Ambition in America

Ambition in America: Political Power and the Collapse of Citizenship

Jeffrey A. Becker
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 210
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  • Book Info
    Ambition in America
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4506-8
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface: The Triumph of Ambition and the Collapse of Citizenship?
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: The Paradox of Power in America
    (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? On the one hand, the ambition of some citizens to seek political power while others are content to be ruled can be the genesis of dictators and tyrants. After all, people ambitious for personal success may want either a disproportionate amount of control or...

  5. 1 The Ambition of Moral Citizens: Belonging and the Limits of the Moral Community
    (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: “The man who lives wholly detached from others must be either a beast or god.”¹ Without the practices of friendship, practices capable of transforming strangers into...

  6. 2 The Ambition of Interests: American Constitutionalism
    (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’sThe Federalistinterprets ambition as an unquenchable, uneducable passion of the human heart controllable only in its effects on the polity. ForThe Federalistthe ambition for personal glory and power, the desire to distinguish oneself apart from others, comesat the expense ofpublic liberty. Madison’s famous passage from “Federalist No. 51” exemplifies this view of ambition as a force that needs to be channeled...

  7. 3 The Ambition of Popular Control: Jacksonian Democracy and American Populism
    (pp. 61-74)

    Jacksonian democracy and the Populism that ended at the national political level with William Jennings Bryans 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. As American political power became increasingly consolidated and centralized under the Constitution, Jacksonian democrats believed the values that defined their way of life were under attack. And after the Civil War, when the railroads and corporate trusts turned public policy to private ends, the Populist movement revived the belief that...

  8. 4 The Ambition to Recover Democratic Excellence: Tocqueville and Franklin Delano Roosevelt
    (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. Of his visit to America in 1831, he noted, “I confess that I believe democratic society to have much less to fear from boldness than from paltriness of aim. What frightens me...

  9. 5 To Flatter and Obey: The Triumph of Ambition
    (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. In contrast to Hamilton, who “was not afraid to incur unpopularity for pursuing what he believed to be a wise public policy,” Jefferson...

  10. 6 Keeping Ambition Accountable: A Place for Political Parties
    (pp. 123-142)

    The perception that electoral campaigns are predominantly candidate-centered 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. To avoid the chaos of electoral decisions and reduce uncertainty, candidates and activists affiliate with political parties, which provides an information shortcut for voters to assess the standing of particular...

  11. Conclusion: The Collapse of Modern Citizenship
    (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. Nonetheless, American political principles are not self-executing, or self-sustaining. Legal and formal definitions of citizenship do not require people to participate in the political life of the country. Yet America is the country where peoplechooseto...

  12. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 151-154)
  13. Notes
    (pp. 155-174)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 175-186)
  15. Index
    (pp. 187-198)