My kids know E.B. White as the author of Charlotte’s Web. Both of my kids were expected to read this classic on their own. Some books are written for children to read rather than their parents to read to them. I held off reading The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham until my kids were able to read them to me. I have long believed it is wrong to take away the achievement from a child of reading a great book on their own.
So, my kids were surprised to find I was reading an E.B. White book about Democracy. They are both used to finding books around the house with titles they do not comprehend. Sometimes they ask me why I don’t read fiction anymore and I do not always have a good answer. But E.B. White is an author they finally recognize. And yet, there is a puzzlement when I tell them it is another book about democracy. I am sure my readers will find the same sense of curiosity, because I was puzzled when I discovered this new volume in an essay from William Dobson in the Journal of Democracy. He was inspired to quote E.B. White twice in the same article. Indeed, I have found White just as quotable.
There are three ways to read this slender volume. The reader can simply read it as it is. There is plenty of wisdom to learn from Mr. White. He offers a brilliant description of democracy as “an idea which hasn’t been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad.” Francis Fukuyama has spilled pages to get this simple idea across to his readers which E.B. White was able to encapsulate in a single sentence. His writings transform the current events of his day into thoughts which transcend political eras especially as “eras are growing shorter and shorter in America—some of them seem to last only a few days.”
But On Democracy can also be read as a window into the political thought of his time. It is no accident Jon Meacham wrote the introduction. Readers of presidential biographies will recognize Meacham from his works on Thomas Jefferson, George H.W. Bush, and Andrew Jackson. I am drawn to comparative politics and works from around the globe, but there are moments when I retreat into American political thought and history. E.B. White shares his thoughts on the American role in World War II and Roosevelt’s New Deal, but also the political repercussions over the thirty years that followed.
Let me jump ahead to the Eisenhower Presidency which has undergone a substantial revisionism in recent years. It is similar to the revisionism of George H.W. Bush as found in Meacham’s biography. The current era of polarization has brought about a nostalgia for the Presidents who worked to bridge the divide between the political right and left to capture the political center. There is a sense of loss in American politics for a time when elections felt less consequential. It is unimaginable to read this passage about both candidates in an American Presidential election, “In General Eisenhower and Governor Stevenson the country has a pair of candidates who have seldom been matched for distinction, for ability, and for probity, and that no matter which gets the job, we can thank our lucky stars as well as our secret booths.” And yet, these words could have been written not so long ago about Barak Obama and John McCain or even Barak Obama and Mitt Romney. It feels so long ago.
The genius of the Eisenhower Presidency was its ability to tame the more radical voices within his party. There is a false assumption among casual historians to equate the temperament of a political party with its political leadership. But its failure was in its inability to transform the party into a voice of political moderation. There was a desire among Republicans to roll back the New Deal, reduce the size of government, and cut taxes. The fact Eisenhower did not pursue a radical agenda was not a reflection of the Republican Party, but his leadership which transcended partisanship. While Eisenhower did not expand upon the New Deal, he allowed its programs to consolidate into broad acceptance. Uninformed intellectuals look upon Eisenhower simply as a general who became famous at the right political moment. But E.B. White allows us to recognize Eisenhower was respected for his ability to stand for the right principles during an era of McCarthyism. It is often forgotten how Eisenhower was well known as the President of Columbia University. It allowed him to speak freely in a manner which he was unable as a General. White explains how Eisenhower stood for academic freedom during the Red Scare. Eisenhower “has stated firmly that Columbia, while admiring one idea, will examine all ideas. He seems to us to have the best grasp of where the strength of America lies.”
I write so much about Eisenhower because political scientists use him as an example to demonstrate how the Republican Party has changed. Levitsky and Ziblatt argue political polarization emerged over time as the Southern Strategy reshaped the Republican Party and changed the political dynamics of American politics. But this account is a bit naïve. It describes a political golden age where Congress was able to address the issues of the day through bipartisanship. But it neglects to recognize how Roosevelt struggled to pass meaningful legislation after his failed effort to pack the courts. Robert A. Caro describes how the Senate was ridiculed for its inability to get business done due to its traditions which favored seniority and the filibuster. The failure to pass anti-lynching legislation is just one example where widespread popular support was unable to materialize into law.
