A Review by Thom Hartmann
The best of novels always leave me wishing they hadn't ended -- I want to know more of the story, what happened next, where the characters went and what they did and how they ended up. In this exceptional work of non-fiction, Gore Vidal has used his brilliant novelist talents to produce a brief glimpse into the founding of America that left me feeling both enlightened, satisfied, and -- surprisingly for a non-fiction book -- wanting more.
Because the book is so short (189 small-format pages -- a weekend read) Vidal assumes that his readers are already well grounded in American history and thus touches only lightly on some of the more notorious issues and events in the lives of Washington, Adams, and Jefferson.
For those who have read books like Charles Beard's 1932 masterpiece "The Rise of American Civilization," Fawn Brodie's seminal "Thomas Jefferson," or even my new history book "We The People," Vidal's light touch will serve as a reminder of some of the larger debates of those times, and memory will fill in the missing nuance. For those using "Inventing A Nation" as their first exploration of the lives of our most important Founders, it will evoke a hunger for more, lighting the fire of inquiry about how this nation came to be.
One of the truly marvelous aspects of Vidal's book is that it challenges, head-on, many of the most common misperceptions about our Founders (such as the notion that they really only wanted to create a country for rich white guys). He begins his myth-puncturing with the opening sentence of the book: "In the fall of 1786 the fifty-four-year-old president of the Potomac Company, George Washington, late commander in chief of the American army (resigned December 23, 1783, after eight years of active duty) was seriously broke."
As I'll be sharing in more detail on my radio program this month, page after page is filled with often subtle, often revealing, and always fascinating insights into the lives, times, personalities, idiosyncrasies, and motivations of our Founders. These range from Jefferson's idealism to Washington's stoicism to Hamilton's being "British Agent Number Seven."
My only complaint with the book -- a minor point, really -- is that Vidal refers to Jefferson's Democratic-Republican Party (today the longest surviving political party in world history, the Democratic Party, having dropped the "Republican" part of their name in the 1830s) by the then-common shorthand "Republican Party," which may cause confusion among readers not knowledgeable about the history of American political parties. (Vidal assumes his readers know that the modern-day Republican Party didn't come along until decades after most of the Founders were dead, being a semi-resurrection of the Whigs, who, in turn were a semi-resurrection of the Federalists).
Wrapping up the book, Vidal reveals a private conversation he had with his friend and relative-by-marriage John F. Kennedy. "...how do you explain," Kennedy asked, perhaps rhetorically, "how a sort of backwoods country like this, with only three million people, could have produced the three greatest geniuses of the eighteenth century -- Franklin, Jefferson, and Hamilton?"
A page and a half later, Vidal ends the book poignantly:
"Let us now praise famous men and our fathers that begat us, as the New England hymn of my youth, based on Ecclesiasticus, most pointedly instructed us. Meanwhile, dear Jack, in the forty years since your murder, I have pondered your question, and this volume is my hardly definitive answer."
Jack Kennedy would have found both inspiration and insights in Vidal's short masterpiece, "Inventing A Nation." As will you.
A Book Review by Thom Hartmann
Class war by the rich against the working class has been openly declared in America several times -- the gilded age is a good example -- but few are as obvious, calculated, and well covered-up as the class warfare declared against average Americans by the so-called "conservatives" beginning with the Reagan administration. In "Class War In America," Charles Kelly lays bare the core of this war against the American middle class, its origins, and its methods.
The author of an earlier book titled "The Great Limbaugh Con," Kelly knows how to write in a compelling fashion (despite the fact that he has a Ph.D. in industrial communications and teaches at the university level). "Class War In America" is startling, revelatory, filled with factoids and ammunition for the water cooler wars, and is also the sort of book that you pick up on a Saturday afternoon and can't put down until bedtime when you've finished it.
Kelly's main thesis is that wage levels in a nation are more a function of power relationships than supply and demand. Although conservative pundits would have you think this contradicts classical economic theory (Smith, Ricardo, etc.), in fact it's largely in agreement with economists who have observed the growth of ancient guilds (the Masons, for example) and modern unions.
When labor has power equal to management, wages will increase and a middle class will blossom -- and when the power of labor is stripped, as Reagan systematically began when he broke the PATCO strike, wages decrease and the middle class deteriorates into the working poor at the same time corporate profits and CEO compensation explode.
One of the most remarkable parts of Kelly's work is how nearly the entire superstructure of the book is derived from quotes from conservatives themselves -- particularly Alan Greenspan -- describing in business publications like The Wall Street Journal and Forbes how they execute their strategy to reduce worker power and thus increase CEO compensation and corporate profits.
It's clear that conservatives declared class war on the American middle class in the 1980s, hired well-paid shills to run their PR machine (think Limbaugh, etc.), and, while openly discussing it among themselves in publicly available venues, have managed to keep most Americans in the dark about their real agenda.
