Monday, November 26, 2012

Home Teaching and the Miracle of Interruption

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

Yesterday, I and another member of our church went to talk and counsel with a family in our congregation. (In Mormon parlance, this is called "home teaching" or "visit teaching.") They're a young couple, married less than a year. He was born and raised in the faith, but unfortunately also had made some bad choices and developed some addictive behaviors along the way--enough that he ultimately found himself in prison and excommunicated from the church. He's now on parole, and it was through his and his extended family's efforts that the woman he'd met and was dating chose to be baptized into the faith. Now they are expecting their first child, and the real difficulty of the path before them--the legal as well as spiritual one--as they make plans for their family has crashed down on them, hard. As it happens, I'm a little familiar with some of the behaviors that ultimately led him to place where he now finds himself, and I'd like to believe I was able to offer some solace and support. But it's hard to tell. Our congregation's boundaries were recently redrawn, and I was asked to take on some new responsibilities at church, and so I am suddenly meeting new people, confronting new problems. Thrust into this situation by choices I made--as, in a very different but still similar sense, this couple also find themselves confronted by the unexpected, despite all the ways in which their own choices put them in the place they are--I do the best I can....but you never know what will come of these interruptions.

Late last night, after returning home, I finish a movie I'd been watching over the previous two evenings: The Interrupters. It's a harsh and difficult documentary to watch, but I finished it, thinking about the home teaching visit I'd completed hours before, and wished that I could find some way to show this movie (whose language is off-the-charts vulgar) to my fellow church members--all of whom are, in one way or another, asked to do what the characters in this film do: interrupt the lives of others. Walk into violence, or despair, or poverty, or confusion, or irresponsibility, or ignorance, and pose a challenge, send a message, offer a helping hand. The movie's many parts build slowly, but by the end of the film's two hours the different pieces of its tale of CeaseFire, the brave outreach organization which sends former gang members into the streets of Chicago to confront and heal violence, come together in a manner both haunting and inspiring.

Ammena Matthews is just one of those whose belief in her cause, her willingness to speak truth to the bad paths others are on, presents an example which ought to thrill and shame every Christian who has ever been in the position, and perhaps felt the expectation, or even had the responsibility, of standing up and calling out, of interrupting.

Here in the United States our Thanksgiving holiday is past, and for many the Christmas season has begun. Christmas means many things to me, but one of those many things is that wintertime, this season of endings and beginnings and gifts being given, is so often a time of quiet surprise. Of interruption, one might even say. The sudden freeze, the unexpected blizzard, the rush to get things done and then the unanticipated moment when it all halts and holds still. In the Mormon faith, those of us with home or visit teaching responsibilities are supposed to check in with one another at least once a month, and so of course--this being America--it's become a rueful commonplace that every rushes to get things done at the end of each month. That's what I was doing yesterday--but meeting and speaking with that young family slowed me down, put me on the spot, obliged me to speak more than just the usual rote pleasantries. If I interrupted them, they--their needs, their struggles--also interrupted me.

Nobody could ever mistake Hannah Arendt for a believing Christian, and yet in her political philosophy, she saw the root of all real, meaningful human action in the miracle of interruption: the unexpected moment when our own responsibilities and routines suddenly present us with moments of freedom, of being an authoritative actor in our own lives as well as others. Riffing on St. Augustine, she wrote:

Man does not possess freedom so much as he, or better his coming into the world, is equated with the appearance of freedom in the universe....God created man in order to introduce into the world the faculty of beginning....[T]he human capacity which corresponds to this power, which, in the words of the Gospel, is capable of removing mountains, is not will but faith. The work of faith, actually its product, is what the gospels called "miracles," a word with many meanings in the New Testament and difficult to understand. We can neglect the difficulties here and refer only to those passages where miracles are clearly not supernatural events but only what all miracles, those performed by men no less than those performed by a divine agent, always must be: namely, interruptions of some natural series of events, of some automatic process, in whose context they constitute the wholly unexpected....Every act, seen from the perspective not of the agent but of the process in whose framework it occurs and whose automatism it interrupts, is a "miracle"--that is, something that could not be expected. (Arendt, "What is Freedom," Between Past and Future, 1993, pp. 167-169)

