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On this year’s Election Day, voters will be presented with a choice that can have profound consequences for democracy in America in the future. No, I’m not talking about the choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. I’m talking about a ballot initiative about electoral reform in the state of Maine.

Voters in Maine will read the following description of Question Five, the Maine Ranked Choice Voting Initiative:

Do you want to allow voters to rank their choices of candidates in elections for U.S. Senate, Congress, Governor, State Senate, and State Representative, and to have ballots counted at the state level in multiple rounds in which last-place candidates are eliminated until a candidate wins a majority?

To put it more simply, in a race with three or more candidates — say, four: Dewey, Juana, Democracy, Arnott — you the voter can put a number between one and four after the name of each candidate, from your favorite to the one you despise and want to keep as far away from power as possible. If one candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, that candidate is the winner, just as in our present system. More… “Can Electoral Reform Save America?”

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.

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What is politics? The answer is not obvious. Most Americans on the left and the right either do not know or have forgotten what politics is. Conventional American progressives have pretty much abandoned any distinction between the political realm and society and culture in general, while conventional American conservatives treat politics as an exercise in doctrinal purity. Both sides, in different ways, undermine the idea of a limited public square in which different groups in society can agree on a few big things while agreeing to disagree with others — progressives, by including too much of society in the public square, and conservatives, by blocking compromise with too many ideological tests.

Politics is only possible in a society in which much, if not most, of social life is not politicized. In premodern communities in which every aspect of life was regulated by custom or religious law, there was no politics, in the modern sense. There was no public sphere because there was no private sphere. Tribal custom or divine law, as interpreted by tribal elders or religious authorities, governed every action, leaving no room for individual choice. There were power struggles, to be sure. But there was no political realm separate from the tribe or the religious congregation. And disagreement was heresy. More… “What Politics Is(n’t)”

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.

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In his first inaugural address, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared, “So first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is … fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

FDR was wrong. Far worse than nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror is nameless, unreasoning, unjustified optimism which leads to catastrophic blunders that would not have occurred if potential costs and risks had been properly weighed in advance. The greatest thing we have to fear is … optimism itself.

More… “Our Greatest Enemy: Optimism”

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.

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In a year dominated by anti-establishment outsiders like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, to defend the traditional political system is to swim against the current. To the extent that their campaigns pressure the political establishment to take seriously immigration law enforcement or expansion of the safety net, they may do some good. But they are harmful to the extent that they reinforce what has been called “antipolitics,” the outright rejection of conventional representative democracy in theory, not just in practice, for alternatives which are supposed to promote the public interest or reflect the popular will. Like it or not, though, antipolitics is a dead end.

Antipolitics comes in two varieties: plebiscitary populism and public interest progressivism. Each promises an alternative to the messy politics of political parties, interest groups, and lobbies. But although they share a common enemy in conventional party politics, the two schools of antipolitics are opposites. More… “Against Anti-Politics”

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.

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Following the Cold War, the claim that grand historical narratives had become obsolete was frequently made. The “dialectic of history,” which was supposed to replace capitalism first by socialism then by utopian communism, turned out to be a figment of Karl Marx’s imagination.

But it was hard for many people to do without grand historical narratives which attempt to explain the present and predict the future. In the generation after the fall of the Berlin Wall, neoconservatives — that is, former leftists or liberals who had found a new home on the political right in the U.S. and Europe — came up with a quasi-Marxist historical determinism of their own, proposing a “global democratic revolution.” Like Marxists, many neocons believed that the future could be helped to arrive by violence, in the form of American wars of regime change or subversion in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria. More… “The Wave of the Future”

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.

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Socrates was born about 470 B.C.E. in the midst of the golden age of the most famous city that ever was, Athens, and he lived through its greatest triumphs to its ultimate tragedy. His birth came a decade after an Athenian-led coalition of Greek city-states repulsed an invasion by the mightiest empire of its time, that of Persia. The Athens of his time was not only a great naval power and commercial hub, but the center of the most fascinating combination of political and cultural experimentation the world had ever seen.

More… “Dead Philosopher Walking”

Robert Zaller is a Distinguished University Professor of History at Drexel University.

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It started with a man setting himself on fire in protest. The outpouring of grief created a groundswell of angry demonstration. The movement grew until suddenly a dictator and a system that seemed so immovable toppled so easily. And after one nation fell, citizens of other nations began to rise up and overthrow their leaders…

Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire by Victor Sebestyen. 480 pages. Pantheon. $30.

“The people’s will had triumphed over tyranny in a dizzying few months of almost entirely peaceful revolutions which changed the world… a point of bright hopes, intelligent optimism, sincere thanksgiving…” This may sound like a report from the Middle East, but it is actually Victor Sebestyen writing about Central and Eastern Europe.

The pattern is familiar. It’s shocking how easily revolutions in different places in the world are built… More…

The web retailer Zappos gives you 365 days to return or exchange any item it sells, and applies no additional shipping or restocking fees when you do so. LL Bean allows you to return or exchange any item “at any time” if you are no longer 100 per cent satisfied with it, and it applies only a $6.50 shipping fee for this privilege. Under such generous, flexible, friction-fee terms, when shipping and restocking fees are eliminated, when return labels are provided beforehand, when receipts aren’t necessarily required for verification, every product a retailer offers essentially becomes a gift card that can be used to purchase any other product in its line.

 

In theory, of course, a gift card says, “I understand your virtues are so rich and complex, your tastes so refined, that only you yourself can be… More…

I’ve become a Julian Assange man. Leak away, Julian. Leak it all, leak everything. Leak whatever you can until they find a way to shut you down for good.

 

At first, I was not sure how to feel about the recent dump of classified documents at WikiLeaks. I could see the arguments on both sides. I understand that we are the owners of a flawed and imperfect world within which no one owns a pair of those proverbial clean hands. No, we have a dirty world of infinite compromise. We muddle through, more or less, and the women and men who do the muddling, at the international level, are, more often than not, engaged in a tricky business. Human beings have a hard enough time being moral agents. For nation states, the task is well nigh impossible. And… More…

When historians compile lists of the stuff that helped make America America, they don’t even rank the DeMoulin’s Patent Lung Tester alongside even relatively minor inventions like the cotton gin, the telegraph, and the automobile, much less epic game-changers such as instant coffee and air conditioning. Surely this is an oversight.

Catalog No. 439: Burlesque Paraphernalia and Side Degree Specialties and Costumes. Introduction by Charles Schneider; appreciation by David Copperfield. 240 pages. Fantagraphics Books. $22.99.

The DeMoulin Lung Tester was a plain, serious-looking box with a nickel-plated mouthpiece and a calibrated dial on its face. Its ostensible purpose was to measure a man’s lung capacity, the bulky antecedent to today’s spirometers. Its real purpose was to measure a man’s ability to maintain his composure after being made the butt of a joke. When an unsuspecting… More…