Review: The Thirteen American Arguments–Enduring Debates That Define and Inspire Our Country

13 Arguments

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Alexis de Tocqueville 2.0–Extraordinary Analytic Review, April 22, 2008

Howard Fineman

The publisher should have done a better job of loading information, such as the complete table of contents, using the Amazon Advantage features that I myself use when offering a book on Amazon.

Introduction: For the Sake of Argument
1. Who Is a Person?
2. Who is an American?
3. The Role of Faith
4. The Limits of Individualism
5. What Can We Know and Say?
6. Who Judges the Law?
7. Debt and Dollar
8. Local versus National Authority
9. Presidential Power
10. The Terms of Trade
11. War and Diplomacy
12. The Environment
13. A Fair, “More Perfect” Union
Conclusion

Some strategic reactions:

+ Conceived in 2005, executed since then, an incredible labor of love

+ As I went through I kept thinking “wow, what a mix of historical unraveling and comparison, current trials & tribulation, and philosophical commentary.” This is Tocqueville 2.0, nothing less.

+ I read a lot, so my admiration for the chapters was mostly a reflection of how skillfully I thought this master author and thinker had mined and then hammered into elegant shape a plentitude of sources and perspectives.

The message of the book is revealed on page 243, and I quote:

“We need to calm down, get engaged, and look for leadership. We have been here before: the seeming gridlock; the sudden, uncharacteristic loss of faith in the future; the sense that we cannot produce leaders capable of dealing with real problems. Facing despair and danger, we have always found in our storehouse of conflicting paradoxical traditions a way forward.”

The author’s bottom line from earlier in the book: never-ending argument is who we are, how we are. It defines us, this never-ending back and forth. His idealistic view is that we cannot afford to NOT be part of the argument, but this does deny the reality that prior to this election cycle, fully half the eligible population refused to engage.

Frequently throughout the book I am struck by the currency of the author’s citations and reflections–this is not a book written two years ago and a year in the editing. The author clearly reads and thinks broadly, and it shows.

Some nuggets that grabbed me:

+ New England (revere nature), Virginia (exploit nature), and the Middle Colonies (live within nature) existed as three completely distinct models for 180 years before the convention in Philadelphia. These three models play through each of the arguments.

+ The author irks me slightly when he says early on that the system for choosing presidents is not be best because we have turned it over to primacy voters. Later in the book he recovers with reference to The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track (Institutions of American Democracy)

+ NAFTA hollowed out the midwest and many other locations across the USA, and Bill Clinton is as much to blame as anyone. It’s led to Mexico importing half what they export to us.

+ Gore could have lost from any of 100 factors, not just Ralph Nader, but the author’s favorite is the photo of Gore drinking champagne at 11 in the morning with the Chinese promoting free trade. The UAW acted on that.

+ Somewhere in the middle I have the note, great paper, great spacing, great font. This is an elegantly structured book and it honors the Tocqueville 2.0 status that I for one accord to this author’s historical and current reflections.

+ On page 197 he cites Bush as reluctant to answer the question about who his advisors are, but then Bush mentions Wolfowitz, and raises his eyebrows to add significance. THAT was our early warning. See Obama – The Postmodern Coup: Making of a Manchurian Candidate for a similar warning on Zbigniew Brzezinski’s last chance to be Dr. Strangelove on Russia.

+ Interestingly, although Dick Cheney appears in the index sufficient times, it is mostly with reference to undermining the environment and capturing energy at any cost [for every three dollars we pay at the pump, Exxon externalizes $12 in costs to us and all future generations].

+ On page 214 the three models come in very nicely on the subject of the environment:

- VIRGINIA: deplete the land, move West

- PENNSYLVANIA: “city in a garden,” the “middle landscape”

- NEW ENGLAND: untouched nature, against industrialization (of course this was very early on when Emerson and Thoreau were active.

The author notes that the reigning over-all idea in early America was that nature was our Eden to consume and to subdue.

Toward the end there are two fascinating insights:

+ John McCain used to rail at how the Bushes could muster money just by having “daddy” call everyone he ever gave an Ambassadorship to. The author provides some very powerful insights into John McCain, both the good (an earnest reformer) and the bad (perpetually angry).

+ John Edwards is not part of the system, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama *are* the system–perhaps one explanation he has not endorsed either.

I note: McCain-Edwards? Probably a bridge too far, but wouldn’t that be something! It’s certainly a ticket I would support, leaving Senator Clinton to be Majority Leader in the Senate. . If McCain can learn to say the word “transpartisan,” and mean it, he just might be the best break-out reformist President.]

The author ends with a quote from Bill Clinton in 1993, to wit:

“There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”

I agree with that, but only if all Americans pay attention, get into this fight for the soul of the Republic, and demand substance from all three candidates: a transpartisan sunshine cabinet appointed immediately; a balanced budget online for discussion by 4 July 2008; and opening the final presidential debates to candidates from the top five parties in America.

Before I list other books, I want to make one other very important point: the “advisors” to all three candidates are, as a general rule, completely out of touch with reality. What the candidates SHOULD be doing is leading national conversations on the ten threats, twelve policies, and eight challengers, and then converting those conversations, backed up by real budget numbers, into a national consensus. LOSE THE ADVISORS, lead the arguments among us, of, by, and for We the People. THAT is how you lead this country.

Kudos to the author of this great book for timeliness, relevance, and elegance.

Here are eight other books I recommend as we begin demanding substance:
The Revolution: A Manifesto
Don’t Start the Revolution Without Me!
What Kind of Nation: Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, and the Epic Struggle to Create a United States
The Tao of Democracy: Using Co-Intelligence to Create a World That Works for All
Society’s Breakthrough!: Releasing Essential Wisdom and Virtue in All the People
The World Cafe: Shaping Our Futures Through Conversations That Matter
The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People Are Changing the World
Collective Intelligence: Creating a Prosperous World at Peace

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