Arendt, a secular Jew, made this Christian observation even more strongly--and, considering the present time of year, more seasonally appropriate--in The Human Condition, when she wrote about "unpredictability": "The miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, 'natural,' ruin is ultimately the fact of natality, in which the faculty of action is ontologically rooted....Only the full experience of this capacity can bestow upon human affairs faith and hope....that found perhaps its most glorious and most succinct expression in the few words with the Gospels announced their 'glad tidings': 'A child has been born unto us.'" (p.247)

As anyone who knows anything about contemporary Mormonism can tell you, all of us grumble about home and visiting teaching--that it's a chore and a hassle, that it's ineffective and inauthentic, that it pulls us away from what we already know how to do and confronts us with the Sartrean hell that is other people. (Okay, maybe only I bring up Sartre, but you get the idea.) And for certain, there is a basis for all of those complaints. But going about my own "automatic process" yesterday put me before someone else, whose similar wish for some dependable routine has left him entangled him in painful legal and moral quandary, and--last night, at least--in need of someone to stick his arm out, cry halt, open a hand, and try to help pull him into a new place, to--in some small and hopeful way--perhaps even play midwife to the birth of something new, preceding the new actual birth in their family which will, one again, interrupt all that they imagine their daily automatic lives will be. That was a good thing, a real thing. Something I need more of. Jesus was, truly, the ultimate interruption; if I, or any of us, claim to be His people, then we need to take action, and watch for and be part of His continuing unpredictable and interruptive miracles, day by day.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Posner's Wrong about the Electoral College

Richard Posner has written a defense of the Electoral College, which is one of the several elements of our national Constitution which I don't like. I read his defense of the EC last night, and wasn't persuaded. I didn't intend to write anything in response, but then my friend Michael Austin proposed it as a matter for debate on his Arguing as Friends blog. I wrote this lengthy response there...and since I'd written, I figured, why not include it here? So here you go everyone: why famed lawyer and intellectual Richard Posner is all wrong in his defense of the Electoral College:

1) Posner claims that because of the winner-take-all distribution of electoral college votes in nearly all of the states, we have mathematically clearer counts of the winner in an election than would be the case in a national popular vote. I would respond: true, but irrelevant. Any accepted count of votes, electoral or popular, is “clear” exactly to the extent to which people accept the math supporting said count. Would a national popular vote result in less acceptance, more demands for recounts and litigation? Probably–for the first election cycle, at least. But would it continue? Or would judges be forced to establish precedents for counting votes, states be forced to upgrade their voting technology and training, parties be forced to adjust their campaign strategies to minimize such close and legally costly outcomes? I think the latter is far more likely, and thus a new understanding of what makes for “certainty of outcome” would emerge relatively quickly.

2) Posner says the Electoral College forces successful presidential candidates to have transregional appeal. The two-fold flaw with this claim is a) it depends upon a rather limited and historically exclusive definition of what consists of “regional” (does the fact that Obama won the large urban areas on both the East and West coasts make him “transregional”? does the fact that Romney won the South but lost Florida, or won the Intermountain West but lost Colorado, mean that he didn’t actually have “regional” appeal?), and b) it runs against the bedrock (and Supreme Court articulated) standard for a representative democracy that what needs to be counted are the votes of citizens (“one person, one vote”), not where those citizens come from.

3) Posner argues that because the math of the Electoral College forces candidates to spend a lot of time in certain swing states to try to win their votes, the result is that citizens in those states which are likely to decide the election receive enough attention and information from the candidates that they become highly informed voters, and we want the decision for the presidency to rest in the hands of highly informed people. But this tautological. One could just as easily say that, with a national popular vote, the candidates would spend a lot of time and money trying to communicate with people in major media markets, with the result that the people in those media markets would be highly informed, and that’s a good thing, because major media markets serve large population centers, and of course we want the election to be in the hands of those population centers where there are lots of highly informed voters. His claim proves nothing.