The American South has been blamed for the inability of the United States to resolve its democratic deficiencies during this era. I am not going to refute this narrative. But E.B. White helps explain how the Republican Party was an inevitable ally of the South. Eisenhower reflects the liberalism of the Republicans during the fifties. It is often forgotten how his administration passed the first meaningful Civil Rights legislation since Reconstruction and was in support of the consequential Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. But it was a “soft” liberalism. For example, he never pressed for the widespread implementation of the Brown decision. The liberalism of Eisenhower was a Conservative Liberalism.
But the Republican Party was never the party of Eisenhower. E.B. White shares another side of Republicans in his depiction of Barry Goldwater’s politics as “the classic pattern of authoritarianism and the police state: discrediting the court, intimidating the press… depicting the federal government as the enemy of the people, depicting social welfare as the contaminant in our lives, promising to use presidential power to end violence, arguing that the end justifies the means (catch the thief, never mind how), promising victory now in an age of delicate nuclear balance, slyly suggesting that those of opposite opinion are perhaps of questionable loyalty, and always insisting that freedom has gone down the drain.”
This was not the Barry Goldwater my father taught me. But it makes so much more sense because I was never able to reconcile Goldwater’s opposition to civil rights legislation. Indeed, Goldwater once relieved Strom Thurmond during a long filibuster of civil rights legislation so he was able to get a bite to eat. Goldwater is lionized by Libertarians as a friend of small government who defended personal liberties and state’s rights. But it was always the rights and privileges of his own class that caught his attention. He defended the rights of Southerners as though they were a persecuted minority while demonstrating a formal indifference to persecuted minorities like African Americans. E.B. White goes further to explain how “Senator Goldwater has occasionally used the phrase “obviously guilty,” referring to criminals. This is a very unsettling thing. Nobody is “obviously” guilty in this country—a man is innocent until the court decides otherwise. Goldwater appears to believe that it’s more important to catch a criminal than to preserve the principle of search and seizure, which is a bedrock of our jurisprudence, safeguarding our homes.” This casual indifference to injustice is reminiscent of the Republican Party of today especially in light of what Ibram Kendi describes as racist policies because they produce inequities between the races in their application.
This brings me to the third way I suggest to read On Democracy. It is perhaps best read when the historical moment is reinterpreted in light of our own times. This approach may take the words of White out of context but gives them new meaning. It allows history to serve as a lesson for the particular experiences we face today. E.B. White did not foresee a global pandemic in the twenty-first century, but he was prescient to note, “We have, lately, at least one large new group of people to whom the planet does come first. I mean scientists.” And he understood the Russian threat to democracy, “Russia’s greatest fear, apparently, is that Western democracies will act in a united and constructive way. Russia is constantly on the alert to divide us and drive the wedge that we read about every day in the papers.”
Sometimes I read the words of E.B. White and sensed he was speaking to me. But not as a human who transcends historical eras. No, he spoke to me as I am today. He understood the challenges we face right now. White understands us not simply for who we are but for who we have become. He understands how “all half-truths excite me.” He understood “democracy is itself a religious faith.” But most of all he understood what has become regarded as the populist moment. He recognized how democracy “can be destroyed by a single zealous man who holds aloft a freedom sign while quietly undermining all of freedom’s cherished institutions.”
The difference in E.B. White is there are no empty demands for freedom and liberty. Any moment when he approaches idealism, he turns back into a refreshing sense of realism. Liberty could not be imposed. For him, democratic governance is what gives freedom substance because those who “assume no personal responsibility for anything… will gain no personal rights.” Liberal democracy depends on the responsibility of its citizens and its leaders. It is vulnerable because the people can turn away at any time, but without political freedom, civil rights have no substance and become empty platitudes that are neither respected nor accepted. “Peace is expensive, and so are human rights and civil liberties; they have a price, and we the peoples have not yet offered to pay it.”
There are moments when feel a sense of nostalgia for what has been lost. Donald Trump is not the only one who wants to make America great again. There is a sense of loss among every American. There is a sense of loss throughout the world. Pessimism has dominated the political vocabulary for far too long. E.B. White reminds us to “be concerned with principles, not with results.” And it helps to recall the imperfections of bygone days and take stock of the progress which has been made. “We are perfectionist to the extent that we regard this world as an imperfect one.” It is not the past we want to bring back. It is elements of the past we can refashion into a more perfect future. “I wish the woods were more the way they used to be. I wish they were the way they could be.”
jmk, carmel, indiana, email@example.com
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