country. New York: Random House.

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Evoking ghosts from the past: Buchanan 1992 v. Gingrich 2010

May 21, 2010

It seems as if Newt Gingrich is borrowing a page from Pat Buchanan’s speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention.

In his upcoming book, To Save America: Stopping Obama’s Secular Socialist Machine, Gingrich writes;

The secular-socialist machine represents as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union once did.

In his 1992 convention speech, Buchanan stated the following:

There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.

Gingrich recently explained his views in an e-mail to Politico:

I have asserted that the secular socialist machine is a mortal threat to the future of America as we have known it just as totalitarian regimes were mortal threats to the survival of America in the past. … In our generation the two mortal threats are radical Islam and secular socialism.

Whereas Buchanan spoke of a “struggle for the soul of America” in which “Clinton & Clinton” were the evil doers, Gingrich’s foes are,  unoriginally, Obama, Reid and Pelosi.

Furthermore, whereas Buchanan’s key frame  was “cultural war”, Gingrich’s newest catch-phrase is “secular-socialism.”

The common denominator is the effort to use religion as a wedge issue.  Gingrich thus strives to create a political climate in which Democrats are framed as secular-minded socialists, while Republicans  are cast as valiantly defending America’s traditional family values. In other words, Gingrich isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel here.

Nonetheless, Gingrich clearly masters scare tactics 101: Evoke ghosts from the past by painting a scary picture of the future. Essentially, a volatile cocktail of Reductio ad Hitlerum and Reductio ad Stalinum.

In the long haul, Gingrich’s paranoid style is not bringing any new solutions to Washington. Instead, he is stoking fear by borrowing a page from Buchanan. Obviously, Buchanan was by no means an originator, and both  his and Gingrich’s tactics are part of the paranoid style in American politics so eloquently described by Richard Hofstadter.

Campaign Poetry: Lined up at the urinals

May 19, 2010

“The candidates lined up at the urinals, Giuliani next to McCain next to Huckabee, the rest all in a row. The debate was soon to start, so they were taking care of business – and laughing merrily at the one guy who wasn’t there. Poking fun at him, mocking him, agreeing how much they disliked him. Then Willard Mitt Romney walked into the bathroom and overheard them, bringing on a crashing silence.”

John Heilemann & Mark Halperin – Game Change. Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime (p. 293).

Campaign Poetry: I found my own voice

May 12, 2010

“Racing out of the hotel, they sped to Manchester for Hillary’s victory speech. ‘I came tonight with a very, very full heart,’ she began. ‘Over the last week I listened to you, and in the process, I found my own voice.’

When it was over, Hillary marched down a hallway backstage, with her husband and Chelsea at her side. She looked like a quarterback who’s just completed a last-second Hail Mary pass in overtime – pointing at her aides, high-fiving them, smiling from ear to ear. ‘This is amazing,’ one of them said. ‘I’m so proud of you! You did this! You did this!’

Hillary nodded and puffed out her chest.

‘I get really tough when people fuck with me,’ she said.”

John Heilemann & Mark Halperin – Game Change. Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime (p. 190).

Campaign Poetry: “Shining city on a hill”

May 7, 2010

“Nine days after the hostage crisis began, he [Reagan] announced his candidacy for the presidency. In a nationally broadcast event that was the most expensive presidential campaign announcement in history, Reagan declared:

… We who are privileged to be Americans have had a rendezvous with destiny since the moment in 1630 when John Winthrop, standing on the deck of the tiny Arbella off the coast of Massachusetts, told the little band of Pilgrims, ‘We shall be a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword throughout the world.’

A troubled and afflicted mankind looks to us, pleading for us to keep our rendezvous with destiny; that we will uphold the principles of self-reliance, self-discipline, morality, and – above all – responsible liberty for every individual [so] that we will become that shining city on a hill.

I believe that you and I together can keep this rendezvous with destiny.

Straight from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, Winthrop’s city-on-a-hill metaphor has wide resonance in the United States. To make sure of it, Reagan burnished the phrase with a special touch: as he told the Washington Post, Winthrop ”didn’t say ‘shining.’ I added that.'”

David Domke & Kevin Coe – The God Strategy. How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America (p. 50-51).

Campaign Poetry: Bush’s “Christ moment”

May 5, 2010

“For most of the mid-December evening in 1999, the Republican Party primary debate in Des Moines, Iowa, followed a predictable pattern. … As the debate neared its conclusion, one of the moderators, local newsman John Bachman, posed a question sent in from an Iowan watching the debate: ‘I’d like to run the table quickly with one individual question. What political philosopher or thinker, Mr. Forbes, do you most identify with and why?’ Forbes said John Locke, because ‘[e]ven though there are some flaws, I think he set the stage for what became a revolution.’ Keyes followed, and he opted for the nation’s founders, because they created ‘instruments of government that have preserved our liberty now for over 200 years.’ Bush was to answer next. He was known as a savvy politician – in Texas he had knocked off popular Democrat Ann Richards to become governor in 1994 and then coasted to reelection in 1998 – and he seized the moment.

With all eyes on him, Bush answered, ‘Christ, because he changed my heart.’ There was a pause; a beat or two passed in the room as the answer settled. Bush gave a quick, confident nod, indicating he was content to leave it at that. But Bachman followed up: ‘I think the viewer would like to know more on how he’s changed your heart.’ Bush smiled momentarily, then turned serious as he said, ‘Well, if they don’t know, it’s going to to be hard to explain. When you turn your heart and your life over to Christ’ – and here Bush had the perfect words to connect with religious conservatives – ‘when you accept Christ as the savior, it changes your heart. It changes your life. And that’s what happened to me.’ Bush’s response drew loud applause from the audience.”

David Domke & Kevin Coe – The God Strategy. How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America (p. 29-30).

Campaign Poetry: Cultivated Image

May 4, 2010

“How did they do it? Contrary to their own carefully cultivated image, the money did not grow at the grass roots. ‘It wasn’t the Internet,’ said Pritzker. ‘We tapped everybody and did every event we could. He’d do seven events in New York, back-to-back-to-back-to-back.’ Internet donations totaled less than 15 percent of Obama’s fund-raising through 2007. Money only started to cascade through the Web after Iowa in early January 2008, and it would take another several months, as the primaries dragged on, for the grass roots to represent half the campaign’s fund-raising.”

Richard Wolffe – Renegade. The Making of Barack Obama (p. 74).


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