4) Posner's weakest claim is that the Electoral College fixes some of the undemocratic consequences of the Senate by forcing presidential candidates to often spend lots of time in big states, giving them a level of electoral consequence which better fits the number of citizens who live within them. Well, yes, all that is true…but it would be even more true if you simply had a national popular vote, and allowed the millions of voters in those large states to make their votes matter directly (as is presently not the case with the millions of Republican voters in California or New York, or the millions of Democratic voters in Texas).

5) Posner's final argument is that, since the Electoral College makes clear majorities very likely, it eliminates the need for run-off elections. But the bug in this claim of his is actually a feature: why not have run-off elections for our chief executive? (They have them in France, after all.) He needs to make an argument for his position besides asserting how it supposedly would make our system irredeemably more complicated.

As a final note, Posner adds that the electoral college doesn’t discourage voters from “express[ing their] political preference.” I’m not sure what study he makes use of to support this claim; the simple fact that many people turn out to vote for losing candidates in safe states doesn’t mean that there aren’t any voters who would like to believe that their “single vote may decide an election.” Ultimately, people vote (as I well know!) for all sorts of different reasons, strategic and expressive alike. A national popular vote would allow all of those motivations to have their place, rather than being marginalized or magnified simply depending on where one lives.

One last thing: obviously, my disagreement with Posner here really begins with the simple fact that we very likely hold to fundamentally different theories of government, and presumably our different justifications for those theories differ greatly as well. Basically, I think it’s best to live in societies that are democratic in whatever areas of governance which can plausibly be conducted democratically, whereas he obviously doesn’t see democracy as nearly as normative as I do. So I don't expect to convince anyone who is by nature suspicious of democracy. But at the very least, I'd like people to come up with better arguments in defense of the Electoral College than these superficially smart but actually quite weak ones here.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Why I'm Not Troubled by My Decision Not to Vote to Re-Elect Obama, Round II

This morning I dropped my oldest daughter off at an early-morning church class, then drove to another church, which happens to be our local polling station. I was in line by 6am, when the doors opened. A half-hour later I was filling out my paper ballot, voting in support of putting fluoride in our city water system (the most important vote I was personally able to make, I think), after which I voted a straight Democratic ticket on all the local and state contests that were available to me  (have to do my part, however small, to support whatever limited local opposition exists to the way Governor Brownback and his Republican devotees are turning Kansas into a Tea Party testing ground). But for President of the United States, I wrote in Jill Stein of the Green Party, and I'm proud of that.

I voted that way for reasons that I've laid out before. No, I am not suffering from any kind of delusion about the immediate value wasting a single vote on "throwing the election" or getting us to some fantastical "tipping point," after which we will enter a new paradise of different party options. Instead, like Timothy Burke, I've come to recognize (as my despair has grown ever since last summer), that rooting out the pathologies driving our current deadlocks and divisions isn't something that one can reasonably expect any election to do--that, unless somehow some new civil covenant can be articulated that enough Americans buy into beyond superficial patriotic sloganeering, what we face is just more of the same: "two or three or four factions that have strong political and social bases hunkering down and holding on fiercely to what is theirs, defending their perceived rights and the character of their communities, blocking and sabotaging whatever they can of their opponents’ political desires, with legislatures largely being used as battlegrounds or as weapons of war." Not a pleasant thought, but I suspect a true one.

Given that I don't hold to any kind of utopian illusions about what a presidential election--much less a single vote in guaranteed-Romney state in a presidential election!--can do, why go for a third-party candidate? Why not, instead, employ the same logic I used in voting against Brownback's Republican takeover, and contribute in some almost-insignificant way to pushing the least-bad party some infinitesimal distance further towards articulating the kind of common purpose which I think this country's political system desperately needs? Wouldn't that be the responsible, civic-minded, even  (dare I say it?) communitarian thing to do?

