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Who Speaks for America?: Why Democracy Matters in Foreign Policy [Hardcover]

Eric Alterman
3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

October 1, 1998 0801435749 978-0801435744 1
A book in current affairs by a columnist for The Nation whose first book sold some 30,000 copies. The new book continues the work the author began in Sound and Fury: The Washington Punditocracy and the Collapse of American Politics (Harper-Collins, 1992). Alterman says that elites dominate U.S. foreign policy at every turn, and that the gap between the views of the public and those of the policy-making elites has increased to the extent that the United States has become an empire.Journalist and historian Eric Alterman argues that the vast majority of Americans have virtually no voice in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy. With policymakers answerable only to a small coterie of self-appointed experts, corporate lobbyists, self-interested parties, and the elite media, the U.S. foreign policy operates not as the instrument of a democracy, but of a "pseudo-democracy": a political system with the trappings of democratic checks and balances but with little of their content. This failure of American democracy is all the more troubling, Alterman charges, now that the Cold War is over and the era of global capital has replaced it. Americans' stake in so-called foreign policy issues from trade to global warming is greater than ever. Yet the current system serves to mute their voices and ignore their concerns.

Experts have long insisted that the public is too ignorant to contribute to the creation of successful foreign policy. But over the course of two hundred years, as Alterman makes clear, the American people have shown an impressive consistency in their ideals and values. The problem for any elite, the author explains, is that Americans often define their interests quite differently than those who would speak in their name. The American public's values are, ironically, much closer to the "liberal republican" philosophy of our founders than to those of our most powerful elites. Alterman concludes with a series of challenging proposals for reforms designed to create a truly democratic U.S. foreign policy.

Editorial Reviews Review

Americans are often assailed for their lack of knowledge concerning foreign affairs. Collective current-events acumen seems confined to the U.S. unless an incident is covered live by CNN and involves high-tech gadgetry and explosions. Eric Alterman, a columnist for The Nation and a Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute, admits a national detachment, but blames the process and culture behind the making of foreign policy, not the American people, for creating this climate of skepticism and ignorance.

"The public's values," writes Alterman in Who Speaks for America?, "are a good deal closer to the liberal republican values of the country's original founders than are those of the establishment that professes to represent them. The problem is not that the public does not care. Rather, it has no idea how to force the government to respond to its preferences." The preferences Alterman indicates are based on a wide range of public-opinion polls that demonstrate the sharp dichotomy between what citizens consider important and worthwhile and what lawmakers, self-appointed experts, corporate lobbyists, and other elitists comprising the "punditocracy" actually put into practice as foreign policy. For instance, polls reveal that the public attitude toward the United Nations is overwhelmingly favorable; that nearly all forms of covert governmental action conducted abroad are viewed as inexcusable; that there is strong public opposition to the size and scope of U.S. arms sales across the globe; and protecting the environment is given a higher priority than insuring adequate energy supplies. All of these opinions are inconsistent with current American foreign policy, yet voters are unable (or, some would argue, unwilling) to exert any meaningful and sustained influence over the manner in which the government interacts with the world.

According to Alterman, the primary reason for a lack of public access to this process is the attitude historically held by leaders that the public is ill-equipped to make decisions concerning foreign affairs. "How, then," he asks, "can the United States claim to be a functioning democracy when one of the most crucial aspects of public policy allows for almost no democratic participation?" The short answer is that it can't, so Alterman offers an "immodest proposal" for overhauling the current system--though immodest is putting it lightly. He should be credited for highlighting a significant problem in this informed and important book, but it must be noted that his solutions are so sweeping, and the implications so vast, that actually activating them would require restructuring the electoral process and creating new institutions from the ground up--a radical idea with a familiar ring. --Shawn Carkonen

From Publishers Weekly

Alterman (senior fellow at the World Policy Institute and a columnist at the Nation) marshals history, polemic and policy prescription into a plea to "transform American politics into a truly democratic endeavor." Alterman describes how the Founders' belief in public deliberation and limited foreign entanglements gave way to a dominant executive and a "national security" state impervious to public scrutiny. In this "New World Order," the president?not Congress?wields the power to make war, and American environmental policy can be determined by unelected bureaucrats at the World Trade Organization, while the media perpetuate a "pseudodemocracy" of sound bytes and images. Far from being truly democratic, American foreign policy has become the exclusive province of an "elite" of pundits, corporations, ethnic lobbies and think tanks. To democratize American foreign policy, Alterman proposes electing "citizen juries" reflecting the class, gender and ethnic diversity of the population, who would conduct televised hearings with policymakers and deliberate about various international issues. At first their role would be solely educational, but "over time... the system could gradually transfer key components of the making of U.S. foreign policy to the jury." Such a process would lead to a foreign policy more reflective of the values of the American people, a stronger role for the United Nations, free trade linked with workers' rights and an end to covert action and U.S. support for repressive dictatorships. This is an accessible book that makes a carefully argued indictment of the foreign policy-making process.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 244 pages
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press; 1 edition (October 1, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0801435749
  • ISBN-13: 978-0801435744
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.3 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #4,104,662 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

3.3 out of 5 stars
3.3 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars History Lessons February 3, 2001
As a non-US citizen, this eye-opening book is a challenge. Intricate, with massive information and intense analysis, the book is a must to understand how US foreign policy evolved and revolved around similar interventionist attitudes. History tells, according to Alterman, how it can repeat itself with the help of US officials. Rewritten history as in the Orwellian 1984 is the means by which the most antidemocratic facets of US state policies are set into place. I learned about this book in a C-Span 2 panel and Alterman's words did not disappointed me a bit.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Compelling case for a democratic foreign policy July 22, 2008
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Eric Alterman is a rare journalist who actually believes in a democratic foreign policy. Yes, it is depressing that this thesis is even controversial, but it unfortunately is. Alterman makes an eloquent case for more public participation in the nation's foreign policy.

To prove his contention that leading intellectuals are anti-democratic, Alterman quotes one think tank policy "expert" who flat-out says, "I don't think the people should have any voice in foreign policy," (he does not unfortunately name the elitist). Alterman demonstrates that the elite consensus is wrong; popular opinion on foreign policy is neither irrational nor constantly shifting.

Best of all, Alterman is intellectually honest. A supporter of high levels of immigration, he nonetheless honest enough to admit that the American people want immigration greatly reduced. (This fact has been supported by numerous opinion polls conducted by the Chicago Council of Foreign Relations).He challenges pro-immigration advocates to make a better case for their position to the American people. I highly recommend Who Speaks for America.
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3 of 65 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars This book goes against the writing of founding fathers October 7, 2003
By A Customer
Our founding fathers had the good sense to create the United States as a represenative republic instead of a democracy.
The mess with true democracy and the recall mess in California show why the founding fathers were on the money with the idea of a represenative republic instead of giving the masses immediate control through the chaotic process of a true democracy.
This book as with all Eric Alterman books, his Altercation on, and his column in "the Nation" are designed to show us that the country should be to the left so that it goes along with Eric Alterman's ideals.
The purpose of this book and other Alterman books is to say since the government won't do things my way, I'll create a book based on questionable documentation to show why I'm right.
I don't fault Eric Alterman for his leftist and radical beliefs which are to the left of most liberals, democrats, and even Bill and Hillary Clinton.
What I don't like is when Eric Alterman tells the rest of us why were wrong when we don't agree with his leftist, liberal, and radical beliefs.
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