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Posts Tagged ‘political science

“Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom”*…

Lynn Hunt on Alexis de Tocqueville, who left France to study the American prison system and returned with the material that would become Democracy in America

Alexis de Tocqueville was a study in contradictions: a French aristocrat of proud heritage who trumpeted the inevitable, salutary rise of democracy, using the United States as his exemplar; a cosmopolitan with an English wife and many friends in the Anglo-American world who brandished a fervent French nationalism; an antislavery advocate who felt no discomfort in supporting the French colonization of Algeria and hired as his main assistant Arthur de Gobineau, who later published one of the founding texts of white supremacy; and finally a man of delicate constitution who undertook an arduous trip on horseback into the wilderness of northern Michigan in order to see Native Americans and new settler communities for himself. Such inconsistencies make for a fascinating story, and in The Man Who Understood Democracy, Olivier Zunz, a French-educated historian who has taught US history for decades at the University of Virginia, shows that he is ideally suited to tell it.

Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840, became an instant classic and has remained one to this day. On its hundredth anniversary in 1935, the French government presented a bust of the author to Franklin D. Roosevelt, and an article at the time referred to the book as “perhaps the greatest, most lucid, and most impartial commentary that free institutions in general, and American self-government in particular, had ever received.” Democracy in America served as a kind of textbook for US students for many generations, but it is now more often cited than read. That dutiful disregard may be the fate of all such masterworks, especially one that runs about eight hundred pages, but Zunz has succeeded in restoring its appeal, first by vividly retracing its origins and then by skillfully evoking the enduring excitement and relevance of its analysis…

Alexis de Tocqueville, the Frenchman who unpacked the tension between freedom and equality in the United States: “‘A Great Democratic Revolution’.”

* Alexis de Tocqueville– who went on to observe that “Americans are so enamored of equality, they would rather be equal in slavery than unequal in freedom.”


As we dedicate ourselves to democracy, we might note that today is Fibonacci Day, as today’s date is often rendered 11/23, and the Fibonacci sequence (also here and here) begins 1, 1, 2, 3…

Five Ways to Celebrate Fibonacci Day.


“A republic, if you can keep it”*…

Democracy’s meaning has always been contested. The problem with substantive definitions of democracy, Michael Ignatieff argues, is that there’s no agreement on what democracy is nor what it should be. Democracy itself is not just an unruly contest for power, but also the site of an ongoing debate about what democracy is or should be. Yet letting that struggle become a battle between existential foes risks upending the whole democratic project…

The problem with substantive definitions is that democrats with plenty of substantive commitment to democracy do not agree what it is or what it should be. When conservatives talk about democracy, they often express the desire to use democratic institutions to contain and control change. When liberals and progressives talk about democracy, they turn it into a vessel of aspiration into which they pour longings for civility, community, and justice.

What gets missed, in either side’s definitions, is that actual democratic politics is a fierce, no-holds-barred competition for power. Those who think of democracy as a way of life risk framing partisanship as an abnormal rupture in democratic practice, when in fact partisanship is the driver of all democratic competition. When we theorize civility as the norm and competitive partisanship as a threatening exception, liberals and conservatives alike risk being hypocrites about their own partisanship or being helplessly nostalgic, bemoaning the breakdown of a comity that may have been a fantasy in the first place. It is thus a mistake, with large practical consequences, to confuse what we wish democracy could be with what it actually is.

This elision between what democracy is and what we wish it to be occurs, in part, because the democratic theory we teach, and the civics lessons we imbibe in school, lift democracy into an abstract realm of ideal types and pious ideals that is indifferent to historical context. There is no such thing as democracy in a pure state. All actual democracies bear the contours of the historic struggles that gave them shape. While there is a family resemblance in democracy’s basic form—majority rule as the source of legitimate authority—this feature is enacted in and through institutions specific to the societies that created them. Democracy displays crucial historical variations over time and from one society to another.

