Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Culture of Mythology: American Origins and Perceptions

[24 November 2008]

Mythology is often a convenient substitution for understanding; simplicity a preferable alternative to complexity. One of the most prevalent and pervasive myths that dominates American political culture is that the ‘founding fathers,’ as they are so endearingly labeled, were a monolith of men who shared uniform cultural, political, religious, economic and philosophical orientations. Too often, modern understandings of the Constitution and its conception assume that the document represents a compilation of the absolute, unanimous dictates of a group of ideologically homogenous men rather than the composite product of spirited discourse and difficult compromises forged by men with vastly different ideas, conflicting interests and contrasting visions for the future of the newly-independent American nation. This paper will explore the origins of this faulty interpretation of early American history and its implications for the evolution of American political culture, dispelling the notion that the founders all subscribed to a singular ideology. It will analyze extensively the various disagreements that existed among the founders, the origins of these disputes and their resolution. It will investigate the different philosophies that dominated American political culture in the late eighteenth century and how these divergent ideas converged at Independence Hall in the summer of 1787, molding the document that would provide the enduring framework for governing the United States of America. The paper will review the origins and intent of the Electoral College, the doctrines of separation of powers and checks and balances among the three branches of America’s federal government, the conception and evolution of federalism as the watchword of relations between the federal and state governments, and conflicting views among the founders on the wisdom of public opinion and popular rule. Further, the paper will survey the contrasts between those delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 who emphasized pragmatism in the public sphere and those who embodied rigid ideological entrenchment. The paper will discuss the importance of political compromise, then and today, to the progress of a nation and stability of its institutions. Finally, the paper will offer insight into the effect of these disagreements upon America’s evolving political culture, with a special emphasis on the importance of applying the same spirit of compromise and practicality that the founders exhibited to modern political discourse.

Mythologizing the founders is certainly nothing new. “Americans in the nineteenth century,” notes Stanley Elkins, “whenever they reviewed the events of the founding, made reference to an Olympian gathering of wise and virtuous men who stood splendidly above all faction, ignored petty self-interest and concerned themselves only with the freedom and well-being of their fellow countrymen” (Elkins 181). Among most contemporaries, indeed even within circles of so-called “academics,” this view not only continues to exist, but is effectively cemented, perhaps permanently, into the American cultural cannon. It remains inconceivable to most that not only did the founders disagree, but indeed they did so vociferously and often quite viciously. Americans continue to cling to “an old-fashioned, immensely oversimplified, and rather dewy-eyed view of the Founding Fathers and their work” (Elkins 181). But make no mistake, this flawed understanding is not just an error in historical comprehension, but has very real and meaningful implications for the conduct of American politics and the evolution of American culture. The reverent mythologizing of the founders as the perpetual arbiters of all political disputes – past, present and future – produces a staunch conservatism and aversion to change that has prevailed through the centuries of America’s existence. The United States fought a war, at least in part, to settle the matter of whether one man is entitled to enslave another. Yet even with the end of this war, which robbed hundreds of thousands of their lives and secured, by constitutional amendment, an end to the wretched institution of slavery, black Americans were free only in name, not in practice. The United States continued to violate those rights which, ironically, the founders they so passionately idolized proclaimed to be afforded by God to all men. America took at least one hundred and sixty years to abolish racial wrongs in its law, and some would say that the United States continues to struggle with this in its heart. This example is mentioned because it is, in this author’s view, a direct consequence of the conservative inclinations that developed as a result from general understanding of the founders. “Of course slavery and racial injustice are proper,” one can imagine some nineteenth century politician proclaiming; “the founders allowed it.” This understanding ignores, as will be discussed later in this paper, that there were a number of founders who detested slavery.

Blind reverence for the founders and the Constitution, argues Elkins, fulfilled “multiple functions for a society that lacked tradition, folk-memory, a sovereign, and a body of legend” (Elkins 184). It is not the intention of this paper to argue against the Constitution, but rather to attack an understanding of the document that is frozen in time and saturated with mythology. Because the Constitution is perceived to be of unquestionable virtue, so too are its authors. To acknowledge that these were men of flaws, men of competing and often selfish interests and conflicting, and in some cases perverse, philosophies would tarnish the myth of infallibility and remove American political culture from the safe, unchallengeable refuge of legend. “There were interests to be served, political or economic, and they were hard,” writes Elkins. “They were pursued rationally and without sentimentality; men came down where they did because their hard, immediate, specific interests brought them there” (Elkins 199). These men made no efforts at concealing these interests, either. They were open and honest about their ideological predispositions, and indeed honest about the flaws of the document they worked to create and fully aware of the divisions which existed. “We may of course expect to see,” writes Alexander Hamilton, “in any body of men … very different combinations of the parts upon different points. Many of those who form a majority on one question may become the minority on a second, and an association dissimilar to either may constitute the majority on a third” (Hamilton 525). Hamilton also acknowledged the imperfection of the document, noting that he did not feel “an entire confidence in the arguments which have recommended the proposed system for … adoption.” Hamilton was, however “persuaded that it is the best which [the] political situation, habits and opinions will admit, and superior to any the revolution has produced” (Hamilton 522). Such pragmatism was among the central tenets of early American political culture, suggesting perhaps that while overdue reverence has been afforded to the founders personally and the document they produced, insufficient regard has been afforded to the process by which their achievement was rendered. The Constitution of the United States is not the product of one singular ideology, but rather an intersection of various ideologies. More lessons should be learned and applied from the process than the product, for although times have changed and policies must follow suit, the nature of political discourse and personal interest remain the same. The Constitution’s conception was the product of practical, difficult compromise and thus its interpretation should be approached with prudent flexibility, with due appreciation for its contributions but realistic recognition of its limitations.

Substantial differences existed among the founders. Demographically, most delegates from the Mid-Atlantic and northern states practiced law, while the majority of southern delegates were planters (Brown 467). This is significant, as the convention “was seen as an enterprise particularly suited to lawyers” (Brown 468). Though not entirely detached from parochial interests, lawyers had much less of a direct stake in the social and economic implications of the decisions made in Philadelphia. Their allegiances were poorly defined; some viewed the convention as the opportunity to test the viability of legal theories in the public square, others as a chance to ensure the perpetual relevancy of the legal profession by producing a delicate, complex body of constitutional law. Further, there was much less regional or state allegiance among the lawyer-delegates than among the planter-farmer group due to the phenomenon of geographic mobility. According to Richard Brown’s study of the demographical breakdown of delegates, approximately half of the lawyers and career politicians who attended the convention “were not natives of the colonies or states they represented” (Brown 468). “Among the merchants, farmer-planters and landowners,” Brown notes, “such mobility was unusual; two out of three were natives of the colony or state that sent them to the Congress of the Convention” (Brown 468). Southern delegates, thus, had both an economic and cultural interest in the outcome of the deliberations at Independence Hall. They were, notes Brown, “more 'deeply-rooted than lawyers in their particular states” (Brown 468). This is very important because regional loyalties and economic interests likely influenced delegate positions on representation, commerce and slavery in particular. The distinction between the parochial and national interest was a difficult one to maintain in 1787, and a difficult one to comprehend in 2008. ‘Special interests’ were every bit as influential and prevalent then as they are today, and their influence, while less publicized, strongly consequential to the political outcome. However, the politics of interest is not necessarily a bad thing; indeed, the input of experience and the views of various constituencies can potentially strengthen the efficacy of political processes. A successful political institution must strike a proper balance between parochial and national interests to establish its legitimacy, ensure its credibility and maintain its relevancy.

Strong ideological conflicts existed in Independence Hall, but ironically, one of the few unifying principles to which most delegates – federalist and anti-federalist – subscribed was a varying degree of distrust in pure democratic impulses. The cultural myth is that the founders all believed passionately in the wisdom of popular opinion, but, as Stanley Elkins notes, the “centralizing tendencies [of the Constitution] all reflected the Fathers' distrust of the local and popular rule which had been too little restrained under the Articles of Confederation” (Elkins 181). Pure “democracy,” according to Elkins, “was not the object which the framers of the American Constitution had in view, but the very thing they wished to avoid” (Elkins 187). This near unanimous distrust of popular rule motivated most actions taken by the framers; indeed, most disputes stemmed from the extent of government power over the people, not its necessity. The establishment of the Electoral College as the means of electing the Executive exemplifies the founders’ general distrust of popular opinion and the constitutional concept most glaringly abhorrent to democratic principles. “The mode of appointment of the Chief Magistrate of the United States,” writes Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 68, “is almost the only part of the system, of any consequence, which has escaped without severe censure or which has received the slightest mark of approbation from its opponents” (Hamilton 410). Hamilton warns directly of the danger of popular selection of the presidency, writing that presidential accountability to the public in the form of direct election may tempt him “to sacrifice his duty to his complaisance for those whose favor [is] necessary to the duration of his official consequence” (Hamilton 412). The Electoral College, argued Hamilton, “affords a moral certainty that the office of President will seldom fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications,” excluding those “talents for low intrigue and little arts of popularity” that the public would most certainly select (Hamilton 412). Similar rationale was utilized for the selection of United States senators by state legislatures, as provided for by Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution of the United States (“Constitution”). The founders were mostly united in their conviction that subjecting governmental action to popular passion would produce irrational, dangerous policy, and “accordingly the efforts of the Constitutional Convention were directed to the task of devising a system of government which was just popular enough not to excite popular opposition and which at the same time gave the people as little as possible of the substance of political power” (Elkins 187).

