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John W. Dean

Howard Fineman's "Thirteen American Arguments": A Key Briefing on the Core Political Clashes That Matter Now, and Historically Have Mattered, to Americans


Friday, March 20, 2009

Howard Fineman, Newsweek's senior Washington Correspondent and an NBC news analyst, understands the ways of the nation's capital and its politics. His new book, The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates That Inspire and Define Our Country, has been on my reading list for months, so it struck me as a good potential read to give my new Kindle (the Kindle 2) a first test. In light of my overloaded book shelves, not to mention an expensive book-reading addiction, the idea of building an electronic library has long appealed to me. However, the inability to highlight passages, search that library easily, and cut and paste from the books made the early electronic readers hardly worth the savings in cost and shelf space, notwithstanding my equal interest in saving trees. In sharp contrast, the Kindle 2 reading experience was superb overall, with the notetaking and highlighting functions solid and satisfactory, though they could also be improved upon.

After completing the book, I concluded that Howard Fineman has written a tour de force addressing the fundamental issues that divide Americans.

The Thirteen American Arguments

Howard Fineman has employed his well-honed journalistic skill to catalogue the political arguments that have long characterized our politics. The result is a fast-paced, well-written, and highly informative tract, which is enlightening even for those who may already have substantial knowledge of any particular issue Fineman covers. I doubt many people have looked carefully at all the subjects explored in The Thirteen American Arguments – which kept me highlighting matters of which I wanted to make note. In summary, the book is an insightful survey of America's most important political debates: past, present and, no doubt, future.

The material is nicely compressed, and covered in a fashion that only a journalist fully familiar with the issues might effectively employ. Fineman has not only been writing about these subjects over many years, but he has also interviewed many of the players on all sides of these arguments in their contemporary iterations. While Fineman draws on countless 19th and early 20th Century figures, along with his notes from interviews with every major presidential candidate since 1984, one senses that he has also watched many of these arguments unfold time and again during his years of political reporting.

If Fineman has an agenda – other than honestly reporting what he finds that Americans argue about – it is not apparent. His stated first goal in the book is "to cut through the noise of the day and try to show you a comprehensible and nonpartisan overview of our public life and how it works." (Emphasis added.) He is good to his word. He reports situations as they exist, which may trouble a few partisans, and does not take sides.

In introducing his analysis, Fineman explains that notwithstanding "conventional wisdom's critique" that we argue too much, he believes that "we in fact do not argue enough," particularly "about the fundamentals." I agree with his warning: "If we fail to draw strength from our argumentative nature, we risk losing what made us great and gives us hope. Our disputes are not a burden, but a blessing." To anyone who understands and appreciates democracy, these assertions are incontestable.

Fineman's Set of the Enduring Debates That Inspire and Define Our Country

I am not sure that all the debates that Fineman addresses are, in fact, "inspiring" or necessarily "defining," but they all are important and compelling. He devotes a chapter to each of area of argument in which he has found the differences protracted, and the subject important. Without truly doing justice to any of these arguments, I have highlighted each one, in order to provide others with a feel for the scope of this work. In addition, I will close this column by looking at one of the arguments as to which Fineman's analysis particularly caught my attention. But first, I was interested in the subjects that made his list.

At the top of Fineman's list is the question, Who is a person? This question arose in debates over the legal and moral personhood of slaves, women, fetuses and corporations. Second, Fineman addresses the debate over which persons can become Americans, and the ongoing – and often inconsistent – positions Americans have taken regarding immigration. This is a debate that is as old as it is currently controversial.

His chapter about the role of faith explores the third argument -- the endlessly divisive battle about "what Americans can be told to believe as a matter of faith rather than reason," along with the issue of church and state. The chapter on the fourth argument, regarding what Americans "can know and say" traces government secrecy back to the Presidency of John Adams and the Sedition Act of 1789, and makes the issue current with coverage of the Bush II administration's secrecy and its pursuit of the New York Times for publishing information about the warrantless surveillance that it had commenced after 9/11.

