I’m a fan of political novels. Most aren’t very good. DEMOCRACY, by Henry Adams, is a good one

I read Anthony Trollope’s entire Palliser series. It was great. The Duke of Omnium and Lady Glencora Palliser are top-notch creations, and their marriage was glorious and complex. I love how he can eke the maximum drama out of relatively little things. But…although the entire book takes place at the center of British politics, and many of the characters are MPs, I still have almost no insight into the British political system (unless it happened to be true that being an MP was a total status thing and nobody cared one whit about the public welfare, which seems a little dark for Trollope).

The point is, politics is both easy and difficult to dramatize. At its core, it’s simple: it’s a sphere of life with high stakes, where people must have impeccable private lives, and where ultimately winning is a zero-sum game. Politics inexorably brings people into conflict.

But on the other hand, I think it’s very hard to write a political novel that’s more than merely a soap opera. Politics isn’t just scheming and wheeling-dealing and cover-ups. It’s also about doing (or not doing) things that you, presumably, think are for the best interest of the nation. And that tension between principal and expediency, ambition and idealism, is one of the hardest things to dramatize.

Probably nobody is better equipped to write a political novel than Henry Adams: the great-grandson of John Adams, the grandson of John Quincy Adams, and the son of Abraham Lincoln’s ambassador to the United Kingdom (Henry accompanied his father on the posting and acted as his secretary). But when I first started reading Democracy, his satirical novel about political life in 1880s Washington, I was like…this is just another soap opera. A well-off widow, Madeleine Lee, gets bored of New York society and decides to see what Washington is all about. She gets mixed up with a cast of characters: an Ambassador from Hungary; an intellectual looking for a diplomatic posting; a Virginia lawyer; and a US Senator from Illinois who came within three votes of being the nominee for President. And they fall in love with her and compete for her affections, and it feels like just another comedy of manners.

But around a third of the way into the book, the situation gets more complicated. The incoming President, an Indiana politician who is political rival of one of her suitors, Senator Ratcliffe, enrolls Ratcliffe in his cabinet, and Ms. Lee becomes witness to some of Ratcliffe’s machinations and to the inner workings of the DC government.

At this point, a number of themes start to come together. For one thing, there is the persistent influence of the Founding Fathers. This is 1880, and the founders of the country remain within living memory. Contemporary politicians both crave and dismiss the comparison to George Washington. They ask whether Washington could’ve survived in contemporary Washington. They wonder whether they embody his ideals, or whether even he embodied his own ideals. There is a persistent tussling with the past, especially during visits made by the protagonist, with her beaux accompanying her, to Mt. Vernon and to Arlington.

Ratcliffe knows that Ms. Lee isn’t quite in love with him, but he thinks he can ensnare her by appealing to her sense of duty: she can make him a better person. And in turn she wonders whether her duty to her country doesn’t require her to become involved in its governance in whatever manner she can.

And lurking through it all is the question of principle: Does Ratcliffe believe in anything? Why is he in Washington? Is he corrupt? Or, rather, is his corruption within reasonable bounds?

Ratcliffe is a very recognizable Washington figure: not an intellectual, not entirely educated, and quite self-absorbed, but very crafty, with a gift for figuring out what people want and how to manipulate them. He resembles Joe Biden in some ways. He’s able to voice high sentiments when it suits him, but are they real? Or is it another trick in his repertoire? Does he even know? Or is sounding high-minded simply such a natural part of being a Senator that he’s lost interest in the distinction between his own self-interest and that of the nation?

I’m not sure! I’m not finished with the book yet! But I am excited to find out.

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