Thursday, April 3, 2008

Walter A. McDougall's "Throes of Democracy"

Walter A. McDougall is Professor of History and the Alloy-Ansin Professor of International Relations at the University of Pennsylvania. His many books include the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age and Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History, 1585-1828.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to his latest book, Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era 1829-1877, and reported the following:
My Page 99 isn't bad, especially for an election season. It describes how the Whigs learned to campaign like Jacksonian Democrats in the "Log Cabin and Hard Cider" race for Wm. Henry Harrison in 1840. Americans learned via Jackson especially that their politics were not really about republican virtue, empires of liberty, or a new order for the ages. The primary purpose of American politics was winning elections ... period. And the Democrats knew the best way to do that was to outdo your opponent in spending, scaring, promising, flattering, bribing, backroom dealing, mudslinging, demagoging, manipulating the media, rigging the rules, and if necessary and possible, controlling the ballot box.

That said, I hasten to add I am no cynic. Americans' penchant for pretense is what permits us to hold a huge, diverse, hustling democratic society together. The downside of it is our national habit of putting off pressing problems for as long as possible lest they interfere with our private pursuits of happiness. The upshot is usually a far larger crisis and far higher price to be paid down the road. That was the case with slavery and Reconstruction in the era described in my book, and (as Obama courageously notes) it has remained so ever since. Americans are still a house divided, as Lincoln warned, but remain humanity's last, best hope, as Lincoln urged.
Read an excerpt from Throes of Democracy and learn more about the book at the publisher's website.

Visit Walter McDougall's faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue