Personality Over Policy: An American Tradition – "The Problem of Democracy" Reviewed

Of all the hand-wringing about our current state of politics, a major complaint is that today’s voters choose personality and attitude over policy and ability. However, students of history know that this has been the case for centuries in America, almost from its inception.

In The Problem of Democracy, Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein examine how the U.S.’s second and sixth presidents, John and John Quincy Adams, questioned the wisdom of the people. They feared that an unchecked populace would lead to a government that mimicked the immaturity and capriciousness of youth. They felt the public should have a say in matters of state and law, but not the final say.

Naturally, a 2019 book that maintains that the Adamses “were onto something when they observed that the errors of the people threatened ‘government by the people'” and that they “wished, almost innocently, that sincerity would play a demonstrable role in the life of teh Republic, to supplant hero worship,” will invite comparisons to our current political climate, but Isenberg and Burstein are careful not to connect those dots, even if they do strategically place all of the dots.


Related reading: Thomas Jefferson Was a Dick


Their shared mindset would lead to them being painted by their rivals as anti-democratic and certainly played a role in the two being the only ones of the first seven U.S. presidents not to be elected to a second term, but The Problem of Democracy argues that the Adamses were actually independent thinkers that would not blindly follow partisan politics. Instead, they tried to use knowledge, history, and logic – particularly classical learning in the form of Cicero – to combat the cult of personality that embodied the populist fantasy – John against Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy against Andrew Jackson. It largely did not work and that’s how the lion of liberty, a co-drafter of the Declaration of Independence, could be smeared as a monarchist.

“The best reasons we find for remembering the Adamses are those that concern their stubborn insights into human psychology. They understood the tricky relationship between human nature and political democracy, and how emotionally induced thought often undermined social and political justice.”

From a knowledge and ability standpoint, they were certainly capable and deserving to lead the country, but their inability and/or unwillingness to, as Adams once said of Jefferson, tell the people what they want to hear rather than what they needed to know, led to their disappointing presidencies and, especially for John, being overshadowed by his revolutionary brethren.

Yet he – and they – were not entirely innocent in their destinies.

John Adams is my personal hero, but I recognize and acknowledge his humanity and flaws, something that the authors largely ignore in their attempt to eschew all blame for the Adamses’ failures. They were brilliant, but not perfect, simultaneously full of both self-doubt and self-assuredness. They were certainly prone to jealousy, particularly when they failed to galvanize the people the way their opponents did, but Isenberg and Burstein work to minimize their lesser qualities.

In fairness, this is a minor complaint in a work such as this, especially because I do enjoy the way it’s written – modern but with a few old-timey flourishes (like referring to John Quincy as “the second president Adams”). My most significant quibble is actually with the book’s approach.


Related reading: The Best Books on John Adams


Father and son were always closely connected, bonding over their love of learning, finding happiness in the other’s successes, and not receiving their recognition until late in life and death. By focusing on both men, The Problem of Democracy manages to concurrently shine a light on the overlooked John Quincy Adams while continuing the much-needed reexamination of his father. However, while I appreciate the book’s parallel narratives of father and son loosely repeating themselves à la The Godfather Part II, apart from the introduction and conclusion, the book progresses more as a dual biography rather than a focused examination on one topic, like John Adams’s Republic or John Adams and the Fear of American Oligarchy. That isn’t a bad thing, just a bit of a disconnect between the promise of the book and its actual execution.

Despite this, there are multiple lessons to be gleaned within and it may help to make some readers feel better than using celebrity to catapult oneself into the White House is not a new phenomenon.

4 out of 5

I was provided a free copy in exchange for an honest review. This article contains Amazon affiliate links. Any click may result in my receiving a commission.


Christopher Pierznik is the worst-selling author of nine books. Check out more of his writing at Medium. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Medium, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter. Please feel free to get in touch at CPierznik99@gmail.com.

Published by Christopher Pierznik

Christopher Pierznik is the author of 9 books and has contributed to numerous websites on a variety of topics including music, sports, movies, TV, personal finance, and life. He works in corporate finance and lives in northern New Jersey with his family. His dream is to one day be a member of the Wu-Tang Clan.

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