"Class War In America" by Charles M. Kelly is a wake-up, a primer, and a powerful handbook for restoring America's middle class.
A Review by Tim King and Thom Hartmann
In How Democratic Is the American Constitution, Robert A. Dahl takes us deeper into the complexities of how and when the ideals of American democracy were framed, and shows us that this great document came about in a way that was not as orderly as one might think. And while this book would make excellent reading for any college political science course, (much of it is indeed taken from lectures), the writing style makes it very readable.
The author takes us on a fascinating historical journey through our nation's early years. We learn that had Alexander Hamilton and Governor Morris of Pennsylvania had their way, we might have had a monarchy and a House of Lords. According to Dahl, the early framers debated these details out without much of a working model. He writes: "A substantial number of the framers believed that they must erect constitutional barriers to popular rule because the people would prove to be an unruly mob, a standing danger to law, orderly government and to property rights. Contrary to these pessimistic appraisals, when American citizens were endowed with the opportunities to support demagogues and rabble rousers, they chose instead to support law, orderly government and property rights". A predominant number of American citizens were free farmers who stood to benefit from an orderly government dependent on their votes."
One of the first things that Mr. Dahl shows us is that democracy is not a static system but has changed and continues to change over time. In fact, even the authors of the constitution changed their views in the years following the close of the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Dahl points out, for instance, that James Madison, at the time thirty-six years old, had not really finalized his constitutional ideas, particularly regarding suffrage and majority rule. Less than five years after the convention, Madison published a series of essays in The Gazette suggesting various steps that could be taken to overcome the dangers of political parties. And as late as 1821, Madison writes: "The right of suffrage is a fundamental article in republican (democratic) constitutions."
The framers of the constitution were repeatedly forced to compromise in order to complete the document. The idea of an electoral college, which became an issue in the 2000 election, is a good example. During most of the Constitutional Convention the framers believed that the best way to select a president would be for that person to be chosen by the national legislature. By unanimous vote, early in the Convention, this was the method the framers preferred. After three months of extensive debate the framers were most eager to conclude their work. But at the last minute, a new committee was formed to address this issue and Mr. Dahl quotes their conclusion directly from the document: "Each state shall appoint, in such manner as the legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors, equal to whole number of Senators and representatives to which the state may be entitled in Congress." Thus the Electoral College was born. The author devotes considerable time to this issue, including the evolutionary developments that democratized the voting process over the years. He goes on to suggest some constitutional amendments that would correct the deficiencies including correcting the problems inherent in the "winner takes all" popular election system.
Another really interesting aspect of this book is the comparison with other democracies around the world. His tables and charts in the back of the book are tremendous. They compare both the characteristics and the performance of our constitutional system to other democratic systems. We are also given a thumbnail picture of democracy in the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland. Early in the book we learn that Norway, Sweden and Denmark abolished their second chambers, deciding that bicameralism was no longer necessary. Indeed, even the House of Lords in England has had its power significantly reduced through time and as Dahl says, "The future of that ancient chamber remains in considerable doubt." The reasons for these bicameral considerations in the constitution have to do with providing for equal representation. Because he views democracy as not being static, he also is able to see that early attempts at providing equal representation have not worked as well as intended. He tells us that even Nebraska has abolished its second chamber. If nothing else, this book shows us that we are not the only game in town and that our systems of government can evolve and improve, especially if we develop a critical eye toward what is working and what is not.
Dahl calls our system "The American Hybrid." He believes that this "hybrid" has a number of important flaws though he is not particularly optimistic about our ability to change them. He cites examples that will be difficult to alter: inequality of representation in the Senate, more strongly defining our system as either consensual or majoritarian, keeping the Supreme Court from legislating partisan public policies and the problem of our making the American Presidency into a combination of chief executive and a monarch. Dahl is not quite as pessimistic regarding the electoral college where a major change could happen if each state were to "require their electoral votes to be allocated in proportion to the popular votes."
We are ultimately given two very good suggestions. One is that we demythologize this constitution that we hold in such high esteem. Americans do not question it easily. Its viability is not part of the public discourse. We should not be so petrified by our loyalty to it that we refuse to discuss and possibly repair its shortcomings.
His second suggestion is that we address the issue of political resources. We are now at a time in our democratic evolution when those with the most resources exert the greatest political power. Even the Supreme Court has supported this imbalance in its finding in the famous case of Buckley v. Valeo. The problems that Mr. Dahl discusses and the suggestions he makes for our nation and constitution will be difficult to address if we don't tackle this political inequality.
This book should be required reading for every American citizen. In many ways it is a history lesson presented at a time when history holds the clues that we need. The constitution is only fifteen to twenty pages long, with another five to seven pages of amendments. That the framers were able to author such complicated and profound ideals with such economy of expression is an extraordinary accomplishment. But our constitution can reflect the democratic principles that we hold dear today only if we can look at it with the skill, integrity and courage that our ancestors exhibited at that Constitutional Convention not so long ago.