One salient feature that makes democracies differ from one another is the way each democracy has been shaped by its encounter with violence. Some democracies were born in the violence of revolution. Others that have replaced authoritarian or colonial rule with free elections have struggled to contain the violence unleashed once democracy was achieved. Encounters with violence are recurrent even in successful democracies. Violence cannot be understood as an exceptional irruption overturning democracy’s natural resting state. Many a democracy owes its birth to violence, and violent challenges to democratic order continue to defend themselves as necessary last resorts to save democracy itself.

The modern version of democracy created by the American and French revolutions began its life… with the task of converting violence into politics. In our own time, national-liberation struggles in Africa and Asia have faced the same challenge. This has remained democracy’s core purpose ever since. When democracy achieves this, it realizes what defines it as a form of government. The prohibition of violence—whether as an instrument of politics or as an instrument of rule over citizens—and the related commitment that all coercive measures must be justified to citizens and receive their consent, are the core principles that separate democracy from all forms of authoritarian rule…

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, European liberals, faced with working-class and feminist demands for the right to vote, reluctantly agreed that inclusion was the best way to maintain democratic order in the face of revolutionary challenge. These classic liberals accepted as a basic premise that societies are not natural equilibria, but sites of constant social, cultural, and economic struggle, with a potential to boil over into violence. Democracy’s function was to keep conflict political and to prevent the war of all against all.

Today, in democracies that are more diverse and pluralistic than anything nineteenth-century liberals could have imagined, the priority they placed on democracy’s role in preventing political conflict spilling over into violence is more relevant than ever. In this perspective, democracy’s ultimate purpose is peace rather than justice, or rather, sufficient justice to secure peace, defined as a minimal, constantly tested and renegotiated willingness by competing groups, factions, and parties, to obey the rules of the democratic game. When competitors accept democratic outcomes as legitimate, they accept closure, at least until the next contest starts. If they win, they do not seek to crush their opponents. If they lose, they do not seek to take revenge or seize power. Legitimacy is thus contingent and performative and always conditional on the willingness of political competitors to abide by the same rules.

The saving grace of democracy is the possibility that losers get to become winners. Whenever a group, faction, or party believes that victory was stolen from them or that they are fated to be permanent losers, violence becomes a possibility in the democratic game. Successfully managing peaceful democratic transitions between competing elites is the sine qua non of democratic legitimacy.

Democratic assemblies and elections have regulatory codes that restrain extremist speech, but such codes will always be vulnerable to being gamed and manipulated by scheming opportunists. Democratic systems are built to moderate political competition, but moderation sometimes surrenders to hatred. As Tocqueville warned us more than a century and a half ago, more social justice need not make us more civil.

Neither is it the case that virtue and courage can always hold the line when institutions fail. Men and women of both parties did their duty during the insurrection at the Capitol, while others betrayed their oath of office. The result, as the Duke of Wellington famously said about the Battle of Waterloo, was the “nearest run thing you ever saw.” The most effective measures taken since the insurrection have been the holding of Congressional hearings to establish exactly what happened, so there is a true record for the future, and also the prosecution of leaders. This should discourage others from a similar course.

Even so, it is America’s very revolutionary traditions that will continue to provide justifications for the use of violence in the defense of liberty. These traditions, whether we like it or not, will continue to give desperate and misguided citizens the belief that they must take the law into their own hands.

Democracy is fragile, because it is a sacred thing vital to our liberty, easily lost, easily damaged, and like all such sacred things dependent for its survival on prosaic, daily acts of faith and sacrifice that are made in its defense.

In the end, there are simply no guarantees of democratic order. There is only the inherited belief—transmitted across generations among citizens and politicians alike, reproduced election after election, vote after vote, year after year, in speeches, classrooms, media outlets, civics courses, and all the various fora that a free society uses to figure out what it is doing—that violence can kill democracy and that violence endangers everyone, especially those who would use it to defend democracy itself…

“The establishment of our new Government seemed to be the last great experiment, for promoting human happiness, by reasonable compact, in civil Society” – George Washington, in a 1790 letter to Catherine Sawbridge Macauley.

Eminently worth reading in full: “The Politics of Enemies,” from @M_Ignatieff in @JoDemocracy.

See also: “America Can Have Democracy or Political Violence. Not Both” (gift article from the New York Times— no pay wall).

