Sunday, June 15, 2008

New books on Eugene Debs and the American Voter

Mary L. Dudziak

On weekends, the Legal History Blog has a round-up of the week's book reviews from major papers of interest to the field. When new books are of interest to a broader law audience, I'll cross-post here. Today's post picks up reviews of a new book on Eugene Debs and History News Network's Rick Shenkman's unflattering take on the American voter.

Democracy's Prisoner: Eugene V. Debs, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent, by Ernest Freeberg (Harvard University Press) is reviewed today by Peter Richardson for the Los Angeles Times. Richardson writes, "According to historian Ernest Freeberg, it was precisely Debs' virtuosity that forced America to grapple with the limits of dissent." Debs' 10-year sentence for an Espionage Act conviction based on Debs' antiwar activism

raised 1st Amendment issues with unprecedented force. Sixty-three years old and in poor health, Debs faced the prospect of dying in prison. His drama played out against a backdrop of revolutionary violence both here and abroad: While he was serving his sentence, a bomb planted by anarchists ripped through a busy Wall Street intersection, killing more than 30 people and injuring 200.

Freeberg shows that in the end it was Debs' popularity, not a knockdown legal argument, that compelled politicians, the mainstream media and eventually federal judges to reconsider the government's power to jail dissidents. The legal justifications came later, after Debs walked out of an Atlanta prison and caught a train to meet his unlikely Republican pardoner, President Warren G. Harding.

Richardson concludes:

If history is what the present wants to know about the past, "Democracy's Prisoner" is teeming with lessons. But above all, it's the story of one extraordinary man's showdown with the establishment -- and how that confrontation turned into a complex political struggle whose outcome was up for grabs. Carefully researched and expertly told, Debs' story also brings a fascinating era into sharp, vivid focus.
Continue reading here.

Just How Stupid Are We?: Facing the Truth About the American Voter by Rick Shenkman, founder of History News Network, is reviewed by Louis Bayard at Salon. "At a time when Obama and Clinton and McCain have been hustling around the country trying to feel the common man's pain, it's oddly bracing to hear someone argue that the common man is a pain," Bayard writes.

"No one thing can explain the foolishness that marks so much of American politics," writes Shenkman...."But what is striking is how often the most obvious cause -- public ignorance -- is blithely disregarded ... We feel uncomfortable coming right out and saying publicly, The People sometimes seem awfully stupid."

For starters, they know nothing about government or current events. They can't follow arguments of any complexity. They stuff themselves with slogans and advertisements. They eschew fact for myth. They operate from biases and stereotypes, and they privilege feeling over thinking.

"Our confidence in democracy rests on a myth," writes Shenkman. But his argument is "no different from what Alexander Hamilton was arguing more than 200 years ago," Bayard writes. "Indeed, as Shenkman usefully reminds us, our constitutional history betrays from the very start 'a constant tension between faith in The People and contempt for them.'" Shenkman's solutions would be "alarming if it weren't so hopelessly, even endearingly, unrealistic."

The rest is here.

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I am glad to see a new book on Debs appear from an academic press.

I found Margaret Young's earlier Harpsong for a Radical useful but stylistically alien to my preferred way of absorbing information...

Shenkman is getting ahead of the curve. Usually, liberals only call the voters "stupid" after they have elected another "stupid" conservative Republican for President.

In reality, Americans have never been very interested in politics because in our free society government has comparatively little say over how we live our everyday lives. For you liberals, this is the grain of truth in your theory of "stupid" working class voters casting ballots against their "class interests" of having the government provide for them.

Affirmatively, voters use parties as a rough proxy for the positions of the candidates. This is why you do not see much variation in actual partisan voting patterns even though the actual positions of the candidates can vary. This applies to the so called independents as well. They tend to vote for the same parties over time, even if they do not want to be thought as aligning with them.

Voters are also reactionary. While they do not often even know what they want government to be doing because it will not have much effect on them, voters know what they do not want government doing and will vote in reaction to unpopular acts. The "run the bums out of town" mentality is strong in America.

Often, this reactionary streak kicks in prior to an election when voters discover things they do not like about a candidate. (See Kerry's Winter Soldier Testimony and Obama's spiritual mentors).

Shoo, fly.

On-topic, Debs was awfully eloquent. I am not sure I agree with the hypothesis here, but it is believable.

There is hardly any tension between contempt for "the People" and faith in this body. Contempt has won out for most of history and continues to do so.

Far from being stupid the American public is pretty rational and overall has pretty reasonable opinions and ideas about how the country should be run. This is well-known, at least in the sense of being carefully studied---and certainly in the case of the scholarly work looking at Am. public opinion, it has hardly been refuted. (On the other hand, work claiming that the public does not have opinions, or is "stupid" is some sense, has been refuted.)

The American public has consistent opinions about what the government should do. In many of the most contentious issues of today, people (when asked), provide consistent and rational answers.

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