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Ambition in America

Political Power and the Collapse of Citizenship

Jeffrey A. Becker

Publication Year: 2014

Most Americans admire the determination and drive of artists, athletes, and CEOs, but they seem to despise similar ambition in their elected officials. The structure of political representation and the separation of powers detailed in the United States Constitution were intended to restrain self-interested ambition. Because not all citizens have a desire to rule, republican democracies must choose leaders from pools of ambitious candidates while trying to prevent those same people from exploiting public power to dominate the less ambitious.

Ambition in America: Political Power and the Collapse of Citizenship is an engaging examination of this rarely studied yet significant phenomenon. Author Jeffrey A. Becker explores how American political institutions have sought to guide, inspire, and constrain citizens' ambitions to power. Detailing the Puritans' government by "moral community," the Founders' attempts to curtail ambition, the influence of Jacksonian populism, and twentieth-century party politics, Becker presents an unfolding drama that culminates in a spirited discussion of the deficiencies in the current political system.This groundbreaking work reassesses the value and role of ambition in politics in order to identify the beliefs and practices that threaten self-government, as well as those that can strengthen democratic politics.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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Contents

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pp. vii-viii

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Preface

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pp. ix-xii

American democracy faces an enduring challenge to encourage, harness, and direct the ambitions citizens have to wield political power. Most Americans are familiar with the structure of representation and separation of powers James Madison put into the Constitution to restrain and channel self-interested ambition. Yet little attention has been given to ways of encouraging political ambitions...

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Introduction

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pp. 1-18

Ambition, the desire for public fame, rank, and/or power, poses a challenge to democratic governments whose legitimacy rests on citizens equally sharing responsibility for self-government: namely, how does a governmental system founded on rule by equals—where no person has natural dominion over another—make room for the unequal desires of its citizens to actually rule? ...

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1. The Ambition of Moral Citizens

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pp. 19-38

One of the strongest needs people have is to be welcomed as members of a community. Long before teenagers (and many adults) fretted about whether to “friend” or “defriend” one another on electronic social networks, people set terms under which strangers could merit more intimate inclusion as “one of us” (thus earning the right to be called “friend”). Aristotle saw the need for belonging as the core of political life; isolation was its antithesis...

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2. The Ambition of Interests

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pp. 39-60

On the one hand, the drafting and ratifying of the American Constitution established a government committed to the exercise and control of the ambition for political power. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay’s The Federalist interprets ambition as an unquenchable, uneducable passion of the human heart controllable only in its effects on the polity...

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3. The Ambition of Popular Control

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pp. 61-74

Jacksonian democracy and the Populism that ended at the national political level with William Jennings Bryan’s candidacy for U.S. president mark two periods in American political history that exposed a growing divergence between the oligarchic political forms of association established under the Constitution and the plebiscitary ambitions of mass populations...

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4. The Ambition to Recover Democratic Excellence

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pp. 75-100

In the age of democratic revolutions, Tocqueville recognized a need for political associations capable of cultivating ideals of excellence appropriate for democratic citizens: principles of social reward sufficiently immense, and of enduring value, to counterbalance democracy’s leveling effects of democracy. One of Tocqueville’s laments about democracy in America is that people lower their ambitions to common and everyday concerns rather than yearn for the grand, noble, and enduring...

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5. To Flatter and Obey

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pp. 101-122

The belief that people ambitious for political power ought to serve the people has become incontrovertible for American politics. What began as a philosophy of government based on the consent of the governed and dedicated to forwarding the public’s interest has evolved into the celebrated conviction that leaders ought to “flatter and obey” the people. For Herbert Croly, this confidence in the guiding wisdom of the people was propagated by Thomas Jefferson’s early attacks on the Federalists...

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6. Keeping Ambition Accountable

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pp. 123-142

The perception that electoral campaigns are predominantly candidatecentered assumes that parties no longer offer incentives for ambitious candidates. Alan Ehrenhalt’s claim that Americans have dismantled structures of peer review is only half right; rather than simply disappearing, the place of peer review within the selection system for office seekers takes new forms. Political parties continue to exist as institutions that regulate rivalries between candidates competing for power through democratic elections...

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Conclusion

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pp. 143-150

Although our politics preach ideals of universal education and citizenship, American education no longer places much value on training citizens in the virtues and practices of citizenship.1 Because teaching the practical arts of citizenship, of ruling and being ruled in turn, does not appear immediately profitable, a curriculum not exclusively devoted to the purposes of employment or material advancement is met with suspicion...

Acknowledgments

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pp. 151-154

Notes

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pp. 155-174

Bibliography

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pp. 175-186

Index

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pp. 187-198


E-ISBN-13: 9780813145068
E-ISBN-10: 0813145066
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813145044

Page Count: 210
Publication Year: 2014

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Subject Headings

  • Political participation -- Social aspects -- United States.
  • Ambition -- Political aspects -- United States.
  • Representative government and representation -- United States.
  • Power (Social sciences) -- United States.
  • Citizenship -- United States.
  • Political culture -- United States.
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