* Benjamin Franklin, in response to a question from Elizabeth Willing Powel as he walked out of Independence Hall after the Constitutional Convention in 1787


As we cope with conflict, we might recall that on this day in 2000, the U.S. presidential election ended in a statistical tie between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush, only to be settled on December 12 by the U.S. Supreme Court after a bitter legal dispute.

As the Supreme Court debated, protesters gathered.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 7, 2022 at 1:00 am

“A house divided against itself cannot stand”*…

It’s painfully obvious that America is a divided nation. The reasons are many, and have deep roots. Alan Jacobs contemplates three of the most fundamental…

The American Civil War was not that long ago. The last surviving Civil War veteran died two years before my birth. A conflict of that size and scope and horror leaves marks — marks on the land and marks on the national psyche — not readily erased.

I have come to believe that certain habits of mind arising directly from the Civil War still dominate the American consciousness today. I say not specific beliefs but rather intellectual dispositions; and those dispositions account for the form that many of our conflicts take today. Three such habits are especially important.

1. Among Southerners – and I am one – the primary habit is a reliance on consoling lies. In the aftermath of the Civil War Southerners told themselves that the Old South was a culture of nobility and dignity; that slaves were largely content with their lot and better off enslaved than free; that the war was not fought for slavery but in the cause of state’s rights; that Robert E. Lee was a noble and gentle man who disliked slavery; and so on. Such statements were repeated for generations by people who knew that they were evasive at best – the state’s right that the Confederacy was created to defend was the right to own human beings as chattel – and often simply false, and if the people making those statements didn’t consciously understand the falsehood, they kept such knowledge at bay through the ceaseless repetition of their mantras. (Ty Seidule’s book Robert E. Lee and Me is an illuminating account, from the inside, of how such deceptions and self-deceptions work.) And now we see precisely the same practice among the most vociferous supporters of Donald Trump: a determined repetition of assertions – especially that the 2020 Presidential election was stolen, but also concerning COVID–19 and many other matters – that wouldn’t stand up even to casual scrutiny, and therefore don’t receive that scrutiny. It’s easy to fall into a new set of lies when you have a history of embracing a previous set of lies. 

2. Among Northerners, the corresponding habit is a confidence in one’s own moral superiority. Because the North was right and the South wrong about the institution of slavery, it was easy for the North then to dismiss any evidence of its own complicity in racism. Our cause is righteous – that is all we know on earth, and all we need know. (But if our cause is righteous, doesn’t that suggest that we are too?) And then, later, whenever there were political conflicts in which the majority of Northerners were on one side and the majority of Southerners on the other – about taxation, or religious liberty, or anything – the temptation was irresistible to explain the disagreement always by the same cause: the moral rectitude of the one side, the moral corruption of the other. The result (visible on almost every page of the New York Times, for instance) is a pervasive smugness that enrages many observers while remaining completely invisible to those who have fallen into it. 

3. And among Black Americans, the relevant disposition is a settled suspicion of any declarations of achieved freedom. Emancipation, it turns out, is not achieved by proclamation; nor is it achieved by the purely legal elimination of slavery. Abolition did not end discrimination or violence; indeed, it ushered in a new era of danger for many (the era of lynching) and a new legal system (Jim Crow) that scarcely altered the economic conditions of the recently enslaved. After this happens two or three times you learn to be skeptical, and you teach your children to be skeptical. Brown v. Board of Education produces equal educational opportunity for blacks and whites? We have our doubts. The Civil Rights Act outlaws racial discrimination? We’ll see about that. I wonder how many times Black Americans have heard that racism is over. They don’t, as far as I can tell anyway, believe that things haven’t gotten better; but they believe that improvement has been slow and uneven, and that many injustices that Americans think have died are in fact alive and often enough thriving.   

I think these three persistent habits of mind explain many of the conflicts that beset Americans today. And if I were to rank them in order of justifiability, I would say: the first is tragically unjustifiable — and the chief reason why, to my lasting grief, we Southerners have so often allowed our vices to displace our virtues —; the second is understandable but dangerously misleading; and the third … well, the third is pretty damn hard to disagree with.  