That's how I read Erik Loomis's argument (to pick up once again gauntlets thrown down by the LGM guys!). He's looking at the way those on the left have acted in this election, and he sees narcissism and consumer-minded individualism:

There’s...a leftier than thou aspect to this, which again is a spawn of our individualistic fetish. Politics have become like a tattoo for many on the left--how you mark yourself means how cool you are....This is all just silly. There’s a reason socialists and communists worked to reelect FDR in 1936 and 1940, even though they thought he was a sell-out to the capitalists. They knew he was the best hope they had to build the kind of society they wanted and that by running some kind of 3rd party, they would completely alienate the base of people they wanted to organize....

We need to think less about our own personal moral position in voting. It’s not about you. It’s about the community where you live. Even if you vote for Jill Stein, the blood of Pakistani babies killed in drone strikes is on your hands. You cannot wash off that blood without changing the system–something that 3rd parties have never done. You want clean hands–organize the American public around the issues you care about. It will take the rest of your life. That is the timeline of real change....The real story of the left this year is smart and tough--the Chicago Teachers Union. That’s how you demand and make change. Writing editorials obscuring the differences between Obama and Romney and encouraging well-meaning people to protest vote is worse than worthless–it’s mendacious and serves as a tool for conservatives to continue pushing this nation back to the Gilded Age.

Scott Lemieux piles on as well:

Voters, based on this line of reasoning, should see voting not as part of a collective project to choose the best available majority coalition for the country, but as an act of self-absorbed individual expression, like choosing a favorite brand of designer jeans. These arguments are self-refuting. In actual politics, walking away "empowers" the left about as much as being able to choose between Coke and Pepsi "empowers" a worker negotiating with Wal-Mart. Conservatives didn't take over the Republican Party by running third-party vanity campaigns. The legislative victories of the Great Society happened because civil rights and labor groups stayed in the Democratic coalition after decades of frustration (it was the segregationists who were repeatedly threatening to take their ball and go home by running third-party candidates.)

Well, the last thing I want to be accused of being is an individualistic consumer-oriented voter, one who sees politics solely as a mark of personal virtue separate from the practical, collective demands of government. So how do I respond to all this?

Part of my response here has to be pointing out that my original response still doesn't find any direct refutation in these observations: namely, these accusations of third party individualism and civic irresponsibility continue to operate on a conceptual plane which elides the fact that elections take place in multiple contexts--and that this is especially the case in regards to presidential elections, where the electoral college (which Scott rightly decries!) to a great extent makes a mockery of the ability of individuals to join with larger movements to influence the ultimate election of our chief executive. I recognize that I'm hardly the stereotypical member of the progressive left that the LGM bloggers are speaking to, but still, it genuinely mystifies me a little that a bunch of very intelligent, very savvy political and historical writers and thinkers can look at the present moment and see a national struggle with stakes and dynamics as clear and as obvious as those of the Great Depression or the 1960s appear to be in retrospect--because where I stand, they aren't, at least not such that it becomes necessarily obvious that anyone primarily motivated by anger over our emerging national security state, or the arrogance of Wall Street bankers, or our inaction in the face of climate change, or the ruinous costs of the drug war, or any number of other "left" issues, cannot help but fall behind the existing Democratic party, in every state and in every election! Really? The collective, responsible work of building up majorities in support of those issues which most concern you can only be legitimate--no matter what the state, no matter what the issue--if they take place in the restricted context of those choices provided by the dominant parties? Anything else is reducing the election to a consumer choice? I think we are misunderstanding who is actually doing the reducing here! I don't deny that much ignorant reductive thinking takes place on "my" side, the side of the radical or socialist or decentralist left; the Matt Stoller article which they rail against was paranoid and politically silly (though the heart of its criticism of the insurance-industry-friendly ACA was dead-on). But to agree, as Erik did in the midst of the earlier rounds on this topic, that there are no battle-ground states and no safe states, and that the only coalitions available to voters wishing to act conscientiously are those coalitions which have been already constituted, not those which may be constituted by their own actions (such as, for for Jill Stein!), seems to partake of the same sort of all-of-nothing mindset.

