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December 04, 2003

Common Sense

In today's news, the Dean campaign is going old school. Following the lead of Thomas Paine who helped inspire the American Revolution with his pamphlet, "Common Sense," the Dean Campaign has produced "Common Sense for A New Century." It's online at that link, but it's more fun if you print it (sheet 1 and sheet 2), read it, then pass it around, to other people. The pdfs were designed for print, using a classic, heavy serif typeface and traditional typographic tricks, like woodcut-esque initial caps and dingbats for organization. See? Old school. Cool.

But "Common Sense for A New Century" is not just cool because someone took the time to design it well. For the past three years I taught Paine's version of "Common Sense" to several intro to American literature classes, and each time it seemed more relevant than the time before. I loved teaching it, because it gave my classes the opportunity to talk about the ideals of justice and equality on which the U.S. was ostensibly founded. Students generally found it easy to see how far we've strayed from those ideals, but just as important, they quickly saw the gap between the kind of activist citizen who would write and distribute a pamphlet like "Common Sense" (and thereby help effect a revolution), and the kind of passive citizens most of us are today (who wouldn't know a revolution if it hit us over the head). The first few sentences alone are brilliant:

SOME writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher.

Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer.

What could be more true of our current situation? "Our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer." In much of its approach, but especially in its release of this newly updated "Common Sense," the Dean campaign seems to understand both what Paine was saying and how it applies today. They understand at least well enough to make it a selling point of the campaign. Are they cynically manipulating the activist passion that motivated Paine and which today motivates many Americans? Perhaps, but if they are, I hope they're ready for what could come of that. The Dean campaign seems to be waking people up from an extended slumber of ambivalence and inaction; what will they do once they've had their morning coffee?

There's some irony in the fact that this new "Common Sense" comes at the same time as this headline in today's Washington Post: Dean Now Courting Party Insiders. If Dean's the "revolutionary" candidate who wants to get back to America's core values, what's he doing cozying up to the establishment? The Post sums it up like this:

Dean derives most of his support, energy and money from grass-roots activists, many of whom are new to politics. His cutting-edge Internet campaign is shattering expectations and revolutionizing presidential politics.

But Dean, a savvy strategist and tactician, knows that the road to the nomination and the presidency is much more treacherous if he continues to alienate lawmakers and party insiders the way he did early on, several supporters said. A few veteran Democrats have pulled him aside in recent months to deliver that message.

The trick for Dean is to rail against Washington in public and rally insiders behind the scenes, party strategists say.

"There's a danger some will call it hypocritical . . . or some of his original Internet warriors won't understand he needs to consort with those they feel are the enemy," said Democratic strategist Jenny Backus.

The strategists are right—Dean is going to have to walk a thin line here. Still, it's true that Dean is going to need as many friends as he can get if he's going to win, and even if he is courting the insiders, he's doing too many new and different things to be considered just like every other politician. For example, his campaign seems to be expanding to help elect a Democratic congress, as well. As the Post says, "A non-incumbent presidential candidate raising money for members of Congress this early is unprecedented." Many things about the Dean campaign are unprecedented; let's hope one of them is this: Dean will keep his campaign promises to (borrowing from Paine) take the necessary evil of government out of the control of special interests and give its power to punish back to the society it was designed to serve.

Sidenote: Is the Gephardt campaign playing dirty by trying to create bad blood between unions?

Posted December 4, 2003 08:04 AM | election 2004 general politics

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