Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Pragmatism, Politics, and Perversity: Democracy and the American Party Battle

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Pragmatism, Politics, and Perversity: Democracy and the American Party Battle

Article excerpt

Pragmatism, Politics, and Perversity: Democracy and the American Party Battle. By Joseph L. Esposito. (Lanham, Md., and other cities: Lexington Books, 2012. Pp. [xxvi], 361. $110.00, ISBN 978-0-7391-7363-3.)

Joseph L. Esposito's book on the battle between American parties is intriguing, suggestive, disturbing, and ultimately infuriating. He advances a theory about American politics and the role of parties, shows how the democratic rules of fair play may be breached by those wishing to graft capitalist institutions onto society, and then applies his formulation to American politics from the ratification of the Constitution to the end of the Civil War, though he offers glimpses into more modern times. Esposito's formulations are interesting, but his practice demonstrates a constant violation of the historian's insistence on understanding context.

The intriguing part of this work is the first two chapters, where Esposito, a lawyer, argues that the ideas of pragmatism advanced by Charles S. Peirce and John Dewey should be applied to American political history. The goal of a democratic society ruled by freedom of speech and of the press is to enable the public to find those policies that enhance the general welfare and then change them when circumstances warrant. In the United States, this search for appropriate policies becomes ensnared in the contest between political parties. According to Esposito, the parties always divide into one that seeks capitalist institutional domination and the other that seeks to improve the general welfare. So far, the theory Esposito proposes has its attractive qualities, although definitions of certain terms (capitalist, general welfare, democracy) are lacking and there are no gradations within them. The political system, argues Esposito, is corrupted by the willingness of parties to resort to "perversity"--distorting the truth, speaking half-truths, resorting to overt lies, and propagandizing. Esposito then calls for, and believes early pragmatists advocated, a precise history that could inform and guide people in the present. Up to this point, the reader may well be intrigued by Esposito's desire to found a school of history based on pragmatism. Worries emerge when he declares that over time the party imposing capitalism on the nation and undermining democracy was the Federalist-Whig-Republican continuum, while the other party represented the general welfare and democracy. …

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