Another point about coalition and majority building--Erik, in that same post, argued that refusing to vote for Obama because he has licensed actions in our misbegotten War on Terror which one might consider beyond the pale (as I did; it was one of my primary reasons for feeling that I could responsibly refuse to show support for his administration) is an unrealistic, head-in-the-sand denial of the unfortunate truth that "AMERICANS LIKE KILLING BROWN PEOPLE OVERSEAS IF THERE’S NO COST TO THEM." He goes on with this point:

The problem of drones and civil liberties and human rights is that Americans don’t care about these issues. It’s not about Obama or Romney, not about the Democratic or Republican parties. It’s that there is a bipartisan consensus in this country, supported by a majority of voters in both parties, that using drones to bomb Afghani wedding parties is completely OK.That’s completely messed up. But there’s nothing I can do about that with my vote. There are other issues where I wish greater differences separated the parties. Agricultural policy, defense spending, etc. But on these issues, I have to accept that I sit in a deep minority here. I could file a protest vote but that’s pure narcissism unless one is truly committed to building party structures that would transform American politics.

Exactly! And, how does one demonstrate commitment to building party structures that would transform American politics? By contributing one's time and energy and money to such, of course; by reaching out, recruiting, spreading the word. And also...oh yeah, by voting for such candidates. Like Jill Stein, in other words. (Always voting for such candidates? In every context? Not at all--that would partake of the idea that self-government-by-elections constitutes a one-size-fits-all, contextless series of identical voting calculations. Which is what I've been denying all along.)

In the end, I'm confident that my voted didn't matter when it comes to helping to get the least-bad of two bad candidates elected to the presidency. But though my vote, thanks to the electoral college, doesn't matter, it was counted. And in being counted, I wasn't just doing something for myself; I was, on the contrary, doing what every act of democratic expression does: sending a message, registering a voice, showing myself beside like-minded others (hey, maybe Stein will win 1%  of the electorate!). The central issue for all communitarian thought--at least for those who take the very notion of granting some legitimacy to collective aligning and identifying oneself--has always been which community. Because we are plural people; we belong to different groups, embrace different causes, live in different states, feel solidarity in different contexts. When I voted this morning, I enjoyed the small thrill that political dorks like me always do: I had, as Chris Stevens famously put it about his uncle Roy Bower's vote in 1972, just "showed them." A reductive view of voting cannot fully give place to that feeling of collective expression, the romance and ritual of self-government; it must instead always be about winning and losing, about moving the legislative needle some tiny distance one way or another. I don't deny that voting really is, as David Watkins rightly observed, a way of exercising "democracy against domination," and thus is to be calculated in terms of majorities built and coalitions secured. But it is not only that--there is so much more going on than what is on my ballot on this, or any particular, Election Day. And to forget all the other stuff going on only serves to make those of us who actually do agree with the LGM guys, or the Democratic party, 50% or 70% or 90% of the time, feel like staying home. And surely they don't want that, do they?

Thursday, November 01, 2012

The Best Book I've Read This Political Season (About the Last One)

Writing a book on current events is a complicated crap-shoot. In an age of blogs, social media, and basically instantaneous communication, to write and get published a book that examines in depth a current trend and actually catches the wave of commentary which that trend generates must require not only great speed and acumen in researching and expressing arguments and ideas, but some real talent at prognostication as well. Michael Austin (who is both an old friend of mine, and the provost of a university which is located barely a mile away from my own) clearly has the former skill; as for the latter, I suppose he's about as good as anyone else I know. Damon Linker, another old friend, wrote an excellent book (though I had my own critical comments to make about it) on religion and American politics back in 2010, and it was perfectly timed to take advantage of all the controversy surrounding the religious positionings of Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Barack Obama, and others...during the presidential primaries of 2008. Which takes nothing away from the ideas and arguments which Damon advanced; it's just that he missed the wave. And now Mike's equally excellent, thoughtful book, That's Not What They Meant! Reclaiming the Founding Fathers from America's Right Wing, has hit the shelves--actually, it hit them about a month ago; I've been slow getting this written--and it carefully and thoroughly takes apart the loving-the-Founding-Fathers-equals-hating-government fetishism which powered so much of Glenn Beck's fan base and the Tea Party's political power...during the midterm elections of 2010.

