The Great Debate

How would Tocqueville see this election?

This essay is adapted from On Politics: A History of Political Thought from Herodotus to the Present, published this month by Liveright.

Alexis de Tocqueville never witnessed an American election. He arrived in May 1831, too late for the election of Andrew Jackson to his first term as president, and left the following spring, too early for the congressional elections of 1832 and Jackson’s re-election. Still, it is impossible not to wonder what America’s most distinguished foreign observer might have made of this year’s presidential campaign – indeed, what he might have made of the entire campaigning season. Some things we can guess would have pleased him and astonished him in about equal measure.

Although he said, unconventionally at the time, that Catholicism was the most suitable religion for a democratic society, he would surely have been surprised to see a Supreme Court with not a single Protestant member, and Catholics in a 7-to-2 majority. The fact of a black president running for re-election would have astonished him even more. Such a thing would have seemed almost incomprehensible to the author of the heartrending chapter on “The Futurity of the Three Races” in the first volume of his masterpiece Democracy in America. Tocqueville saw no future for native Americans, and no solution to the problem of Negro slavery. When he died in 1859, he was full of foreboding about the future of a country visibly hastening to civil war. He was bitterly opposed to slavery in all its manifestations, but like many critics of slavery, from Jefferson to Lincoln, he thought emancipation would leave its beneficiaries unemployable and socially isolated.

Guessing which way Tocqueville might have voted is another matter entirely. Although Tocqueville praised American democracy and was one of many European observers who saw America as an essentially middle-class society, he was an aristocrat who found the need to court the favor of middle-class voters and politicians almost physically unbearable. He was also a deficit hawk, and deeply opposed to even the most tentative government measures to protect the working class against the miseries of unemployment, poverty and hunger. He learned his economics from Nassau Senior, one of the most rigid and unbending of the Manchester School of economists. When Parisian workers rose in revolt in June 1848, Tocqueville was among those who helped to put them down by brute force. It is as impossible to imagine him being moved by President Obama’s appeal to the voters to protect the social safety net as it is to imagine him wanting to discuss social policy with Todd Akin or Michele Bachmann.

And yet, it is impossible not to wonder what he might have made of us in this extraordinary year, if only because Tocqueville’s ideas have been so exploited by left and right. Modern conservatives praise his strictures on big government and his enthusiasm for decentralization, many American liberals praise his concern with association and community and everyone praises his devotion to political liberty. American politicians bask in his endorsement of their political system and overlook his contempt for the “coarse appearance” of the members of the House of Representatives. It was the Senate that touched his aristocratic heart. The official reason for his visit to the United States was to study the prison system; only devotees of a policy of “lock them up and throw away the key” much enjoy Tocqueville’s enthusiasm for the savage discipline of the prisons he visited; Charles Dickens saw that solitary confinement and a regime of silence drove prisoners mad. Tocqueville did not.

Why Election Day no longer matters

There is no Election Day in America anymore.

By failing to understand this fact, much of today’s political chatter is based on an obsolete view of the presidential race.

Until recently, of course, elections did occur on a single day. Nine out of 10 people cast their votes on the first Tuesday in November 2000. Now, one out of three Americans vote early, with even higher turnout in the decisive swing states. In 2008, a majority of citizens voted early in 10 states. Those trends continue today.

This is a fairly sudden and radical shift in how we pick our president.

Early voting shortens the race, locking in voter preferences long before big events, like the debates, are even finished. It also reduces the effects of late-breaking developments, from last-ditch October Surprises to unpredictable incidents, such as the video that Osama bin Laden released days before the 2004 election.

Debate jibes ignore Chinese counterfeiting’s long history

Some of the most acrimonious moments of Monday’s presidential debate occurred during the candidates’ discussions of China, with Barack Obama attacking Mitt Romney for his investments in Chinese companies, and Romney demanding that we adopt a tougher line on the Chinese counterfeiting of American products. Romney was particularly shocked to discover that counterfeit valves –bearing fake serial numbers – were “being sold into our market and around the world” as though they’d been made by the U.S. competitor. “This can’t go on,” he insisted, as if this were a fraud being perpetrated for the first time during Obama’s presidency. While Romney’s outrage may make for good politics, history shows that Chinese counterfeiting is almost as old as America itself.

The first American ship to travel to China was the Empress of China, which sailed from New York to Canton (modern-day Guangzhou) in 1784, returning to New York in May 1785 with a cargo of tea, cotton fabric and porcelain. It earned its backers $30,000, a 25 percent return on their investment.

As word of the Empress of China’s successful trip spread, a growing number of American merchants headed out to get their piece of the proverbial China pie. Between 1784, when the Empress of China blazed the trail, and the end of the War of 1812, almost 300 American ships made 618 voyages to Canton.

May the odds be ever in your favor

Editor’s note: This piece was originally written for Tomorrow Magazine, whose first issue comes out this month. The article is being republished with permission.

On May 20, 2011, John Delaney awoke 550 meters from the summit of Mount Everest. Delaney, who founded Intrade, a website for those who love to predict the future, had been trying to get to the top of the world for years. His company invited users to bet on the news: Customers would calculate probabilities, assess risk, make a wager. On Everest, Delaney was doing much the same.

This close to the summit, he was on an area of the mountain known as the death zone, where the atmosphere is about three times thinner than at sea level. Cerebral and pulmonary edemas—the leaking of fluid to the brain and heart—are increasingly likely at that altitude. Still, between 1921 and 2006, just 94 people died at this stage of the climb—above 8,000 meters, but before the summit. Altogether, Everest claimed 192 climbers’ lives in that 86-year span, 1.3 percent of those who attempted a climb. The odds that Delaney would succumb to the mountain were low.