Fineman's fifth argument relates to what responsibilities Americans have to each other in terms of behavior, material wealth, and social welfare. As Fineman puts it, this is an argument about "the nature of individualism." This material then segues into the sixth debate, about the nature and rules of government: Fineman describes it as a clash over "how we choose the priests [read judges] of our secular faith, the law."

To paraphrase Fineman, the seventh argument looks at how we define money and manage debt; the eighth argument concerns the conflicts between regions and between local and national power; and the ninth asks what is the relative strength of the president in a federal scheme dedicated to finding the midpoint between monarch and mob. The final arguments deal with our relationship to the world: The tenth takes on the role of trade; the eleventh, our proper theory and style of war and diplomacy; and the twelfth, our proper conduct toward the environment. Fineman describes the thirteenth and last argument as "perhaps most vehement," regarding the distance we still must travel to reach the "more perfect union" the Founders claimed to have established. Lincoln called us the "last best hope of earth."

Who Is An American?

When reading The Thirteen American Arguments I figured I had made notes and highlighted materials about equally in all thirteen chapters. Yet when I printed out the results, I was surprised to discover I had highlighted disproportionately more material, and made more notes, in the chapter examining the perpetual problem of immigration in the United States. I suspect this is true because I have typically paid little attention to the issue and on this point, as on the others, Fineman's analysis and overviews discussing the differences in viewpoint provide understanding, and his material truly informs.

A number of Fineman's particular points on immigration were of especial interest to me:

To begin, Fineman described the theory of the immigration tipping point. He writes, "[W]hen immigrants become roughly 15 percent of the population [it becomes a problem]. Each time that happened, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the result was a backlash—sometimes violent, and often producing draconian, racist limitations. In the spring of 2006, the country's demographic profile was approaching that number: an estimated 14 percent of a nation of 300 million was foreign-born (in Miami, more than half the residents were born elsewhere)."

Fineman also provides an account of the first time illegal immigrations became criminal: "In the Reagan years, an odd-couple alliance of conservative Republicans and Democratic union bosses joined hands in an effort to stop illegal immigration. The resulting statute, signed into law by the president in 1986, for the first time made it a crime—although only a misdemeanor—to be here without proper permission and papers. (For the previous 350 years or so of the continent's history, the only punishment for illegal entry had been immediate deportation, but even that had rarely been enforced.)"

In addition, Fineman chronicles the explosion of Spanish-speaking immigrants: "[B]etween 1970 and 2005, an estimated 20 million [arrived from Mexico]. In that same span, the rest of Latin America sent another 20 million here. Taken together, the mass migration has been the largest in recorded history of one people from their homeland to that of another. The problem: Perhaps as much as half of the total came here illegally."

An especially interesting section has Fineman reporting on his conversation with an anti-immigration crusader, former Congressman J.D. Hayworth. Fineman describes the conversation as follows:"‘I am anti-illegal! These people are coming here, illegally, and they come with an assumption of entitlement that I find outrageous. We're talking about the rule of law.' A large, beefy man with a stentorian voice, Hayworth said that business interests look the other way so they can expand the labor pool; Democrats want to bestow ‘amnesty' on 12 million undocumented illegals ‘because they think that they'll all end up voting Democrat! So the Corporate Right wants cheap labor and the Democrats on the left want cheap votes! Meanwhile, working Americans are shouldering an unacceptable tax burden for social services for people who have no legal right to be in the country!'"

As Fineman recalls, Hayworth also wanted to send a strong message to Mexicans who proclaim the American Southwest actually belongs to them: "[Hayworth] was for reminding the Mexicans—and, while he was at it, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela—that the Gadsden Purchase and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (by which the United States acquired sovereignty over the Southwest and California) were real events with real consequences. He cited what he regarded as an ominous number in a 2006 opinion survey by the Pew Hispanic Center. ‘It said that 58 percent of Latinos think the Southwest rightly belongs not to the United States but to Mexico!' (Actually, it turns out to have been a Zogby Poll from 2002, but the number is the number.)"

When I finished Howard Fineman's The Thirteen American Arguments, I felt I had been briefed by one of America's better journalists on what's politically hot and why, as well as what is more of the same old, same old. The book is certainly worth the read, with or without a Kindle.

John W. Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former counsel to the president.

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