The American philosopher John Dewey thought that democracy should be like a giant conversation: the nation talking to itself about its hopes and fears and listening to what other people have to say. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) for Dewey, he never got to hear what such a conversation might sound like, because the technology wasn't available. Dewey was born in 1859, which means the first election of his lifetime was one of the most consequential in American history, the 1860 contest that brought Abraham Lincoln to the White House. It wasn't much of a conversation though, more an exercise in mutual incomprehension and loathing, with entirely different campaigns being fought in the North and the South (where for the most part Lincoln wasn't even on the ballot). Dewey died in the summer of 1952, so the last election he was able to follow all the way through was the one four years earlier, when Harry Truman beat Thomas Dewey (no relation) in one of the great upsets in US presidential history. This was the election that is remembered for the photo of a triumphant Truman holding up an edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune announcing that Dewey had beaten him. If that election was a conversation, the American people had clearly been talking behind their hands.
LRB 5 June 2008 | PDF Download