Review of Democracy: An American Novel


I tend to go on too long. It’s a weakness. The other day I blogged 2,700 words about the arcane connection between war and magical realism. Too much, I know.

For a while now, I’ve wanted to write shorter, more useful book reviews–quick takes that might help you decide whether to read a book or not.

And so, without further ado, here’s one.


Democracy: An American Novel. This 1880 book by Henry Adams remains surprisingly relevent despite its age and musty, Jamesian style. It has a great setup. The heroine, Ms. Madeleine Lightfoot Lee, is a newly widowed New York socialite. She is rich and comfortable but bored and intellectually unsettled. To find new meaning in life, she decides to leave New York for Washington D.C. Why? Call it curiosity about what America means:

It was the feeling of a passenger on an ocean steamer whose mind will not give him rest until he has been in the engine-room and talked with the engineer. 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. She was bent upon getting to the heart of the great American mystery of democracy and government.

After this riveting scenesetter and Madeleine’s move to Washington, the action gets mighty dull for a while. Madeleine goes to stuffy parties and starts findng her feet among the powerbrokers of the surprisingly shabby national capital. This goes on for a long time.

Luckily the plot gets some traction about halfway through the book–where I honestly considered dropping it–as Madeleine warily falls in love with the ambitious senator Silas P. Ratcliffe. His name sort of tells you he will be a revolting character in the end, but we only get vague hints and signs early on. He is powerful, and power is what Madeleine wants to learn about.

Madeline almost marries Ratcliffe, who hopes to run for president, but she breaks it off after a cavalier young lawyer gives her secret evidence of Ratcliffe’s corruption.

The message of Democracy is that politics is fueled by and based in corruption even in a well developed liberal democracy like America’s. The best part of the novel is its denouement, in which Ratcliffe, to his philosophical credit, refuses to defend himself robustly against the accusation of corruption. He really did take money for a favor, he said, but it was necessary to keep a desireable, legitimate political project alive, and he passed on the funds to the party machine for further political work. It’s what you do to keep your agenda alive in Washington.

Burned by experience, Madeleine leaves Washington, and the reader understands why. That steamer engine room she wanted to see is a mess of unintelligible machinery with tubes turning back on themselves every which way. Plus, they are not even directly connected to the ship’s steerage.

The reader is left with one memorable lesson on American politics: the difference between flagrant, criminal political corruption and excusable, indispensable foible is one of degree, not kind. In for a penny, in for a pound. If you think your representative is clean, you are almost certainly wrong.

It’s the system that does it. Once you put a politician into a legislative process in which the writing of laws pivots on vote-trading over tangential measures secretively inserted into those laws; once you have imposed the need on a politician to be constantly telling half-truths and outright lies to the public; once you have accepted that politics is run by organized money, you are left with Hannah Arendt’s deeply pessimistic diagnosis that truth and politics are permanently at war with each other.

The romance drives the plot nicely, and it is fun to watch Madeleine reject Ratcliffe. Read Democracy if you have four spare hours and want a stylish reminder of how long we have known that the ruling class is corrupt.






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