While mostly united in their distrust of popular opinion, there was little unanimity about the composition of government, the nature of its responsibilities and the extent of its power. The most suitable division relied upon by historians is that of federalists and anti-federalists. Stanley Elkins sums up the division between the two camps nicely, positing that the conviction of the Federalists was that there existed “such a thing as national interest and that a government could be established to care for it which was fully in keeping with republican principles” (Elkins 202). The Federalists viewed this sort of government as “not only possible but absolutely necessary if the nation was to avoid a future of political impotence [and] internal discord” (Elkins 202). Anti-federalists, by contrast, emphasized “state sovereignty rather than national efficiency” (Elkins 202). The Articles of Confederation ultimately proved inadequate to the challenges of the time because it did not provide for a government of sufficient strength or authority to provide stability preserve the union (“The Articles”). Anti-federalists conceded the flaws of the Articles of Confederation but feared the prospect of a strong central government, subscribing instead to “the small republic argument, which was derived from a certain understanding of Montesquieu's teaching on republics” (Wolfe 98). Wolfe describes the anti-federalist fear that larger republics by design must resort to tyranny to retain their power. Smaller republics (or, in this case, state governments) remain attuned to local interests and avoid the more insidious inclinations of larger governments (Wolfe 99). These differences were motivated at least in part by the different backgrounds and experiences of the delegates. Federalist delegates to the Convention were on average ten years younger than their anti-federalist counterparts, and a large number of the Federalist delegates had served in the Continental Army (Elkins 202-03). They were men of inherently revolutionary impulse, viewing the convention as an opportunity to embark on a bold new experimentation in republican government. The more conservative anti-federalists feared that this experiment represented little more than a substitution for the tyranny of the crown (McGuire 492).

Although for the purposes of convenience most prefer to stick to federalist versus anti-federalist delineations of political thought among the framers, even these classifications do not adequately express the vast differences – fueled largely by different experiences and competing interests – that existed even within these camps. There is an almost viral temptation to imprison constitutional interpretation in a cell of simplicity by dividing the founders into these two camps. This tendency had pervaded American political culture since then; even today, it is more convenient to box candidates into camps of Democratic and Republican, liberal and conservative rather than exploring the excruciatingly nuanced positions that they hold. “Perhaps the time has come,” argues John Roche, “to raise the Framers from immortality to mortality, to give them credit for their magnificent demonstration of the art of democratic politics” (Roche 799). Their most notable contribution, Roche argues, is that “they made history and did it within the limits of consensus” (Roche 800). Rather than cling helplessly to outmoded, inflexible ideologies, most delegates, holding the “belief that the nation's health, perhaps even its survival, depended upon producing a broadly acceptable Constitution,” sought to compromise” (Jillson 603). As Calvin Jillson describes, “whenever they were faced with a conflict that seemed to be insoluble under normal decision procedures, the convention delegates would deliberately select a compromise committee composed of moderates on the issue” (Jillson 603). This process produced several notable constitutional provisions that are major tenets of the document’s prescriptions for America’s institutional arrangements.

The issue of federalism and its treatment at the Convention exemplifies both the prominence of compromise and the diversity of opinion at the Convention. “There were at least six rather distinct versions of federalism” articulated at the Convention, notes Michael Zuckert, with most finding “embodiment in one or another of the major plants before the Convention” (Zuckert 166). The roles of the state legislatures in the selection of presidential electors and United States senators, for example, demonstrate the importance the Convention attached to providing a sufficiently prominent role for the states in the conduct of the nation’s political activities. This represented no concession on the part of the Federalists that state governments should supplant or substitute an active national government, but rather that their practical objectives were best-served by a strong cooperation and coordination of effort that enjoyed the support of all levels of government and all quarters of the public. It also fulfilled their determination that parochial and national interests must be tended to in equal measure in order for a political system to survive; the state governments, as those maintaining closest proximity to the wishes and needs of the people, would represent those interests with great vigor, while the national government would temper those interests and mold national policy to achieve national goals that would serve the interests of all.

The development of the doctrines of separation of powers and checks and balances among the three branches of the federal government provides for an interesting case study in political compromise. Anti-federalists, conceding that a national government was necessary, insisted that the three branches of government remain separate. As John Dickinson argued on June 2, “the critical problem posed by government in a free society was the danger that authority might concentrate and become tyrannical. To minimize this constant danger, Dickinson argued, the national government should remain weak and ‘the Legislative, Executive & Judiciary departments ought to be made as independent [separate] as possible” (Eubanks 441). Alexander Hamilton disagreed, arguing “that a mere demarcation on parchment of the constitutional limits of the several departments is not a sufficient guard against those encroachments which lead to a tyrannical concentration of all the powers of government in the same hands” (Hamilton 310). Hamilton and his Federalist allies instead advocated a system of checks and balances, with Madison famously arguing the position in Federalist 51: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition,” he wrote. “The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place” (Hamilton 319). Madison added, “The great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others” (Hamilton 318-319). The final product incorporated both views. The Constitution of the United States establishes three distinct, separate branches of government with clear responsibilities, and provides for institutional checks on the powers of each by the others. The President, for example, has the power of appointment but many of his appointments are subject to Senate confirmation. The President can veto legislation passed by the Congress. The Judiciary can declare legislation passed by the Congress and signed by the President unconstitutional. This institutional design was not universally and enthusiastically endorsed by every delegate; instead, it was accepted as a reasonable compromise between two preferred extremes.

This is not to argue, however, that compromise is always worthy of glorification. It was cold, hard compromise, after all, that permitted slavery to continue to exist in the new nation until it was eventually abolished by the sword. “If the Founding Fathers unquestionably dreamed of universal American freedom,” writes William Freehling, “their ideological posture was weighed down equally unquestionably with conceptions of priorities, profits and prejudices that would long make the dream utopian” (Freehling 83). The glorious declaration that “all men are created equal, [are] endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” specifically “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” sounded the call of political revolution while its cheerleaders sanctioned the evil of slavery (“Declaration”). There is no denying that America’s noblest exhortations were betrayed by its most wretched inclinations; that compromise and political maneuvering perpetuated an institution that by definition was abhorrent to the principle of individual liberty. Where then should one draw the line? When is it appropriate to compromise and necessary to stand firm? To be sure, the founders coped with a number of complex issues – issues of commerce, issues of structure, issues of law – but no issue was as fundamental as that of slavery. No concept was as blatantly antithetical to the principle of liberty. It may be true that accepting slavery ensured the union’s formation, but it also fostered its near destruction. Compromise, thus, becomes evil when it produces a situation that blatantly contradicts the founding principles of a society. If a nation is founded on the basis of individual liberty, then no compromise which sanctions slavery should ever be accepted. American political culture must overcome its simplistic understanding of the founders, but this must not be traded for an equally simplistic reverence for compromise. That is not the intent of this paper. The danger of unscrupulous compromise can easily exceed the harm inflicted by blind adherence to cultural mythology.

The events of 1787 set in motion a bold experiment in republican government that continues today. But to fully recognize its promise, America must understand its history. The achievement of the framers was not rendered without difficult compromise and few would call it perfect, but the legacy of the Constitutional Convention is that these differences were overcome and a new nation was formed. The framers provided their posterity with a framework for government that demands frequent reinterpretation and reapplication in the context of new circumstances, but their greatest contribution was modeling a democratic deliberation in which, ultimately, practical considerations took precedence over ideological doctrine. No particular ideology achieved victory in the summer of 1787, but rather pragmatism emerged victorious over ideology itself. The lesson to be drawn from the framers ultimately must not be a blind adulation for their words and political prescriptions, but an enduring understanding of and appreciation for the deliberative and peaceful process by which they formed a nation and changed the course of human history. They bequeathed to future generations the awesome responsibility of forming a more perfect union, of perfecting their creation, of fulfilling their promise. America must understand its history to comprehend its purpose, and once reality overcomes myth, the Republic can proceed with the perpetual task of forming the more perfect union of its founders’ dreams.


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Constitutional Convention.” The Review of Politics 48.2 (1986): 166-210.

A Tale of Two Machiavellis

[Written May 2008]

No political theorist is more misunderstood than Niccolo Machiavelli. Nearly five centuries after his death, the enigmatic Florentine and his controversial portfolio of political doctrines compels both fascination and admonition. Indeed, so infamous is this man that the corrupt and the manipulative, the sly and the shrewd, the cunning and the ruthless are indiscriminately labeled “Machiavellian.” His last name has been forever married to the most detestable and destructive of human qualities, but rarely do those invoking the name of Machiavelli in such circumstances comprehend the complex nature of the man. For upon examining the life and work of Machiavelli beyond the simplistic caricature that pervades the common perception of him, one would find that perhaps this reputation is undeserved, for beneath the surface rests a web of contradictions that demand serious examination. Machiavelli and his works are not conducive to quick and clean conclusions, for there are two Machiavellis: the man and the myth; the believer in the human capacity for rationality and the loudest doubter of human goodness; the passionate defender of liberty and the unscrupulous justifier of tyranny; the fierce advocate for republicanism and the compelling apologist for monarchy. In studying Machiavelli, one must discern his true intent to fully absorb his true meaning; fact must be distinguished from myth; wisdom from hyperbole; the scholarly from the satiric. It is surpassingly evident that Machiavelli was hardly Machiavellian.

Niccolo Machiavelli was born on May 3, 1469 in Florence, Italy. Born into a family of distinguished public servants, Machiavelli quickly developed a strong interest in politics and an assiduous appetite for literary classics. He began his government service in 1494 and from 1498 to 1512 served as secretary to the second chancery of the commune of Florence, which handled the internal and military affairs of the Florentine state (De Alvarez). Over his decade and a half of service, Machiavelli became intimately familiar with the institutional nuances of government, acquiring admirable skill as a diplomat and making acquaintances with and observations of powerful individuals including Cesare Borgia, who in many respects epitomized the prescription for political effectiveness and survival that Machiavelli would later offer in his most famous work, The Prince (1513). During this time, Machiavelli also formed a strong and studious belief in republicanism which led to his arrest, torture and eventual exile upon the ascension of the dictatorial Medici regime. During his exile, Machiavelli composed his most famous works, with Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy and The Prince encompassing the bulk of his contribution to political philosophy (Tarlton). Of the two, The Prince is surpassingly more notorious and in the centuries since its publication has become, along with the various interpretations and distortions that have crept into the intellectual arena, the basis of contemporary views of Machiavelli.

In The Prince, Machiavelli advanced a view of politics and political leadership which is abhorrent to modern western thought. Politics need not, according to Machiavelli, concern itself with the rights of citizens, the dispensing of justice or the assurance of equality, and must ignore virtue altogether. According to Machiavelli, the only legitimate aim of politics is to preserve and enhance political power. Indeed, The Prince is not a work offering an ideal political arrangement assuring the greatest possible freedom, equality and justice for its people, but rather a blueprint for the maintaining of political rule regardless of what actions are required to achieve this. Indeed, Machiavelli explicitly warns of the dangers freedom presents to the prince: “whoever becomes the ruler of a free city and does not destroy it, can expect to be destroyed by it” (Machiavelli 18). The unlimited suppression of human freedom is, in Machiavelli’s view, fully permissible if it is necessary to assure the preservation of political power. Contemptuous and manipulative tactics are endorsed by Machiavelli to ensure this end. It is unnecessary for a prince, according to Machiavelli, to possess ethical and moral principles, but only necessary to appear to possess them. A prince “ought to be both feared and loved,” but “it is much safer to be feared than loved” (Machiavelli 61). Politics then, according to this work, is not a means to an end but it is an end in itself, existing to ensure the advancement of the ruler rather than the ruled.

The Prince leads many to believe that Machiavelli was something of a madman, advocating whatever means necessary, even the most barbaric, to preserve and strengthen political power. Yet one needs only to look at his life experience to discern that Machiavelli could not possibly have believed this given the strongly republican views he developed in his youth and the unjust and horrific treatment inflicted upon him by the Medici regime. In The Prince, Machiavelli legitimizes the very tyrannical barbarity of which he was a victim. His prescription for ruthless governance was clearly a farce. This is evident from both the tone and the substance of his more scholarly Discourses, and the occasional emergence, whether intentional or not, of his republican convictions in his most anti-republican writing (De Alvarez 98). It is essential, thus, to explore the true meaning of The Prince and Machiavelli’s intention in writing it. One common view is that Machiavelli was attempting to satisfy a personal desire to return to political prominence and wrote The Prince as an attempt to flatter the Medici rulers by lending eloquent praise to their brutal tactics (Gomez). Eighteenth century historian William Enfield theorized that The Prince was satirizing the barbaric and self-serving actions of despots, declaring that the purpose of The Prince was ‘to pull off the mask from the face of tyranny.’ (Barnett). However, as Vincent Barnett succinctly observes, if intended as satire “then [The Prince] has to be the driest, most bitter and most convincing satire ever written” (Barnett).

The Prince may not have been a formulaic satire, but it is entirely plausible that in composing it, Machiavelli had two objectives in mind: in the short-term, ending his exile and returning to the arena of power, but in the long-run ensuring public understanding (Fleisher 76). It is clear that Machiavelli desired and sought the favor of the prince, but the totality of his work conclusively reveals that Machiavelli favored no prince. The Prince itself is a collection of contradictions which so brilliant a man could hardly have composed accidentally, touting the political efficiency of tyranny while simultaneously revealing its moral repugnance. Perhaps The Prince was less a guide for effective political rulership than for perceptive citizenship, enlightening the ruled about the true nature of the ruler. The Prince is not a guidebook, but rather an exposition. Regardless of its intent, this is its effect, for its most central tenets brilliantly serve to stroke the ego of the tyrant and stir the fury of the masses simultaneously.

At the heart of these Machiavellian contradictions rests the vastly conflicting views of human nature upon which The Prince and Discourses are based. Machiavelli in The Prince labeled men as selfish and petty individuals who need only to be placated with the illusion of security and the flattery of mock benevolence, but in Discourses his entire argument is based upon the rationality of the individual and his right to the liberty offered through a constitutional republic. Machiavelli certainly never adopts the view that humans are by nature angels, but he certainly does not regard them as devils, as The Prince would suggest. He recognizes the extent of humanity’s flaws, but “ascribes to the masses a quite extensive competence to judge and act for the public good in various settings, explicating contrasting the ‘prudence and stability’ of ordinary citizens with the unsound discretion of the prince” (Gomez). Machiavelli even went so far as to proclaim that “the people were vastly superior in all that was good and glorious when compared to princes, and that the faults of the people sprang from the faults of their rulers” (Barnett). By contrast, in The Prince, Machiavelli labels men as “ungrateful, fickle, liars and deceivers,” unworthy of trust and incapable of good deed (Machiavelli 68). Machiavelli posited in The Prince that ‘a ruler ought not to keep faith when by so doing it would be against his interest … as all [men] are bad, and would not observe their faith with you, you are not bound to keep faith with them” (Machiavelli 64). Yet in Discourses, Machiavelli advocates a constitutional republic, and the honor in adhering to agreement is the foundation upon which a constitutional republic is based. People must adhere to the letter of the law and remain faithful to the legal order in order for constitutional institutions to endure. The directive to disregard one’s existing obligation when that obligation becomes inconvenient directly contradicts Machiavelli’s entire doctrine in Discourses, for the survival of a republic depends upon each citizen keeping faith with their individual and collective obligations.

One of Machiavelli’s most famous statements from The Prince underlies his approach to political theory: the ends justify the means. However, for too long Machiavelli’s desired end has been distorted. The breadth of Machiavelli’s life experience and the scholarly nature of his writings in defense of republicanism, as well as the weakness of his argument in The Prince, suggest that Machiavelli believed a constitutional republic to be the most supreme of institutional arrangement for the governance of society. However, in his times, such arrangements were nonexistent, and Machiavelli adopted the Aristotelian view that one must focus on the most practical, rather than the most ideal, political arrangement. Machiavelli was above all a pragmatist and, preferring a constitutional order most conducive to liberty, regarded constitutional monarchy as the most practical available means of achieving this end. In this regard, Machiavelli utilizes one of his most famous declarations, but without its ethical drawbacks, for Machiavelli’s end was liberty and the most practical means, a constitutional monarchy, was not inconsistent with that end. He believed constitutional monarchy with a carefully devised system of checks and balances, while inferior to the then-impractical constitutional republic, was far superior to a monarch possessing unlimited and unchecked power (Fischer 811).

Machiavelli believed that the French kingdom embodied this moderate and practical political arrangement. “The kingdom of France is moderated more by laws than any other kingdom of which at our time we have knowledge,” Machiavelli wrote in Discourses. “These laws and orders are maintained by Parlements [sic], notably that of Paris; by it they are renewed any time it acts against a prince of the kingdom or in its sentences condemns the kings” (Machiavelli 141). Within these passages rests a clear admiration for the French constitutional arrangement and Machiavelli’s evident fear of unchecked monarchial power and concern for the liberty of the citizenry (Tarlton 15). Through a constitutional monarch with an adequate system of checks and balances, the chances for unrestrained tyrannical excess and injustice are low, tempering the worst inclinations of the monarch while maintaining a civil and orderly society.

“To comprehend the nature of the people, one must be a prince,” wrote Machiavelli, “and to comprehend fully the nature of princes one must be an ordinary citizen” (Barnett). Perhaps no other passage more effectively exposes the weakness of his argument in The Prince, for it contradicts Machiavelli’s glorification of deception on the part of princes. It logically follows from this statement that if deviousness and manipulation and the public’s ignorance are the foundation of the prince’s power, then Machiavelli’s prescriptions for the effective preservation of power will fail. If the statement that ordinary citizens “comprehend fully the nature of princes” is true, then would not ordinary citizens perceive fully perceive the lies of the prince and not fall victim to his manipulative tactics? Such a glaring logical fallacy could hardly have been committed without intention by a man of Machiavelli’s intellect and diligence, so it is highly probable that The Prince was indeed an attempt to satisfy two masters: Machiavelli’s own personal interest and the welfare of the masses.

Machiavelli, contrary to common mythology, believed in personal liberty, which in turn necessitates a surpassing faith in human rationality. The arguments made in Discourses, favoring republicanism, are unquestionably stronger than those of The Prince. Most of his arguments in Discourses directly contradict those of The Prince, in which he prescribes not only that men must be manipulated by their rulers but glorifies this deceit as necessary for the preservation of political power, which ostensibly is necessary for the preservation of civil order. Further, in Discourses, Machiavelli argues that liberty must assume precedence over all other considerations. Machiavelli trusted the masses with the burden and responsibility of liberty. However, in The Prince, Machiavelli argues just the opposite; that people must be skillfully controlled by an unscrupulous and deceitful master. It seems a baffling contradiction that Machiavelli viewed man as sufficiently rational to live freely and peacefully in a constitutional republic, but inadequately capable of recognizing or challenging the malicious workings of a self-serving monarch. How can man possibly be trusted to live in a constitutional republic, the survival of which depends upon human rationality, yet be so ignorant as to fall for the manipulations of a cunning ruler? It is absurd to claim that one man is brilliant enough to make unquestioning fools of a thousand. Men who tolerate tyranny can hardly be entrusted with the awesome responsibility of liberty, so it is incomprehensible to suggest that unfettered monarchy is superior to republicanism. Further, is not credible to believe that Machiavelli, given the available evidence, held the view that the wisdom of one exceeded the wisdom of many. Indeed, Machiavelli loved politics, not its study, but the mere practice of it, the beautiful process of various personalities with competing interests coming together and debating, studying and deciding. To accept the supremacy of one monarch in determining the course of human events would transform politics from a fulfilling, unifying process to the blunt instrument of a ruthless ruler. Politics would become a devious means to a dreary end -- a permanent stalemate in the affairs of men and an unflinching obstacle to the progression of civil society. Machiavelli, as one of the great students and lovers of politics in human history, could hardly have wished for so depressing an end to so beautiful an art.


Barnett, Vincent. “Niccolo Machiavelli – The Cunning Critic of Political Reason.”
History Review (2006).

De Alvarez, Leo Paul. A Commentary on The Prince. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1999.

Fischer, Markus. “Machiavelli’s Political Psychology.” The Review of Politics 59.4, (1997): 789-829.

Fleisher, Martin. Machiavelli and the Nature of Political Thought. New York: McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 1972.

Gomez, Tatiana and Cary J. Nederman. “Between Republic and Monarchy? Liberty, Security and the Kingdom of France in Machiavelli.” Midwest Studies in Philosophy, XXVI (2002): 82-94.

Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince and the Discourses. New York: Random House,

Tarlton, Charles. “Machiavelli’s The Prince as a Memoir.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 45.1, (Spring 2004): 1-17.

Homelessness in America: A Sad Reality, an Unmet Challenge

[Written December 2007]

The United States is blessed with unrivaled abundance. It is tempting for any great society, once it has achieved such immense prosperity that further advancement seems both unnecessary and impossible, to rest on its laurels and live comfortably off of its largesse. However, it is most essential that this Nation recognize that its abundance, while a great fortune, is but a beginning. The great effort that has produced America’s wealth must now be matched by an equally intensive, collective effort to ensure that all are afforded the opportunity to access the fruits of that wealth for the purpose of securing for themselves and their families the minimum standard of living which all should enjoy in a prosperous society. There are some who mask indifference and selfishness in a grotesque rhetorical cloak of proclamations of “personal responsibility” and “self-sufficiency,” arguing that every man is responsible for himself, and in the event of the unfortunate circumstances and difficulties that life will most assuredly bring, should not expect the help of others. This view, dubbed “egoism,” commands allegiance to a doctrine of social Darwinism that most sensible people would reject, and under which many people with much to contribute to society would perish in the face of adversity because they had nowhere to turn for help. The achievement of American prosperity has not been the work of one man or one generation, but the totality of the cumulative effort of all men and every generation. The enjoyment of prosperity, thus, must not be reserved for those who escape or easily overcome hardship; it must be, to the fullest extent possible, afforded to all. The relative ease and comfort with which most Americans live their lives is indeed reason for pride; but the hidden despair and emptiness characterizing the lives of many others is cause for embarrassment, but it must also be a call to action. This Nation must reject the notion that further advancement and the achievement of a higher level of prosperity is impossible; it must also emphatically oppose the suggestion that it is impossible for all to benefit from and share in that prosperity.

The scourge of homelessness is a national embarrassment. Quite often, indeed too often, “that’s just the way it is” is accepted as justification for what is on its face an abominable reality; many past evils would still exist today had this answer been accepted. Homelessness is indeed a reality, but is it a necessary reality? Should a great nation, having achieved so much and still striving for greater achievement, ignore this most fundamental travesty? Should a false sense of national helplessness be permitted to perpetuate individual hopelessness? Should a nation of compassion neglect those in need of it; a nation of wealth ignore those who lack it? Should a man, himself flawed and susceptible to the indiscriminate sword of circumstance and hardship, look down upon another because he suffers, or should he help lift up those who have fallen? There are fundamental questions that go to the very core of a Nation’s identity. The suffering and the anguish of those who live on the streets, in shelters, dilapidated cars, abandoned warehouses and disgusting dumpsters is real. The alleviation of such needless suffering is possible. The empowerment of the powerless, the helping of the helpless, the granting of hope to the hopeless, and the assurance of a home for the homeless; these are causes to which this Nation must commit itself if its greatness is to be sustained and its conscience satisfied.

The federal government defines homelessness as “someone who lacks a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence” (“General”). This, of course, excludes a number of people who are effectively homeless: those living in their automobiles or taking up residence in cheap and ill-maintained motels or dangerously over-crowded houses and apartments. Using the legal criteria, mindful of its flaws, there are an estimated 3 1/2 million Americans experience homelessness each year. Aside from the definitional inadequacy, it is also difficult to accurately count the homeless (Rossi 3). Of the 3 1/2 million who experience homelessness each year, 1 1/3 million, or 40 percent, are under the age of eighteen. 800,000 are veterans. 25 percent reported suffering physical or sexual abuse as children; 27 percent were in foster care or group homes as children; 21 percent were homeless at some point during their childhood. Further, 54 percent have been incarcerated in a correctional facility at some point in their lives. Between 10 and 20 percent are considered to be chronically homeless, meaning that they have been continuously homeless for more than one year (Blau 23-25). A more basic breakdown of the homeless population is as follows:

Homelessness in America: The Numbers

Classification % of total homeless population
Single adult males 41%
Families with children 40%
Single adult females 14%
Unaccompanied Minors 5%

Source: Department of Housing and Urban Development, 2005

It is important to note that the “families with children” category is the fastest-growing group, and is projected to soon become the largest group of the homeless population (Blau 29).

Homelessness is not a simple problem, and there is no simple cause. There are a variety of contributory factors which cause and perpetuate homelessness. Among these, mental illness is the most consequential. Approximately 22 percent of the adult homeless population suffers from some form of severe mental illness, namely schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and severe depression (Seager 71-72). Many of these individuals do not need to be institutionalized and could lead largely independent lives; however, without access to the crucial mental health services necessary to manage their illnesses, they will not be able to support themselves and their condition will worsen (Seager 79). Another unnoticed but very significant contributory factor is domestic violence. Battered women are often forced to choose between abusive relationships and homelessness. Approximately half of all women and children experiencing homelessness nationwide are fleeing domestic violence (Jencks 42). Individuals released from correctional facilities are also at a very high risk for homelessness; indeed, some individuals are homeless when they enter correctional institutions, so they will most certainly end up back on the street. Many leave prison unprepared to re-enter society, lacking the training and skills needed to become gainfully employed and unable to get jobs because of their criminal record. Indeed, it is evident that homelessness breeds crime, for newly released individuals who have nowhere to turn are highly likely to revert to lives of crime out of habit and pure desperation. This should be a sobering reality for those who would deny that homelessness is a problem that affects everyone. Finally, drug abuse is perhaps the most widely acknowledged factor. It is estimated that 65 to 80 percent of all homeless adults suffer from chronic alcoholism, drug addiction, mental illness, or a combination of all three. These conditions are often complicated and exacerbated by serious, unaddressed medical problems (Baum 37).

The grotesquely high prevalence of homelessness among veterans is something that should shock the conscience of a free society and mobilize action by its government and citizenry. It is a common, but inaccurate, notion that Americans take care of those who take care of them. Combat veterans have rendered honorable and courageous service to their Nation, and when they return home they should receive whatever assistance they need to reintegrate into society. One of every four adults sleeping on the streets tonight served the Nation in combat. Many suffer from combat-related mental and physical disabilities, with several hundred thousand suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The inadequacy of the veteran health system is a large contributory factor to veteran homelessness. Further, 50 percent of homeless veterans have an addiction, as many veterans try to cope with their difficulties by succumbing to the allure of the temporary solace of drugs and alcohol (Snow 42). The federal government must address this issue. The Nation’s veterans deserve no less.

Equally disturbing is the prevalence of homelessness among American youth. As noted earlier, at least 1 1/3 million minors, 60 percent of them under the age of 14, endure prolonged homelessness at some point during the year. Approximately 20,000 minors are “chronically homeless” (Snow 76). For homeless youth (and by extension, society), the consequences of homelessness are particularly significant. Homeless youth are: nine times more likely to contract HIV/AIDS than non-homeless youth; at a much higher risk for physical and sexual assault or abuse and physical illness; far more likely to suffer from anxiety disorders, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, and suicide; more likely to become involved in prostitution, gangs and criminal activity, drug abuse and other dangerous behaviors; and far less likely to attend school on a regular basis, as an estimated one-third of homeless children have a school attendance rate of less than 60 percent (Snow 42).

These statistics are sobering, but they do not begin to capture the suffering that homelessness entails. They do not, unfortunately, compel immediate action to solve the problem because common myths continue to exist about the homeless. Everyone, regardless of how compassionate they may consider themselves, has subscribed, whether consciously or unconsciously, to these myths. There is a widespread view that the homeless are lazy, but to assert this is to ignore the facts outlined in this paper. The causes are much more complicated, and far less convenient. If the homeless were by and large lazy, the view that they do not deserve help would perhaps be justified. However, the overwhelming evidence supports the assertion that unfortunate circumstances, medical illness, domestic violence, lack of education and opportunity, addiction and powerful personal demons are the major contributory factors to homelessness. Some argue that we should not help the homelessness because some will abuse the help. This is a grossly simplistic attempt to justify inaction. Society does not kick children out of school or abolish the public education system because some children do not take advantage of opportunities to learn and abuse their right to learn; likewise, it would be equally foolish to not help the homeless because some would abuse that help and fail to take advantage of the genuine opportunities for improvement that it provides.

Homelessness is not inevitable. It can be prevented and addressed. Current efforts too often focus on managing homelessness rather than preventing and ending it. In order to dramatically reduce and eventually eliminate homelessness in America, several steps should be taken and principles adhered to. Efforts to address homelessness should be undertaken primarily at the state and local level, with minimal federal control. The federal government should supplement state and local efforts with flexible funding, not supplant such efforts with burdensome regulations and restrictive dictates. The federal government should dramatically improve its data collection functions in order to get a better idea of the true magnitude of homelessness in America. Furthermore, efforts should be geared toward ending homelessness, not just managing it. The homeless should be directed to services that they need to get their lives back on track: mental health treatment, substance addiction rehabilitation, job training, supportive housing, and employment placement services. Finally, there should be sufficient funding in place to provide these services to the homeless.

Homelessness is a difficult problem that will not yield to easy or simplistic solutions. There are those who cannot be helped, but this does not mean that those who can should not be helped. Millions need help, and most would use that help to get their lives back on track. The traumatized veteran, the innocent child, the broken addict--they are all in need of compassion and understanding, but they are in need of more. They are in need of empowerment. They are in need of opportunity. Only when America finds the wisdom to dispel the false notions about the homeless can it effectively help the homeless. Sympathy and kind gestures are necessary, but they are not enough. Action, education, understanding and constructive compassion is needed. The conquest of homelessness and the extension of prosperity to all the people is not an effort held hostage by the limits of national ability but rather by the absence of national will. America is strong enough to end homelessness if it is bold enough to make the effort.

Federal Fiscal Policy: Seeking Balance

[Originally written Fall 2007]

Federal fiscal policies are inextricably linked with the Nation’s economic health. They have a double importance, providing the basic blueprint for governmental action and connecting the private and public sectors of the economy in order to forge a constructive, coordinated effort to attain and sustain prosperity and aggressively tackle national problems. The importance of the federal budget has grown immensely with the emergence of new economic complexities, the multiplication of national and societal challenges, and the intensification of public expectation for constructive action to address pressing national problems. Thus, the irrefutable importance of federal fiscal policy necessitates that these policies be wisely crafted, with great consideration of their economic ramifications, assurance of maximum efficiency in their implementation, swift abolition or amendment of failed policies and bold action in the face of emerging needs and challenges. Regrettably, the necessity for such policies has been largely ignored in favor of political expediency for elected officials and fulfillment of inadvisable demands by special interests on the right and left—the former advocating a small government regardless of need and the latter an expansive government regardless of cost. America’s economic prosperity and indeed longevity depend upon prioritizing the national interest above the parochial interest and abandoning ideological doctrines in favor of balanced fiscal policies that serve the primary objectives an economically and socially secure society: full employment, widespread opportunity, sustained prosperity and budgetary balance.

The nation’s economic policies were outlined statutorily in the Employment Act of 1946 (the “Act”), which declared that it is “the continuing policy and responsibility of the Federal Government to use all practicable means… to promote maximum employment, production and purchasing power.” Since the federal budget constitutes government’s most vital tool for action on any level, it logically follows that the government’s fiscal policies must serve the purpose of meeting these objectives. Fiscal policies thus must respond to new economic realities and social phenomena; they must be conducive to sustained prosperity and effective in meeting new challenges. It is proper to assume that the goals put forth by the Act are objectionable to few; the disagreement, which often but not always stems from basic political ideology, is how they can best be achieved. Since 1946 the pendulum has swung back and forth between those who favor expanded government intervention in the nation’s economic affairs and those who advocate laissez-faire capitalism. Eleven administrations and twenty-two Congresses have passed, each with their own unique fiscal objectives and ideological entrenchments. Unfortunately, few have approached budgeting with the moderation and prudence that is required to achieve the Act’s most basic objectives. Indeed, the constant struggle between supply-siders and welfare statists has produced a system seemingly inept at responding to new economic realities and challenges, and what has emerged, by virtue of some perverse indirect compromise, is a government budget that runs on auto-pilot, with little amendment or control exerted each year. There are, of course, exceptions, but the general trend for the last sixty years has been economic and fiscal policies rooted in ideology rather than reality, and this places this Nation in a precarious position today. Government expenditures rise rapidly each year; indeed, spending is never cut, and even efforts to reduce the rate of growth of spending meet staunch opposition from special interests. The result is a government budget that is destined to grow unceasingly, regardless of necessity with little attention paid to efficiency and an appalling lack of prioritization. Americans are fiscally conservative in theory, constantly railing against “wasteful pork-barrel spending,” but in practice, there is no limit to what government can spend, for what may seem to be wasteful to some may not to others. It would not be fair to blame politicians alone for the challenges we face today--the citizens must share a fair portion of responsibility. A new fiscal policy is needed for the old ways, if they have ever been effective, will certainly not do today. Flexibility should supersede ideology; need should trump desire; moderation should override extremism. The complex nature of the twenty-first century economy and the grave difficulties facing twenty-first century society demand a government that can keep pace. A liberal approach toward the welfare of America’s people and a conservative approach toward the expenditure of their money are most desirable. There is no need for conflict between a progressive, compassionate government and an efficient, fiscally responsible government. Such a government can exist. Such a government is needed now.

Government fiscal policies must promote national strength, economic progress and individual opportunity. Its revenue system must be made less burdensome, more equitable, and more conducive to economic expansion. Its resources should be put to use in tackling national challenges and removing obstacles, some new and some old, to the achievement of the greatness this Nation is capable of achieving. Its policies must be reflective of the compassionate nature of American society, responsible to human needs and committed to alleviating misery here and around the world. Its operation must be efficient, always concerned with achieving the greatest possible outcome at the least possible cost and ever-mindful of its responsibility to judiciously spend the tax dollars of its constituents. These are basic objectives that often seem to conflict, but a responsive government can achieve each successfully. It has been done before. It must be done now.

Federal expenditures should be soundly justified. In budgeting each year, the federal government generally begins with the prior year’s authorization and proceeds to add to it. This is a grotesquely inefficient way of doing business, and any sustainable business or family budget would certainly review its existing expenditures periodically when planning for the future. Government should do the same. The “auto-pilot” system of budgeting should be abandoned in favor of zero-based budgeting, which was standard practice until the late 1960s and was reintroduced in the Carter administration only to be abandoned by subsequent administrations. In zero-based budgeting, each year the government would start at zero and justify all expenditures. This would allow for the prioritization necessary for a government that is to constructively meet the basic objectives outlined in the Employment Act of 1946 and the more specific tests put forth in the previous paragraph. It is conceivable that this system would precipitate a substantial reduction in federal expenditures, for it would open up programs currently free from scrutiny to intensive review. Even if no reduction is possible, at the very least this system would contribute immensely to the effort to ensure maximum efficiency in the discharge of governmental responsibilities and enable government to proceed with the legitimacy and goodwill necessary to tackle the nation’s problems and fulfill its constitutional and statutory responsibilities, including those put forth in the 1946 Act.

Budgetary balance should be the overriding goal of fiscal policy. In any successful financial enterprise, borrowing is often a necessity, but government borrowing has reached new heights and the perils associated with ever-expanding public debt are evident. While businesses borrow money for a specific purpose--expansion or modernization--and responsible individuals borrow in times of emergency, government presently borrows hundreds of billions of dollars each year simply to keep itself operating. Prior to 1980, budget deficits, while persistent, were generally much smaller as a share of the overall budget and each year tended to fluctuate upward and downward. Beginning in 1981, budget deficits consistently rose until by 1992 the national debt had quadrupled from 1980 levels. In twelve years, a Republican administration and a Democratic Congress quadrupled a debt that took 190 years, 40 presidents and ninety-six Congresses to build up. I note the parties involved to illustrate that, contrary to empty rhetoric on both sides, fiscal irresponsibility enjoys safe refuge in both the Democratic and Republican Party establishments. Following a brief three-year period of budgetary balance, deficits began to emerge in 2001 and the public debt has doubled since then. Proponents of government borrowing--either for the purpose of financing new spending or tax reductions--will assert that individuals and businesses rely on credit and thus government is perfectly justified in doing the same. This is oversimplifying the issue. No business or individual could rely so heavily on credit and expect to survive. If businesses and individuals borrowed as government did, they would be bankrupt. Consistently borrowing large sums of money to finance an operating budget is the height of fiscal responsibility and indicates the true gravity of the fiscal situation the Nation now faces. Indeed, government currently borrows money to service existing debt. It is a vicious cycle that must be stopped. Borrowing costs taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars each year in debt service expenses, and worst of all, is morally repugnant in that it saddles future generations with mountains of debt that they had no hand in creating.

Keynesian economics argues that government must, in periods of economic distress, make investments that will jolt the economy back to satisfactory performance. The argument offered here--that reduced government expenditures and less borrowing are generally preferable--would seem at first glance to be inconsistent with this principle, but then one would have to assume that all government expenditures are justified. It is demonstrable that this is far from true. Once again, during periods of distress, the focus of government’s investments must be shifted. The “fat” must be cut out. There is little justification for excessive borrowing or increases in spending during such periods, particularly when waste and abuse are so prevalent in federal operations. When economic circumstances change, government policies must reflect that change and public dollars must be invested accordingly. Prioritization, while difficult and sometimes politically inadvisable, is in the long run better for the nation than endless borrowing and unchecked spending growth.

The fiscal policies advocated in this paper are best epitomized in the records of three presidents: Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower and William J. Clinton. All three men had their own ideological perspectives, but their overriding concern was for the economic health of the nation. They understood the connection between fiscal and economic health, and in their respective administrations they approached budgeting with the moderation and responsiveness necessary to pave the way for steady economic expansion, sizable investment in public welfare and human capital improvement programs, and minor budget deficits or balanced budgets. Truman, while favoring increased spending, only did so when fiscally and economically advisable. Many of his proposed programs--aid to federal education, universal health insurance--were largely self-financing, and those that weren’t were offset by reductions in other budgetary expenditures. Eisenhower, while ideologically-inclined to push for broad tax reductions, only did so when fiscal conditions allowed for it. Clinton, favoring targeted tax cuts and investments in essential, progressive government programs, offset his proposals with corresponding cuts or revenue enhancements. Clinton, Truman and Eisenhower, respectively, presided over the slowest average annual rate of growth in federal spending in the last sixty years. During these administrations the Nation achieved considerable social progress and attained sustained economic prosperity. This is no coincidence; it is a vindication of the wisdom of prudent budgeting.

Budgetary policy has been hijacked by ideology. Expenditures are approved annually without justification. Tax cuts are advanced without regard to economic considerations. Excessive tax reductions and spending increases are not rooted in sound economics but rather in ideological doctrines. For supply-siders, no tax cut is too large or unnecessary; for liberal welfare statists, no government program is too expensive or flawed. This is not a condemnation of one group of ideologues--it is a condemnation of blind ideology itself. As long as the Nation’s economic policies are guided by ideology rather than reality, its potential will go unfulfilled and its fiscal policies will continue down this embarrassingly reckless path. The cases of the three administrations mentioned previously demonstrate that a progressive, compassionate government committed to achieving sustained economic growth and social progress is not inconsistent with the basic tenets of fiscal discipline. Those who approach budgeting from a perspective of pragmatism rather than ideology will serve themselves and the Nation well. It is time to make fiscal responsibility a reality rather than a political talking point. The decisions associated with this objective will be difficult, but the long-term economic vitality of the Nation demands that they be made.

The Exaggerated Divide: an American Seeking Unity

[Originally Written Winter 2007]

The portrayal of America through the media is commonly that of a divided nation, overrun with ideologues and partisans who view compromise and consensus-building as demonstrations of weakness and impassion. The divide between right and left, red and blue, Democrat and Republican has become the defining political phenomenon of our time. Political upsmanship and illusionary rhetoric obscures policy development and substantive achievement. The perception of the American electorate as polarized and divided has become so pervasive that there are few efforts to dispel it. Consequently, division has replaced unification as the overriding strategy in political campaigning. Voters disillusioned with the seemingly divisive and vituperative nature of the political debate abstain from the process altogether, thus perpetuating the problem. The notion of a heavily divided American electorate is not supported by empirical evidence, yet political strategists commonly advise candidates that they should hitch onto a few “wedge” issues in order to rally their base, essentially dismissing the importance of independent or centrist voters to the overall outcome. There is, as I will argue in this paper, no insurmountable cultural or political divide in America. Americans today are concerned not about right and left, but right and wrong; not about what is best for Democratic and Republican factions, but what is best for the Nation. They seek leaders of wisdom and moderation, but all they are getting today are divisive candidates who foolishly buy into the notion of a divided electorate--a notion that is perpetuated by the media. Ultimately, division sells more newspapers and garners more television ratings than unity. The quiet brilliance of compromise is hardly as sexy as the high drama of conflict. The true divide in America is between extreme partisans and ordinary, reasonable people living their lives, with the former group systematically disillusioning and crowding out the latter. Candidates who recognize this and seize the opportunity to appeal to the vast political center will do themselves and the country a great service.

First I wish to discredit the notion that close elections translate into a divided electorate. It is true that the last two presidential elections have been extremely close, but the prior five presidential elections were far from close. Certainly the polarization that supposedly exists today did not emerge as recently as 2000. Most argue that it began long before then, so it naturally begs the question that if the American electorate is so closely divided, why were those elections won decisively? Candidate coalitions ultimately represent the aggregate accumulation of various interests and concerns, not some homogeneous ideological grouping. Voters make their decisions based upon various factors, and sometimes many are simply choosing between the “lesser of two evils.” Mr. Bush’s vote tally in 2004 was certainly not comprised of conservatives alone. Mr. Kerry did not garner only liberal votes in that year. Independents and centrists split the difference. Some conservative Democrats may have voted for Mr. Bush; some disillusioned Republicans may have voted for Mr. Kerry. A close election does not necessarily mean that the electorate is closely divided between two ideological camps. Indeed, it indicates precisely the opposite: voters have a great many conflicting concerns and priorities, and they select candidates for vastly different reasons. It is fundamentally fallacious to group half of the country into arbitrary classifications of “right” or “left” based upon which candidate they voted for or to divide states into categories of “red” and “blue” based upon which candidates carried them.

As political scientist Morris P. Fiorina notes in his piece “A Divider, Not a Uniter: Did it have to be?”, politicians and those intimately involved in the political process are certainly more divided and polarized. The vast majority of Americans, however, are disengaged from this bitter ideological conflict. The divisiveness of the political process turns many potential voters off entirely. Others follow politics but often remain in the “undecided” column until the very last moment, often making their choice as they step into the voting booth. Americans may be divided over a select few political issues, but even in these instances Americans reject extremist, partisan doctrines in favor of a balanced, moderate approach. Compiled Gallup polling data report that roughly 30-percent of Democrats believe in unrestricted access to abortion; a comparable percentage of Republicans believe that abortion should always be illegal. There is a great silent majority of Americans who may lean one way or the other (pro-choice, pro-life) but still recognize the differences that exist over the issue and want it approached reasonably and sensitively, as opposed to the vituperation and extremism that so often characterizes intensely ideological and partisan debate. Similarly, a great majority of Americans, even those registered with one of the two major parties, would likely identify themselves to be “centrists” or “moderates.” According to some polling data, as much as 35 percent of Americans classify themselves as political independents. A large share of self-identified Democrats and Republicans classify themselves as “moderate” or “centrist.” As with the abortion issue, while voters may lean toward one side or the other, their preference is not nonnegotiable. Americans are not ideologues by nature; they are pragmatists. They want something done, and they value compromise and unity over stubbornness and divisiveness. The political process has failed voters in this regard, and politicians should stop playing the political game. It is time to end the politics of division.

Further, it is worth noting that even those voting blocs that would seem easily to classify have competing interests and concerns. Pragmatic, centrist voters tend to base their votes on “bread and butter” issues, which Democratic candidates generally receive high marks for. In 2006 polling data, American voters overwhelmingly ranked the economy, health care, education and Social Security as the issues most important to them. National security concerns ranked closely behind, with so-called “wedge issues” such as abortion, flag desecration and gay marriage ranking near the bottom of the list. In approaching economic issues that directly impact their lives, voters are hardly ideologues; they are practical. They desire the candidate that will make their lives better. A substantial number of right-leaning Independents voted for Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996 because of his moderate stance on such issues. Ronald Reagan was also able to attract left-leaning independents who generally sided with Democrats on economic issues, but opposed the dramatic excesses of government welfare programs. In approaching national security issues, voters are equally pragmatic, admiring both strength and prudence. Mr. Bush’s 2004 re-election was less a vindication of his policies than a rebuke of the leadership style of his opponent, who was seen as passionless and lacking principled judgment. Voters want honesty and consistency, and regardless of one’s view of Mr. Bush, he has certainly been consistent. The pitfalls of Mr. Bush’s style are clear--consistency can often turn into arrogance--but voters want pragmatic leaders who can amend their views with the emergence of new evidence rather than for purely political reasons. Ordinary Americans who are not veritable political junkies care far more about what each candidate has to offer than what party label appears next to a candidate’s name.

It is thus necessary for a candidate to appeal to the center in order to be successful. Even Mr. Bush, who rallied his base with his micro-targeted emphasis on moral values, also appeared to centrists by taking moderate positions on the same “bread and butter issues” I mentioned earlier. By pushing forward with education reform and a new program designed to help poor seniors get prescription drugs, Mr. Bush conveyed to moderates that he was an economic pragmatist rather than an ideologue. His predecessor perfected this balance by advocating new government programs in some areas and abolishing them in others. Further, he appealed to moderates by approving the welfare reform law in 1996. I am certainly not advocating that candidates follow the examples of these two men, but I note these examples simply to illustrate the viability of such a strategy. Where Mr. Bush, of course, falls short is his arrogance; Mr. Clinton, on the other hand, was seen as unprincipled, always watchful of public opinion and lacking the conviction and consistency that voters demand. It is important for candidates to appear principled but flexible. They should admit to their mistakes and atone for them; they should abandon the divisive political game in favor of a strategy that unites the country. They should not attack the political system simply because it is a good way to appear “above the fray” and appeal to disillusioned voters, but rather offer voters an alternative to the current process and the policies it has produced.

It has been said that in American politics fear always defeats hope, but this is hardly true, for hope has rarely had a voice. Politicians on both the right and the left condemn each other and instill fear in voters about the other side. In 2004, Mr. Bush consistently implied that the election of John Kerry would leave America vulnerable to terrorist attack. Mr. Kerry told senior citizens that Mr. Bush wanted to gut the Social Security system and that their retirement checks were in jeopardy. Division and fear have become the tactics of choice in winning political campaigns, but it is hardly accurate to suggest that they are most effective because a true attempt has yet to be made to offer a new politics of unity and hope. Campaigning and governing from the center will serve candidates and the nation well.

The 2008 political campaign promises to be a blockbuster, and the rhetoric is already so divisive that the notion of “hopeful and unifying” politics seems improbable. However, candidates who approach the issues that voters care about with moderation and pragmatism will do better than those who offer nothing but fear, hateful rhetoric and prophecies of doom. A successful candidate in 2008 should make note of the failures of the current administration and of whomever his or her opponent may be. However, attacking others too often becomes the focus of the campaign. Voters do not want attacks and they certainly do not want to focus on the past; they are most interested in the future. Candidates should offer their own vision for the future. They should be candid and articulate their positions clearly. Voters are generally reasonable, and they certainly don’t expect to agree with a candidate on every issue. Their level of agreement is matched in importance with their level of trust and confidence in the candidate’s ability to keep their promises, do what is in the interest of the Nation, and bring the country together. In pursuing this approach, candidates will appeal to the vast center--the part of the political spectrum into which most Americans fall. In approaching economic issues moderately, they will project themselves as sensitive to the concerns of ordinary people. In approaching national security issues pragmatically, they will project themselves as capable of leading a powerful nation in an increasingly complex world. Finally, in creating a new brand of politics, they will bring disillusioned voters into the political process.

Voters deserve better than what they are currently getting. Politicians and ideologues may be obsessed with tearing their opponents to shreds and adhering to a rigid ideology totally detached from reality, but ordinary Americans are interested only in moving the country forward. Victory will not be obtained solely by appealing to the base of one’s respective party, but rather by branching out and addressing the concerns of the vast majority of voters who consider the labels of “Republican” and “Democrat” inconsequential compared to the label of “American.” A winning political strategy, in the final analysis, can and should be one that emphasizes hope over fear, pragmatism over extremism, unity over division, and progress over stagnation. Such a strategy will lead a candidate to victory and the Nation to greatness.

The War on Poverty: Trial and Error

[Originally written December 2008]

No nation in history has acquired as much abundance as the United States of America. In its beginning a small nation on the verge of collapse, America now stands as the world’s only superpower, capable of defending itself and others militarily and sustaining itself and others economically. America, however, is not without flaws, for it still faces humanity’s oldest enemies: poverty, ignorance, disease and crime. These enemies are formidable, but the true measure of a nation’s greatness is the tenacity with which it confronts these evils. For those who preferring dangerously simplistic approaches, the answers seem clear: a society is to either embrace socialism or callous indifference toward those in need. This, of course, is a false dilemma. Reasonable people see the dangers in both approaches. Today, the question is not whether the poor should be helped, but how they should be helped. Most reject the two extremes, seeking instead to chart a course toward a middle path that emphasizes empowerment rather than welfare; a hand up, not a handout. If a nation is to be just in the expenditure of its public resources and effective in combating poverty, then this approach must be taken. With some disappointing exceptions and diversions, this is the course that America has followed. It is this course, with some amendment, that America must continue to follow if poverty is to be further reduced and eradicated.

Not until the Great Depression did the view emerge that government has a moral responsibility to aid those in need. Up to that point, ever-expanding prosperity masked the true extent of poverty in America, with the responsibility for the plight of the impoverished left to private charity. With the emergence of an economic depression unrivaled in American history, private charity was unable effectively respond and the people turned to government, choosing Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” over Hoover’s “do-nothing” approach. Roosevelt’s election marked the beginning of modern progressivism, with a sweeping program that dramatically expanded the scope of government efforts to alleviate the depression. Social Security, a modest minimum wage law, unemployment insurance and farm price supports are among notable New Deal programs and policies that still exist. Debate on the New Deal’s effectiveness continues today. While it is clear that Roosevelt’s policies did not bring a full end to the Depression (World War II achieved this), there is overwhelming evidence that suggests it improved the lot of Americans, alleviating human suffering and bringing about a meaningful, though inadequate reduction in the unemployment rate, largely through expanded public works and employment programs. Between 1932 and 1940, the national unemployment rate declined from 24.9 percent to 14.6 percent (“Unemployment”). The New Deal would later serve as a basis for efforts to expand government programs to help the poor. The lasting legacy of Roosevelt’s New Deal is not the policies it advanced so much as the moral code it created; after the 1930s, most recognizes it to be society’s moral obligation to aid the poor. While debate continues as to the nature and extent of this responsibility, the recognition that it exists continues. The New Deal was less a policy success than a moral revolution, igniting a strong devotion to achieving freedom from want.

President John F. Kennedy’s “New Frontier” sought to expand the horizons of the New Deal in order to reduce America’s intolerably high poverty rate. The program, regarded by some as overly-ambitious, was not warmly accepted in the Congress and many of his recommendations were dead on arrival. Kennedy secured modest achievements; an increase in welfare benefits, an expanded job training program, an area redevelopment program to lift up impoverished communities, a higher minimum wage, and higher spending on social services. Kennedy believed, however, that the most effective cure for poverty was a thriving economy, and he focused much of his attention on “getting America moving again.” In January 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson reported to the Congress in the President’s Annual Economic Report that the economy had overcome the 1960 economic recession and was proceeding along toward sustained prosperity: gross national product had increased by 16 percent since 1961; industrial production had risen 23 percent; private-sector, non-farm employment had increased by 2 ¾ million jobs; personal income had risen 17 percent; corporate profits had risen 44 percent; after-tax income had risen 16 percent; and disposable income per-family had increased by an average of 8 percent (Johnson, “Annual, 1964”). Over this same period, the poverty rate had declined from 20.8 percent in 1960 to 17.4 percent in 1964 (“Historical”). The combination of progressive government programs and, perhaps to a greater extent, prudent economic policies had created an improved economic climate and produced a 16 percent reduction in the poverty rate in a matter of only three years.

Johnson, not satisfied with these gains, proposed a full-scale “war on poverty” in his March 16, 1964 message to the Congress. While it is rather common for government to characterize any major effort as a “war,” the enemy and the means proposed to defeat it warranted such a declaration in this instance. Poverty, according to Johnson, “means a daily struggle to secure the necessities for even a meager existence. It means that the abundance, the comforts, the opportunities [the people] see all around them are beyond their grasp. Worst of all, it means hopelessness for the young” (Johnson, “Special”). In this message and in subsequent messages, Johnson proposed the most sweeping measures in history to combat poverty. These measures encompassed the Economic Opportunity Act, enacted in August 1964. Following his sweeping landslide election in November 1964, Johnson proposed more ambitious programs to achieve a “Great Society,” a place resting upon “abundance and liberty for all,” demanding “an end to poverty and racial injustice” (Johnson, “Remarks”). At the height of his presidency, Johnson secured passage of over two hundred major pieces of anti-poverty legislation, exceeding the legislative record of Roosevelt’s historic “First 100 Days.” By 1969, the nation had experienced marked economic gains since November 1963: more than 8 ½ million new jobs; an unemployment rate of only 3.3 percent; a reduction of twelve million in the number of impoverished Americans; and a rise of 20 percent in average personal income (Johnson, “Annual, 1969”). In 1969, five years into the war on poverty, the national poverty rate had declined to a stunning 10.4 percent, a full 50 percent reduction from 1960 pre-Kennedy/Johnson levels.

In succeeding years, the economy suffered a seemingly uninterrupted malaise. From 1969 to 1977, a period marked by high inflation and economic instability, the poverty rate nevertheless held steady as key social programs remained intact. Beginning in 1981, the election of Ronald Reagan and the institution of so-called trickle-down economics, facilitated deep cutbacks in many social programs, leading to a substantial rise in the poverty rate. By 1993, which marked the official end of “Reaganomics”, the poverty rate stood at 13.6 percent, about nine percent higher than the rate the Reagan-Bush administration had inherited in 1981. Bill Clinton, a moderate Democrat elected in 1992, instituted so-called “invest-and-grow economics,” emphasizing fiscal responsibility and “investment in [the nation’s] future” (Clinton). Clinton advanced substantial increases in funding for education, health and job training, expanded the Earned-Income-Tax Credit for the “working poor”, and presided over the longest peace-time expansion in American history. Clinton also signed the landmark 1996 welfare reform law that corrected many of the deficiencies of prior anti-poverty programs by emphasizing “work and responsibility” and creating a system purportedly designed to emphasize empowerment over dependency. The economic and anti-poverty policies of the Clinton administration closely embody the middle path America must take it if it to successfully eradicate poverty. By 2001, when Clinton left office, the poverty rate fell to 9.9 percent, the lowest rate in history and a 27 percent reduction from the rate he inherited in 1993 (Clinton, “Annual”).

The legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society is decidedly mixed. Conservative critics will cite certain failures as evidence that government effort to reduce poverty and expand opportunity is a futile endeavor. Leftist ideologues will blame Republicans and assert that the efforts would have had far more success if only they had received more money. Both of these views are erroneous, with the former demonstrating a shocking ignorance of the facts and the latter performing a disservice to the legacy of the Great Society by failing to emphasize its successes. When examining data on poverty, two clear realities emerge: first, efforts to reduce poverty are most successful during times of economic prosperity; second, economic prosperity without progressive effort to combat poverty is not enough. The 1960s were, up to that point, the most prosperous times in American history, and some critics of the so-called welfare state will assert that it is the economic prosperity of that period, not government efforts, that led to such a substantial reduction in the American poverty rate. However, the 1950s were tremendously prosperous, yet the poverty rate still hovered at around 20 percent. The 1980s were exceedingly prosperous, yet poverty increased during the entire run of “Reaganomics” (“Historical”). Missing in those two decades was strong, progressive leadership; an affirmative program to combat poverty in America. The Great Society had its failures, but those so quick to publicize these failures while ignoring the great successes fail to acknowledge that combating one of man’s oldest and most formidable enemies is not an effort that brings instant success. It is, as in any war, a trial-and-error process. Some efforts succeed and some efforts fail, but the measure of success must not be a selective analysis of certain battles but rather an objective analysis of the overall war. Such an examination of the government’s war on poverty necessitates an admission that constructive achievements have been made. Government is certainly at fault for failing to respond rapidly to evidence that certain approaches failed. This is where the common criticism of government emerges; government invests billions in ineffective programs. But too often this is used as a basis to justify a retreat in the war on poverty rather than a change in strategy. Setbacks in any great effort command fresh thinking and a new approach; not needless vituperation and all-out retreat.

For all the progress this nation has made and the abundance it has acquired, poverty persists in America, with thirty-five million Americans living lives of deprivation in a land of prosperity. The moral revolution of the New Deal and Great Society reflected the recognition that this cannot be tolerated in a just nation; no longer can this nation accept the condemnation of such a large segment of its population to lives of squalor, cruelly masked by a veil of abundance. As in every struggle waged against a great enemy, there will be failures and setbacks that compel some to advocate retreat. This, however, has never been the American way. A righteous America owes it to its conscience to fight this war; a strong, confident and prosperous America owes it to those living in poverty to win.


Clinton, William Jefferson. “Address Before a Joint Session of Congress on Administration Goals, February 17, 1993.” The Public Papers of the Presidents. 09 October 2007 <http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=47232>.

Clinton, William Jefferson. “Economic Report of the President, January 2001.”
U.S. Government Printing Office. 10 September 2007. 09 October 2007

“Historical Tables: Poverty Over Time.” U.S. Census Bureau. 28 August 2007. 09 October 2007 <http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/poverty.html>.

Johnson, Lyndon Baines. “Annual Message to the Congress: The Economic Report of the President, January 20, 1964.” The Public Papers of the Presidents. 09 October 2007
< http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=26004>.

Johnson, Lyndon Baines. “Annual Message to the Congress: The Economic Report of the President, January 16, 1969.” The Public Papers of the Presidents. 09 October 2007

Johnson, Lyndon Baines. “Remarks at the University of Michigan, May 22, 1964.” The Public Papers of the Presidents. 09 October 2007

Johnson, Lyndon Baines. “Special Message to the Congress Proposing a Nationwide War on the Sources of Poverty, March 16, 1964.” The Public Papers of the Presidents. 09 October 2007

“Unemployment Rate in the Civilian Labor Force, 1920–2006.” U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. 03 October 2007. 09 October 2007

Iraq: The Way Forward -- An Analysis of President George W. Bush's September 13, 2007 Address

[Originally written on 01 October 2007]

Few presidents have hinged their legacy upon one issue as George W. Bush has done with the war in Iraq. As the Bush presidency draws to a close, there is no issue that more dominates the American political climate. Every president is quite fond of legacy-shopping: Bill Clinton thought that the enactment of health care reform would propel him into the category of forward-thinking, visionary presidents; Ronald Reagan was determined to reduce the size of government and endow the people greater freedom; Lyndon Johnson sought to create a “Great Society” of economic opportunity and social justice for all. However, the only certainty in planning for a presidential term is that there is no certainty. Clinton failed to secure the legacy of being the president to deliver universal health insurance for all Americans; instead, his political stumbling led to the sweeping Democratic defeat in 1994, forcing him to compromise with an opposition Congress. Reagan’s hopes for a smaller federal government were shattered with the intensification of the cold war. Johnson’s Great Society legacy has been overshadowed by the Vietnam quagmire. Similarly, George W. Bush was elected to the presidency on a platform emphasizing smaller government and “humility” in the conduct of American foreign affairs. The events of September 11, 2001 dramatically altered the nation and the focus of the man leading it. The war on terrorism, which is now centered upon Iraq, is likely to be the preeminent consideration when historians judge Bush’s performance and assess his legacy.

Since the initial invasion in March 2003, public support for the war and Bush himself have steadily declined, with roughly 65% of the public disapproving of Bush’s job performance and a similarly high percentage of the population disapproving of his handling of the situation in Iraq. The 2006 mid-term elections put both houses of Congress in Democratic hands for the first time since 2006. In January 2007, Bush unveiled his new strategy, a “surge” of 21,500 troops in Baghdad and the surrounding area in order to create the stability needed to achieve political reconciliation. Undeterred by congressional attempts to facilitate a troop withdrawal and continued public disapproval of the war, Bush asked Americans to wait patiently until September, when General David Petraeus would report to the Congress and the nation on the situation in Iraq. This report came on September 11, 2007, followed by a primetime televised address by Mr. Bush on September 13. The overriding theme of Bush’s address is clear: these are consequential times, and the outcome of the situation in Iraq will determine “the direction of [the] country and reveal the character of its people.” He refers to Iraq frequently in the speech as an “ally,” dismissing calls for a “precipitous withdrawal” as uncharacteristic of an honorable nation. A nation of character would not abandon an ally in its time of need, regardless of the difficulty. The language is similar to Lyndon Johnson’s March 31, 1968 statement: “A strong and confident and vigilant America stands ready… to seek an honorable peace… and to defend an honored cause, whatever the price, whatever the burden, whatever the sacrifice, that duty will require.” I note Johnson’s statement not to make the argument that the fundamentals of the two situations are somehow related, but to demonstrate the consistently of presidential rhetoric when soliciting public support for an unpopular war.

Bush attempts to make the case that the situation in Iraq is improving, but acknowledges that the road ahead will be difficult. However, Bush cites the improved security situations in Baghdad and Anbar province to demonstrate the capacity for progress and provide the justification for continued American involvement. Bush acknowledges the failures of the Iraqi central government, and announces a new strategy that will seek to advance political reconciliation locally rather than nationally (bottom-up). In the speech, Mr. Bush announces a modest troop withdrawal, citing the improved security situation in Iraq. The basis for the new American strategy is “return on success”: American troops will return hope as the mission succeeds, security improves, and political reconciliation and progress takes hold.

Rhetorically, Bush, true to his own management style, tries to articulate the “big picture.” Yes, there have been failures, but the situation overall, he argues, is improving. Further, he attempts to dispel the notion that the Iraq conflict is irrelevant to the war on terror, predicting disaster if Americans leave too soon. A defeat in Iraq and the creation of a new terrorist safe haven would create a more dangerous world, “and as we saw on September the 11th, 2001, those dangers can reach our cities and kill our people.” By drawing a link between 9/11 and the Iraq conflict, President Bush is clearly attempting to move the debate back to the central issue of our time: terrorism. The obvious implication Mr. Bush is making is that if Americans withdrawal too soon and allow Iraq to collapse and fall to terrorist forces, then another attack on America would be a real possibility. Although he does not say so in this address, this implication is clearly along the same lines as Bush’s frequent assertion that we must fight the terrorists “over there” so we do not have to battle them “in the streets of America.” In closing, Bush invokes the memory of Brandon Stout, arguing that his sacrifice and the sacrifice of those who have fought and those who have died in Iraq demand a successful resolution to the Iraq conflict. “Freedom is not free,” Stout’s parents write in a letter to the President urging him to ensure that the mission is completed. While a logic professor may cite this as a fallacy of composition (do the Stout’s represent the majority of families?), this is an irrefutably effective rhetorical strategy. Too many have died for us to leave now, Bush argues.

Rhetorically, the speech is actually quite effective, but it may be too late. It appeared to have little to no effect on public support for the war and did nothing to stymie congressional efforts to force Bush to bring an end to the war. It is evident that Bush intends to continue American involvement in the conflict until noon on January 20, 2009, at which point it will become someone else’s problem. The highly divisive nature of this debate and Bush’s low credibility with Congress and the general public rendered what actually was a substantive and rhetorically strong speech as merely “more of the same.” Very few believe much of what Bush says anymore. Only pockets of support exist for his strategy. Democrats quickly pounced on the President’s address, dismissing it as a new way to say the same old thing, and were clearly irked at Bush’s announcement of a modest troop withdrawal. Now, when Democrats call for a withdrawal of troops, the White House can say that Bush is proceeding in that direction and accuse Democrats of never being satisfied regardless of what the president does. Some Democrats specifically accused Bush of being more interested in saving face to shore up his own legacy than in the welfare of American troops and American credibility. Some prominent Democrats issued their reactions before Mr. Bush even delivered his remarks, and Senator John Edwards bought air-time to address the nation immediately after Bush’s speech. Mr. Edwards, of course, condemned everything Mr. Bush said.

In contrast, GOP presidential candidates largely applauded the President’s address. It is likely that some are banking on the modest troop withdrawal Bush announced offering them political cover. Neo-conservatives, of course, offered nothing but praise for Bush’s speech. Having supported the war from the beginning, they would be the last to ever turn against it. A National Review editorial notes that Mr. Bush can never expect to win over the support of those who ardently oppose the war (Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, far-left elements of the Democratic Party), but that if things improve in Iraq he could regain the backing of independents and moderates who hope for American success. Democrats, the neo-cons argue, are selfishly hoping that the new strategy does not succeed because this would be politically advantageous for Mr. Bush, and this is something they cannot accept. The “mainstream media” met Bush’s address with skepticism, with some reducing Mr. Bush’s “new way forward” to an old way nowhere.

The three most difficult groups to assess are the Iraqis, the Iranian government and the American public. Mr. Bush directly addresses the Iraqis in his address, promising that America would stand with them as they work to forge a new nation capable of governing itself and warding off dangerous forces. Whether or not the Iraqis want a continued American presence is a difficult question to answer, for though poll after poll demonstrates an increasingly unfavorable, even scornful opinion of the United States among Iraqi citizens, additional polls also make clear that they are torn over whether or not America should leave. I would render this dichotomy as akin to a disdain that is widespread in America for taxes and law enforcement—Americans abhor taxes and at times detest the over-reaching arm of law enforcement, but still demand the benefits of an active, progressive government and the safety that sophisticated law enforcement provides. Iraqis are reluctant, it appears, for an American withdrawal because they fear who will take America’s place.

Mr. Bush directly addresses the Iranian (and Syrian) governments, warning them that their efforts to undermine the Iraqi government and sabotage American efforts to improve security must stop. The reaction of the Iranian government is difficult to ascertain because of the underlying complexities that exist in this issue. On one hand, they have been labeled by the United States, specifically Mr. Bush, as part of the “axis of evil,” and likely view themselves as the next logical target in the U.S. global campaign against terrorism. Thus, it would be in their interest for the United States to remain bogged down in Iraq (for if America is fighting there then Iran is safe), or, paradoxically, a precipitous American withdrawal could permit Iran to assert its dominance in the region by moving into Iraq and assuming power on a de facto basis. The complexities in analyzing this perhaps indicates that the war on terrorism is not as simple to conduct as some, including President Bush, would like.

Finally, the reaction of the American public is the most difficult to assess. To be trite, it could be said that the United States is trapped between “Iraq” and a hard place. While the national consensus is clearly that the war was a mistake and it has been conducted poorly, the nation is divided on the issue of whether to withdrawal or continue forward. This is akin to the dichotomy Iraqis face about disliking America but desiring the protection it offers. Iraqis fear who may step in America’s place if the United States withdrawals; Americans share this concern. Our two peoples are, in this sense, united. As Barack Obama frequently observes, there are no good options with regard to Iraq: “there are bad options and worse options.”

It is clear that Mr. Bush is no longer an effective spokesman for this war, nor was he ever an effective manager of it. This is fundamentally the reason for the public’s dissatisfaction with the war. It is true that the American public historically is reticent to embrace war, but history demonstrates that this is not always the case. Franklin Roosevelt enjoyed high popularity as he conducted World War II, largely because he projected the image of an engaged, capable manager of that effort. Even Lyndon Johnson’s approval ratings never fell below 43% in spite of the widespread public divisions over the Vietnam War. Public approval or disapproval of a war depends, more than anything else, on the nature of the man leading it. It is highly likely that America faces a long and difficult involvement in Iraq, and such a course could be justified to the nation by a fresh face—a new president, regardless of party, capable of setting a new course for the war and the nation. Mr. Bush’s legacy, in the final analysis, may not be of his making, for it is increasingly clear that the outcome of the situation in Iraq will hinge upon the actions of whoever sits in the Oval Office after him.