‘Energy independence’ is a farce

It can be hard to find areas of agreement between the presidential candidates on economic or domestic policy. Tuesday night’s debate, though, revealed one exception: energy policy. Alas, what it also revealed is that both President Obama and Governor Romney are making their policies based on a false premise, and they are pandering to Americans’ ignorance instead of telling them the truth.

The second question in the debate at Hofstra University came from audience member Phillip Tricolla, and was directed to Obama: “Your energy secretary, Steven Chu, has now been on record three times stating it’s not policy of his department to help lower gas prices. Do you agree with Secretary Chu that this is not the job of the Energy Department?” The premise that the Energy Department can lower gas prices is incorrect. But Obama chose not to confront Tricolla with the hard truth — that global economic forces have put gasoline prices on a long-term upwards trajectory, and that trajectory is beyond our government’s control.

“The most important thing we can do is to make sure we control our own energy,” said Obama, neglecting to answer the actual question. He went on to boast that domestic production of oil, coal, natural gas and clean energy has increased, while he has also raised fuel efficiency standards. “And all these things have contributed to us lowering our oil imports to the lowest levels in 16 years,” said Obama. “Now, I want to build on that. And that means, yes, we still continue to open up new areas for drilling.”

So what is Romney’s foreign policy?

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney gave his “Mantle of Leadership” speech Monday – his third major attempt in a year to outline his views on foreign policy.

In a speech filled with rhetoric rather than substance, and with repeated and false accusations about President Barack Obama’s national security record, Romney once again talked about how he would “strengthen our partnerships” – and once again failed to explain how he would manage relations with our friends in Europe, with whom we work closely on every major global challenge.

One central thesis in Romney’s speech, and in his criticism of the administration overall, has been that under Obama the U.S. has abandoned its allies. In addition to providing no evidence to support this claim, Romney barely mentioned the closest U.S. allies: our North Atlantic Treaty Organization partners. In fact, this neglect has been a consistent theme throughout Romney’s campaign.

First Gilded Age yielded to Progessives, can today’s?


C.K.G. Billings, a Gilded Age plutocrat, rented the grand ballroom of the celebrated restaurant Sherry's for an elaborate dinner on March 28, 1903. He had the floor covered with turf so that he and his 36 guests could sit on their horses, which had been taken up to the fourth-floor ballroom by elevator.

Mark Twain labeled the late 19th century the Gilded Age – its glittering surface masking the rot within. This term applies today for the same reasons: The rich get richer; most everyone else gets poorer. And the public thinks corruption rules.

New technologies similarly transformed the economy in that era and boosted productivity even as life for many Americans grew worse. Bloated tycoons? Desperate workers? A threatened middle class? Poverty amid the sweeping progress? Check, check, check and check.

But the silver lining of our current Gilded Age redux is that we left this stunning income inequality behind once. We can do it again. Americans eventually escaped the Gilded Age because they also made it a period of reform that ushered in the Progressive Era.

Can Romney put foreign policy in play?

This piece was updated after GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s major foreign policy address on Monday. It reflects Romney’s remarks.

In the first foreign policy speech following his momentum-gaining debate against President Barack Obama, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney expanded on his vision of an “American century,” a view he tied to the legacy of leaders like General George Marshall as he outlined a muscular, moral U.S. foreign policy with American exceptionalism at its core.

Romney aimed to distinguish his world view from the president’s, as he has in far-lower-profile foreign policy speeches, promising to “change course” in the Middle East by helping to provide arms to Syrian rebels and talking and acting even tougher on Iran.

The GOP and voter anger

President Barack Obama’s lackluster, let’s-work-together performance in Wednesday night’s presidential debate stoked the fears of his liberal backers that Democrats simply won’t fight for them the way Republicans relentlessly battle for their wealthier, aging, corporate constituents.

After four years of Republican intransigence – even when Democrats have championed Republican ideas – the Democratic left insists that the White House hasn’t grasped that the 2012 campaign is not about policy. So far, Republicans are proving more adept at speaking, in both coded and direct terms, to Americans’ stark demographic and psychological divisions.

That Republican nominee Mitt Romney stood before the nation and all but disowned the tax-cut, Medicare, health policy and other GOP doctrines he had campaigned on for months is likely to matter little to his backers. The last three Republican presidents, as MSNBC commentator Chris Hayes pointed out, also campaigned on promises of economic growth, deficit reduction and tax relief – and all left behind a faltering economy and ballooned deficits. What they reliably delivered was tax cuts benefiting the wealthy.

Romney somersaults on to the middle ground

Do you recall just seven months ago when Romney campaign aide Eric Fehrnstrom let slip that having won the Republican primaries, his candidate would “shake it up and restart it all over again” as if wiping clean an Etch-a-Sketch screen? Romney did just that last night. From a standing start Romney executed a perfect backward somersault, landing with both feet slap-bang in front of a bemused president, who appeared quite taken aback that his rival should plant his feet firmly in the middle ground where elections are won and lost.

Take Romney’s view of regulating the market. In his personal manifesto No Apology, Romney trod a careful path, suggesting that, like his primary opponents who unwaveringly support the untrammeled free market, he was wary of overregulating business. “Excessive regulation slows the creation of new businesses and the expansion of existing businesses,” he wrote. On his website, he promises to “act swiftly to tear down the vast edifice of regulations the Obama administration has imposed on the economy.”

But in Denver last night, Romney changed his tune, suggesting that he had always been in favor of regulation, whatever impression he may have given in the past. “Regulation is essential,” he declared. “You can’t have a free market work if you don’t have regulation … Every free economy has good regulation.”