As the man [William Faulkner] said: The past is not dead; it is not even past. 

From Jabob’s always-illuminating blog, Snakes and Ladders, “habits of the American mind.” You can follow him at @ayjay.

[Image above: source]

* Abraham Lincoln (in his speech to the Illinois Republican State Convention, Springfield, Illinois June 16, 1858)


As we dwell on division, we might recall that it was on this date in 1787 that an organic act of the Congress of the Confederation of the United States, the Northwest Ordinance. It created the Northwest Territory, the new nation’s first organized incorporated territory, from lands beyond the Appalachian Mountains, between British North America and the Great Lakes to the north and the Ohio River to the south. The upper Mississippi River formed the territory’s western boundary; Pennsylvania was the eastern boundary.

Considered one of the most important legislative acts of the Confederation Congress, it established the precedent by which the federal government would be sovereign and expand westward with the admission of new states, rather than with the expansion of existing states and their established sovereignty under the Articles of Confederation. It also protected civil liberties and outlawed slavery in the new territories and set legislative precedent with regard to American public domain lands.

The prohibition of slavery in the territory had the practical effect of establishing the Ohio River as the geographic divide between slave states and free states from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River, an extension of the Mason–Dixon line, helping set the stage for later federal political conflicts over slavery during the 19th century until the Civil War.


“Speed and acceleration are merely the dream of making time reversible”*…

In the early 20th century, there was Futurism…

The Italian Futurists, from the first half of the twentieth century… wanted to drive modernisation in turn-of-the-century Italy at a much faster pace. They saw the potential in machines, and technology, to transform the country, to demand progress. It was not however merely an incrementalist approach they were after: words like annihilation, destruction and apocalypse appear in the writings of the futurists, including the author of The Futurist Manifesto, Filippo Tomasso Marinetti. ‘We want to glorify war – the only cure for the world…’ Marinetti proclaimed – this was not for the faint hearted! That same Marinetti was the founder of the Partito Politico Futuristo in 1918, which became part of Mussolini’s Fascist party in 1919. Things did not go well after that.

Beautiful Ideas Which Kill: Accelerationism, Futurism and Bewilderment

And now, in the early 21st century, there is Accelerationism…

These [politically-motivated mass] killings were often linked to the alt-right, described as an outgrowth of the movement’s rise in the Trump era. But many of these suspected killers, from Atomwaffen thugs to the New Zealand mosque shooter to the Poway synagogue attacker, are more tightly connected to a newer and more radical white supremacist ideology, one that dismisses the alt-right as cowards unwilling to take matters into their own hands.

It’s called “accelerationism,” and it rests on the idea that Western governments are irreparably corrupt. As a result, the best thing white supremacists can do is accelerate their demise by sowing chaos and creating political tension. Accelerationist ideas have been cited in mass shooters’ manifestos — explicitly, in the case of the New Zealand killer — and are frequently referenced in white supremacist web forums and chat rooms.

Accelerationists reject any effort to seize political power through the ballot box, dismissing the alt-right’s attempts to engage in mass politics as pointless. If one votes, one should vote for the most extreme candidate, left or right, to intensify points of political and social conflict within Western societies. Their preferred tactic for heightening these contradictions, however, is not voting, but violence — attacking racial minorities and Jews as a way of bringing us closer to a race war, and using firearms to spark divisive fights over gun control. The ultimate goal is to collapse the government itself; they hope for a white-dominated future after that…

Accelerationism: the obscure idea inspiring white supremacist killers around the world” (and source of the image above)

See also: “A Year After January 6, Is Accelerationism the New Terrorist Threat?

For a look at the “intellectual” roots of accelerationism, see “Accelerationism: how a fringe philosophy predicted the future we live in.”

For a powerful articulation of the dangers of Futurism (and even more, Acclerationism), see “The Perils of Smashing the Past.”

And for a reminder of the not-so-obvious ways that movements like these live on, see “The Intentionally Scandalous 1932 Cookbook That Stands the Test of Time,” on The Futurist Cookbook, by Futurist Manifesto author Filippo Tommaso Marinetti… which foreshadowed the “food as fuel” culinary movements that we see today.