Que sera, sera. So what about the book itself? Why do I think it's good?

It's good because Michael is, above all else, a close and omnivorous reader; he tracks down sources, then reads not just the whole quotation, but all the pages of context which precedes it, and all the pages of qualifications which follow it. He's a scholar of English and a university administrator, while I'm the one who teaches political science; yet he immerses himself, in this book, in documents and disputes between those individuals most instrumental to the framing of our system of government to such a degree that he comes up with stuff that, even after having received a PhD in politics and having taught American government for ten years, I still had never heard of. (Embarrassing truth: until I read this book, not only had I never read James Madison's Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments--his important defense of the idea that a liberal society needs to be, in certain key aspects, a secular one--but I think I'd even forgotten it existed.) Some might think that all this reading which he did amounts to shooting fish in a barrel; after all, as he makes clear from the outset, his goal is solely to challenge the "conservative extreme that . . . has constructed a simplistic and intellectually indefensible narrative of America's Founding" (p. 13)--and that is something which anyone who bothers to actually read a half-way reputable biography of any of these men, much less an even moderately decent history of their interactions, disagreements, and achievements, ought to already know how to do. Really, it's not difficult to show that the often-hysterical, borderline-libertarian, Christian-conservative, Tea-Party worship of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, and Franklin as authoritative guides to politics depends on asserting that they said and did and claimed a great deal which they never did. Still, someone needs to do it, and I'm glad that Michael did, succinctly demonstrating the ignorance, inaccuracy, and incoherence of the many right-wing talking heads (Glenn Beck most predominantly, but also Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, and many others) who have made their name in part by wielding the Founding Fathers as a club to try to pound their often paranoid and generally ahistorical notions about religious liberty, federalism, the commerce clause, taxation, judicial interpretation and power, and more into the head of the American public.

The heart of the book, and Michael's whole case against the abuse which some unknowingly (or knowingly!) do to the Founding Fathers, is contained in the book's second chapter, "Founderstein: How to Turn Six Dead White Guys into one Political Monster" (this was also the name of the blog which began Michael's whole involvement which this subject). Michael's pithy summary of the phenomenon he's attacking--namely, the way "the Founding Fathers" has become a reductive trope in so much Tea Party discourse, one which ridiculously insists upon viewing these highly opinionated and very different 18th-century men as all a single, uniform body of constitutional wisdom--deserves quotation:

"The Founding Fathers" were not all devout Christians who sought to limit the power of government any more than they were all slave-owning atheists who wanted to expand the federal mandate. They were actual human beings with insights and moral lapses, virtues and vices, and, perhaps most important, little ability to agree with each other about much of anything.

At the heart of the Founderstein phenomenon lies a rhetorical need for unanimity. All the authors mentioned at the opening of this chapter [Tea Party favorites like Utah Senator Mike Lee and Texas Governor Rick Perry] would have been on solid ground if they had claimed "some of the Founders" held the positions being presented as collective, and, with a little work, they could have identified which ones. But identifying with just some of the Founders blunts the real assertion of these arguments: that people who disagree with them are bad Americans. Rather than give up this point--and the righteous indignation it inspires--these authors present open questions as settled ones and disputed assertions as universal principles, and, in the process, they assert a higher level of agreement among the Founders than the Founders themselves believed to be possible in this world (p. 35).

