Jonathan Swift explains the latest presidential debate

Summary: Rather than I add to the countless and pointless commentaries on the debate, here is a note from Jonathan Swift, one of the greatest political observers the West has ever produced. The politics of early 18th century Britain were much like ours. He describes our process for electing presidents — which produced our two weak candidates — better than anything I have seen in Campaign 2016.

Gulliver's Travels
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Across the gulf of three centuries, Jonathan Swift’s insights still provide us with a clear perspective on America.  His observations, cloaked in metaphor, can help us understand the mess we have made of our elections.  This is an excerpt from Chapter 3 of Gulliver’s Travels, A Voyage to Lilliput. Here Gulliver learns how they choose the King’s officers and advisers.

Is it so different than the 18+ month ordeal to which we subject our candidates for the presidency? Is the obstacle course we require any more rational?


“The Lilliputians, being of a civilization less advanced than our own, accept this bizarre selection method as normal.  This is their way, justified by tradition and that it has not utterly failed (yet).

“I was diverted with none so much as that of the Rope-Dancers, performed upon a slender white Thread, extended about two Foot and twelve Inches from the Ground. Upon which I shall desire liberty, with the Reader’s Patience, to enlarge a little. This Diversion is only practiced by those Persons who are Candidates for great Employments and high Favour, at Court. They are trained in this Art from their Youth, and are not always of noble Birth, or liberal Education.

By Luis Quintanilla from the 1947 version of Gulliver's Travels
By Luis Quintanilla in Gulliver’s Travels (1947).

“When a great Office is vacant either by Death or disgrace (which often happens) five or six of those Candidates petition the Emperor to entertain his Majesty and the Court with a Dance on the Rope, and whoever jumps the highest without falling, succeeds in the Office. Very often the Chief Ministers themselves are commanded to show their Skill, and to convince the Emperor that they have not lost their Faculty.

“Flimnap, the Treasurer, is allowed to cut a Caper on the strait Rope, at least an Inch higher than any other Lord in the whole Empire. I have seen him do the Summerset several times together upon a Trencher fixed on the Rope, which is no thicker than a common packthread in England. My friend Reldresal, principal Secretary for private Affairs, is, in my Opinion, if I am not partial, the second after the Treasurer; the rest of the great Officers are much upon a par.”


We whine about the strange candidates between whom we must choose on November 8. Perhaps we should look at the process by which they become the candidates, and our role in that process. Let those who can hear Swift’s message, and act on it.

About Jonathan Swift

“Swift himself lived at a time when his nation had long been split by differences of belief which issued in political parties. He took a strong party stand, for he believed that only through the parties could any political goals be achieved in his age. He tried to choose the most reasonable alternative, the one which would best provide the moral basis for a decent regime and the production of good men and good citizens.

“But there is no doubt that he regarded his situation as defective. Far would be a regime not vexed by such disputes and habits of belief, one in which the rulers could be guided by reason and faction could be legitimately suppressed without the suppression having the character of one fanatical half of the nation imposing its convictions on the other equally fanatically half.”

That is from Allan Bloom’s analysis of Guilliver’s Travels in Giants and Dwarfs: Essays, 1960-1990. It fits our time as well as Swift’s. If you can see some fanaticism in both sides of America’s politics, you are a rare and prize citizen. We need more like you.

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