No one can complain that we haven’t had enough stories about politics.
But those stories are almost always news stories, in newspapers or on television or on the Internet. They bring us the latest developments in the political world, but they are usually powerless to show those developments in a larger human perspective.
For that deeper story, we traditionally turn to fiction. Today, however, the best American novelists seldom write about politics, either in the narrow sense of describing elections and controversies, or the larger sense of examining our beliefs about how the country should be governed. (One novel that did, Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom,” became a huge bestseller -- perhaps a sign that readers are hungry for fiction that reports this kind of news.)
This campaign season, then, is a good time to return to the classic American political novels -- a small but distinguished group of books that capture the perennial moral conflicts that still drive American politics today.
If there is one thing about the 2012 election that everyone agrees on, it is that the role of money is unprecedented. The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, the usual story goes, threw open the floodgates for corporate donations, making it possible for rich companies and individuals to bypass the old campaign-finance rules.
The major players in this election year have been not just the candidates, but also their donors -- from Sheldon Adelson, who kept Newt Gingrich’s primary challenge alive for so long and who is now throwing money toward Mitt Romney, to Penny Pritzker, whose reluctance to reprise her 2008 role as a major Obama fundraiser has Democrats concerned.
It comes as something of a surprise, then, to be reminded that the first great novel about American politics -- “Democracy” by Henry Adams, which appeared in 1880 -- is all about the corrupting role of money in party politics. “Democracy” follows the political education of Madeleine Lee, a wealthy, fashionable New York widow who decides to move to Washington. Her goal is not -- or, at least, not consciously -- to make social conquests and gain personal power; it is, rather, to learn firsthand how America is ruled.
“She wanted to see with her own eyes the action of primary forces; to touch with her own hand the massive machinery of society; to measure with her own mind the capacity of the motive power,” Adams wrote. “She was bent upon getting to the heart of the great American mystery of democracy and government.”
What Madeleine learns is that power, in Washington, does not reside where the textbooks tell us to look.
“To her mind the Senate was a place where people went to recite speeches, and she naively assumed that the speeches were useful and had a purpose,” Adams wrote. “This is a very common conception of Congress; many Congressmen share it.”
In fact, not even the newly elected president -- a nonentity to whom Adams doesn’t even bother giving a name -- is in control of events. Power lies behind the scenes, with a handful of party leaders and congressional barons who control the money that wins elections.
Foremost among these is “the Prairie Giant of Peonia, the Favorite Son of Illinois … the Honorable Silas P. Ratcliffe,” a pompous senator who easily insinuates himself into the new president’s Cabinet and consolidates all the real power in his own hands. Ratcliffe is able to act effectively because he never even pretends that politics is an honest business.
“The beauty of his work,” Adams wrote, “consisted in the skill with which he evaded questions of principle. As he wisely said, the issue now involved was not one of principle but of power. … Their principle must be the want of principles.”
Ratcliffe is undoubtedly the novel’s villain. But Adams makes it impossible for Madeleine, or the reader, to make a simple judgment about him. Early in the novel, Ratcliffe boasts about having stolen a state election during the Civil War. It is something that could send a politician to jail. Yet as Ratcliffe frames it, the choice was between committing a crime and saving his state for the Republican Party and the Union, or losing it and allowing defeatist Democrats to jeopardize the war effort. Seen this way, Madeleine can’t help but applaud Ratcliffe’s ruthlessness.
But her readiness to compromise, to agree that the ends in politics justify the means, leaves her vulnerable to the much greater trap that Ratcliffe sets for her at the novel’s end. Ratcliffe is determined to marry Madeleine, and she is prepared to accept him, when a rival suitor reveals to her that the senator once took an enormous bribe in exchange for awarding a government contract.
When Madeleine confronts him, Ratcliffe has a convincing answer ready. Yes, he took money, but the money was not for himself -- it was for his party, to pay campaign expenses. And since what’s good for the party is, to any politician, good for the country, Ratcliffe’s bribe-taking can be considered a patriotic act. It was, you might say, simply an unregulated campaign contribution.
Madeleine Lee, like the good heroine she is, refuses to accept Ratcliffe’s excuses. In the novel’s climax, she rejects his proposal and guards her moral purity. While Adams shows her making the “right” choice, he also leaves no doubt that by rejecting Ratcliffe she has cut herself off from the possibility of wielding effective power. The tragedy of democracy, and of “Democracy,” Adams suggested, is that a good person cannot achieve the power necessary to do good in the world.
The tension between truth and idealism is neatly summarized in an episode where Madeleine and a party of her friends go for a day trip to Mount Vernon. They end up discussing the character of George Washington, whom Ratcliffe sees as a mediocre man elevated by circumstances to a legend: “This government can show to-day a dozen men of equal abilities, but we don’t deify them.”
Yet as another character says about Washington: “To us he is Morality, Justice, Duty, Truth; half a dozen Roman gods with capital letters.” What is the proper view of Washington, and by extension of America itself -- the glorious image or the shabby reality? “Democracy” offers only one answer: Shabbiness reigns. To know the truth about how the country is governed, Adams suggested, is to lose any illusions about fairness, honesty and the public good.
But at least Adams had some illusions to lose. As the great-grandson of John Adams and the grandson of John Quincy Adams, he was a republican aristocrat who saw himself as the guardian of America’s best traditions and highest standards. His failure to achieve anything in politics left him convinced -- as he wrote in his autobiography, “The Education of Henry Adams” -- that Gilded Age America had no use for the best, most ethical men.
Yet the most sobering thing about reading “Democracy” today is that Ratcliffe’s bribe-taking, which looks to Adams like a definitive act of evil, wouldn’t be illegal or even particularly noteworthy under our 21st-century campaign-finance regime. The idea that lobbyists give money in exchange for influence and access to politicians, or that industry-financed groups write the bills that affect their businesses, is so familiar to us that we hardly even notice it.
Far from being a criminal, deserving to be shunned by honest people such as Madeleine Lee, a 21st-century Silas Ratcliffe would be considered simply an effective politician. If Henry Adams could read the Citizens United decision, he would see in it a confirmation of all his worst prophecies. For us, reading “Democracy” is a way of glimpsing a more innocent America, where the idea that money is the lifeblood of politics still had the power to shock.
(Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at the New Republic and a columnist for Tablet magazine. He is the author of “Why Trilling Matters.” The opinions expressed are his own. Read Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5 of his series on classic political novels.)
To contact the writer of this article: Adam Kirsch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact the editor responsible for this article: Katy Roberts at email@example.com.