I am not exactly sure what the purpose of the weekly newsmagazines is anymore when perspectives on the news are so much more easily available, and more timely to boot, via the Internet and cable. Actually, I do know two purposes: providing credentials for people to appear on TV with, and free advertising for books by the newsmagazines’ staffs. (This was about as a corrupt a “feature” as I ever seen.)
Not that there isn’t some good material published by Time and Newsweek. It is just that the pressure to serve some higher journalistic purpose leads to overreaching for perspective, and that way lies pseudo-scholarly bloviation, especially when the subject is American history. So, uncharacteristically checking Newsweek‘s web site a few weeks in a row this month, I found a couple of bloviations that start with a moderately accurate observation, then inflate it to the point of being deeply misleading.
So for instance, we have Fareed Zakaria, finger in the wind but generally trenchant (if a bit scolding and Cato (Institute)-inflected) on the consequences of the recent financial apocalypse. But then Zakaria has to reach for the American Character, and poor James Madison gets caught up in the process:
It’s a fundamental American belief that competition is good — in business, athletics and life. Checks and balances are James Madison’s crucial mechanisms, exposing and countering abuse and arrogance and forcing discipline on people.
Undoubtedly there was some point in American history where competition emerged as a value in itself, and perhaps it always was in the southern male culture of horse-racing and cock-fighting, but of course competition was exactly what Madison wanted to prevent in politics (and also in many areas of the economy, such as financial markets). The idea of checks and balances (and “extending the sphere” as in The Federalist 10) was to contain and cancel out the competition for power and resources that could not be avoided — in other words, exactly the opposite of encouraging competition. What Zakaria really invokes in the comment above is the late 20th-century mental habit of applying sports analogies to all other areas of life, a problem that the ESPN-less Madison did not have.
Earlier, Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson provided some instant hyper-analysis on what an Obama presidency would mean, before that ending was quite guaranteed. Seemingly trying to pivot around on what I assume had been an extremely negative take on American democracy before November 2008, Patterson dropped a nugget of historical wisdom that he probably thinks he got from Edmund Morgan but that could easily have come from some old Jim Crow-era southern “Jeffersonian” apologist for white supremacy:
Democracy emerged first — not accidentally — in the Colonial slave South precisely because slavery encouraged a deep bond of racial solidarity among all classes of whites: we-the-people, white and free, were contrasted to the outsiders, domestic enemies, black and unfree.
Democracy in the “colonial Slave south,” eh? Frankly even old southern historians like Charles Sydnor were clearer than Patterson seems to be on the basically hierarchical nature of those old southern inversion rituals (such as candidates complimenting voters and treating them with alcohol) that passed for “democracy” among white men in the colonial South but was almost never called or thought of by that word or concept. In fact, the southern polities were always the least democratic in the U.S. area, from colonial times through the mid-20th century, among whites as well as blacks. What George Frederickson called “herrenvolk democracy” (equal citizenship based on membership in a particular social group) was a Romantic nationalist idea that did not really emerge until (I would argue) the late Jacksonian era. And even that had very little to do with the universalistic, equal voting- and voluntary association-based brand of democracy that clearly has more northern and Enlightenment origins, and, even more clearly, forms the most meaningful antecedent for the sort of democracy practiced by one Barack H. Obama.