Michael takes very seriously this charge against the Tea Party--that they are making an idol out of ideological agreement for the sake of being able to shut down ideas they consider (wrongly, as it happens) beyond the pale of America's political culture. His discomfort with this kind of rhetorical extremism and drive of unanimity is evidenced in other projects of his, like his Arguing as Friends project, which is attempting to demonstrate that there can be real civility even in the face of deep partisan disagreements over issues of both public policy and constitutional principle. It is also, I think, an unfortunate kind of limiting factor in his own presentation of the Founding Fathers and their ideas in all their complicated and diverse glory. Not a seriously limiting factor; I suspect that Michael's book will have a long life as, if nothing else, a pithy summary of the many appropriate responses which those who know and care about what the framers of our constitutional order actually said and did need to make to those who instead want to enlist Washington as a clear defender of Christian morality (he wasn't--pp. 69-70), or Madison as a promoter of states' rights (he wasn't--pp. 94-96), or make the claim that the Jefferson was the good guy of the American Revolution and Hamilton the bad (see pp. 127-132 for this complicated story), or say any number of other nonsensical things to bathe their conservative positions in the reflected glory of the Founding. No, the limit I see is one that is likely only apparent to academics and intellectuals like myself who are sympathetic to radical critiques of our system.

Whether he realizes it or not, Michael is a believer in that kind of political moderation and slowness that many critics and bloggers have long referred to as "High Broderism"--namely the idea, ripping on the late Washington Post columnist David Broder, that our constitutional system itself exhibits a kind of natural balancing genius, enabling our country to operate a democratic government that will both represent the will of people and achieve the common long as no one abuses the responsible, moderate, political and economic establishment at its core. You can see his praise for trusting in how things are throughout the book--he begins his main analysis claiming that the Founding Fathers gave us a political system "that has kept democracy vibrant in America for more than two hundred years" (p. 32), and concludes his last chapter by stating that our constitutional order "remains as robust an engine for liberty and human progress as the world has ever seen" (p. 186). Michael is too smart to be sucked in by the often naive applause for "bipartisanship" (p. 183), recognizing instead that, of course, any democratic system is going to be a contentious one, and that moreover the logic of factions is built into our Constitution's very operating presumptions. And yet Michael's distaste for deep critique, and his preference for applauding moderate compromises rather than popular reform, repeats in every chapter. He dismisses the possible value of respecting popular majorities more than Madison did (pp. 99-101); he praises Hamilton's defense of the necessity for an economy of credit that respects first and foremost the claims of capital (pp. 114-116); he thinks it obvious that the judicial branch needs the undemocratic independence which our Constitution provides (and which Marshall expanded through his decisions on the court--pp. 162-168). But really, all this is just to say that Michael isn't a socialist or a radical democrat--he is, as he says in the book's Preface, a man who stands "squarely in the center of American political discourse," and who is critical "of extremists on both the left and the right" (p. 13). A more radical thinker, like myself, would like to argue that such a "pox of both houses!" anti-extremism ignores that some extreme critiques of the system may be correct, or at least worthy of consideration, as well as passing over without comment how these different extremisms may deserve different kinds of criticism, rather than just assuming that if they don't get the basics of the system right, then they just don't understand how the whole thing is supposed to work. But again, there's no reason why Michael's argument against a few influential Tea-Party fools needed to include that kind of perspective; from his moderate perch, he knocks them down just fine on his own.

In the end, books like this don't change any minds when it comes to voting; certainly not within the final weeks before an election, in any case. So perhaps it's just as well that Michael's book missed its perfect political moment. The unfortunate truth is that Americans have been abusing the Founding Fathers for as long as the term has been in use (and Michael's investigation of that question was one of my favorite parts of the whole book--p. 20), and many of the less informed and more passionate of our citizens will no doubt continue to abuse them as long as they can. Hopefully, Michael's work will make some of them a little less likely to slip simplistically into insisting that there is only one right way to understand Jefferson or Washington, etc.; failing that, his work will definitely make the work of those of us who feel obliged to correct them a whole lot easier. So thank you, Michael, for writing such a solid helpful book. The best book I've ever read on the Founding Fathers or our constitutional order? No. But it's the best book I've read on the subject since Glenn Beck (the poor, earnest, well-meaning, stupid guy that he may be) started dumbing down our conversations about the Constitution, and that's no small praise.