* Jean Baudrillard


As we slow down, we might send a “Alles Gute zum Geburtstag” to the polymathic Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the philosopher, mathematician, and political adviser, who was important both as a metaphysician and as a logician, but who is probably best remembered for his independent invention of the calculus; he was born on this date in 1646.  Leibniz discovered and developed differential and integral calculus on his own, which he published in 1684; but he became involved in a bitter priority dispute with Isaac Newton, whose ideas on the calculus were developed earlier (1665), but published later (1687).

As it happens, Leibnitz was a wry and incisive political and cultural observer.  Consider, e.g…

If geometry conflicted with our passions and our present concerns as much as morality does, we would dispute it and transgress it almost as much–in spite of all Euclid’s and Archimedes’ demonstrations, which would be treated as fantasies and deemed to be full of fallacies. [Leibniz, New Essays, p. 95]



“Almost everybody today believes that nothing in economic history has ever moved as fast as, or had a greater impact than, the Information Revolution. But the Industrial Revolution moved at least as fast in the same time span, and had probably an equal impact if not a greater one.”*…

Actors pretend to be in the Industrial Revolution as part of the opening ceremony for the London Olympics in 2012

Dylan Matthews talks with Jared Rubin and Mark Koyama, the authors of an ambitious new economic history…

You can crudely tell the story of our species in three stages. In the first, which lasted for the vast majority of our time on Earth, from the emergence of Homo sapiens over 300,000 years ago to about 12,000 years ago, humans lived largely nomadic lifestyles, subsisting through hunting and foraging for food. In the second, lasting from about 10,000 BC to around 1750 AD, humans adopted agriculture, allowing for a more secure supply of food and leading to the establishment of towns, cities, even empires.

The third period, in which we all live, is characterized by an unprecedented phenomenon: sustained economic growth. Quality of life went from improving very gradually if at all for the vast majority of human history to improving very, very quickly. In the United Kingdom, whose Industrial Revolution kicked off this transformation, GDP per capita grew about 40 percent between 1700 and 1800. It more than doubled between 1800 and 1900. And between 1900 and 2000, it grew more than fourfold.

What today we’d characterize as extreme poverty was until a few centuries ago the condition of almost every human on Earth. In 1820, some 94 percent of humans lived on less than $2 a day. Over the next two centuries, extreme poverty fell dramatically; in 2018, the World Bank estimated that 8.6 percent of people lived on less than $1.90 a day. And the gains were not solely economic. Before 1800, average lifespans didn’t exceed 40 years anywhere in the world. Today, the average human life expectancy is more like 73. Deaths in childhood have plunged, and adult heights have surged as malnutrition decreased.

The big question is what drove this transformation. Historians, economists, and anthropologists have proposed a long list of explanations for why human life suddenly changed starting in 18th-century England, from geographic effects to forms of government to intellectual property rules to fluctuations in average wages.

For a long time, there was no one book that could explain, compare, and evaluate these theories for non-experts. That’s changed: How the World Became Rich, by Chapman University’s Jared Rubin and George Mason University’s Mark Koyama, provides a comprehensive look at what, exactly, changed when sustained economic growth began, what factors help explain its beginning, and which theories do the best job of making sense of the new stage of life that humans have been experiencing for a couple brief centuries…

Two economic historians explain what made the Industrial Revolution, and modern life, possible: “About 200 years ago, the world started getting rich. Why?,” from @dylanmatt @jaredcrubin @MarkKoyama in @voxdotcom.

* Peter Drucker


As we contemplate change and its causes, we might spare a thought for Charles Francis Jenkins; he died on this date in 1934. An engineer and inventor, he is rightly remembered for his contributions to film and television: he invented a film projector and sold the rights to Thomas Edison, who marketed it as the Vitascope, the projector that Edison used in paid, public screenings in vaudeville theaters; and he opened the first television broadcasting station in the U.S. (W3XK in Washington, D.C.).

But Jenkins also pioneered in other areas. He was the first to move an automobile engine from under the seat to the front of the car; he invented the automotive self starter (replacing the crank) and an improved altimeter for aviation; and he created the cone-shaped drinking cup.


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