Toward Democracy

15 October 2019

In 2016, the American historian James Kloppenberg published Toward Democracy, a book which, in just short of 1,000 pages, provides a nearly comprehensive history of the evolution of democratic thought on both sides of the Atlantic since the seventeenth century. It’s now out in paperback. Tocqueville 21 blog editor Jacob Hamburger and summer intern Matthew Jackson spoke with Professor Kloppenberg, a member of The Tocqueville Review/La Revue Tocqueville’s editorial council, about some misconceptions on the divergences between French and American democratic ideals, and the kinds of democracy the world may be heading toward in years to come.


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Tocqueville 21: Given the grand narrative of democracy you are telling in your book, do the politics we have seen around the world since its publication in 2016 surprise you? Does the narrative of democratic “crisis” or “erosion” that has emerged in popular and scholarly discourse since the victories of Donald Trump and the Leave campaign get the story right? Or are we, rather, living in a moment of new experiments with forms of democratic participation, such as the campaigns for referendums and popular assemblies that we see in Europe? Does any such experiment result in a net “loss” for the trans-historical project of democracy, or do are these obstacles inherently constructive?


James Kloppenberg: Saddened and anxious as I am as a result of recent developments around the world that threaten democracy, I cannot say I am surprised. The point of Toward Democracy, after all, is that constructing even imperfect democracies is the work of centuries. Democracy, I argue, is as fragile as even its partial achievement is precious. My Harvard colleagues Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, whose book How Democracies Die has attracted a lot of well-deserved attention, likewise point out that cultural norms such as forbearance are crucial for the survival of self-government. They focus primarily on Latin American and Eastern European nations, several of which have been in the news, particularly because of the strength of far-right and authoritarian parties and politicians. I think it’s important to note that nations such as Poland, Hungary, Austria, Turkey, and Venezuela have enjoyed relatively brief interludes of democratic government. Authoritarian rule has been much more common. When Levitsky and Ziblatt turn their attention to the US and Western Europe, they emphasize the importance of what they term “soft guardrails,” the cultural norms that militate against the sort of hyper-partisanship we are witnessing in the US today—and they stress the reluctance of most politicians, when in power, to play “Constitutional hardball” and do all they can to eradicate those who oppose them.


In short, I think Levitsky and Ziblatt’s analysis is almost eerily congruent with mine in Toward Democracy. I argue that self-rule rests on cultural predispositions toward deliberation, pluralism, and reciprocity that have been rare in human history, and I show how the conflicts that democracy encourages have often undercut commitments toward those values. The depth of the conflicts we see around us even in nations with more solidly entrenched traditions of self-government, although naturally unsettling, are not necessarily a sign that democracy itself is in danger in Northern European nations or the US. To the contrary, many disillusioned citizens are expressing understandable, if unfocused, anger about what has been happening now for half a century—the concentration of political and economic power into fewer and fewer hands. Ever since the dawn of the neoliberal order, usually associated with the rise to power of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, these dynamics have paid huge dividends for the wealthy and privileged and left almost everyone else wondering what has gone wrong. Conservative parties have been joined by many on the center left, who either sought to avoid repeating François Mitterand’s failure to counter the momentum of neoliberalism, or followed the lead of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton’s “third way.” In either case, they have accepted globalization, deindustrialization, and the dominance of financial institutions as inevitable rather than contingent. As a result, most social democratic parties have found themselves challenged on both flanks, by new and old hard right parties and new and old hard left parties, all of which have questioned the viability and the adequacy of the hard-won gains of the US New Deal and the social democratic welfare states that dominated North Atlantic politics from World War II through the 1970s.


We are now witnessing a recalibration of the moderate left and what remains of the moderate right, illustrated by the surprising strength of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in the US and Emmanuel Macron in France. Whether either of those developments will succeed in blunting the appeal of the far right, premised as it is both on economic and cultural resentments, remains to be seen. But the emergence of the Tea Party and Occupy in the US, Brexit in Britain, and the gilets jaunes and the Front National in France all signal the unwillingness of so many people to any longer accept the neoliberal status quo.


Ever since the democratic revolutions of the eighteenth century, there has been a tension between the cultural pressures that manifest themselves in racism, sexism, xenophobia, and religious intolerance, on the one hand, and the economic pressures that squeeze majorities into precarity or poverty. Those with power have always sought ways to distract those without it from agitating for the redistribution of wealth by accentuating the importance of race, sex, nationality, and faith. As long as the gap separating the wealthiest from the poorest in the northern and middle states remained as small as it was when Tocqueville visited, he thought American democracy could thrive in those regions even though slavery stifled its operation in the South as the persistence of aristocracy and the restoration of monarchy did in France.


The trentes glorieuses were a period of partial relief from these forces, giving many people in the North Atlantic a false confidence that continuing prosperity would in time soften the antagonism between in-groups and out-groups. The steady expansion, especially since the 1960s, of available opportunities for those formerly excluded by race, religion, or gender has fueled various forms of backlash particular to individual nations and cultures. We are now witnessing a struggle  between those who have been shrewdly using those cultural rifts as leverage to preserve privileges that might otherwise be more vulnerable to popular challenges, and those who are fed up with those privileges. This struggle seems to me unlikely to end anytime soon.


What comes next? As always in democracy, it will depend on the extent to which majorities can be mobilized either to shift power, on the one hand, or, on the other, to continue protecting and strengthening the grip of those who enjoy it—and are prepared to defend it by any means necessary. It does not help that many of the best educated people on both sides of the Atlantic continue to trust themselves to know better than the average person where the shoe pinches and how to fix it.


In general, it seems from your writing that you believe the canonical differences between French and American democracy, including the French and American revolutions, is overstated. Is this a fair summary of your beliefs, and if so, what do you believe both democracies can learn from recognizing what they share?


This is an immensely complicated question, which is why Toward Democracy is such a long book. There are obvious differences in the outcomes of the revolutions; that standard view is clearly correct. The French Revolution led to almost a century of instability and five separate republican regimes. The American Revolution put in place a constitutional democracy that has endured for two and a half centuries—albeit with a savage Civil War fought only decades after the Constitution was ratified. The differences must be traced all the way back to the sixteenth century wars of religion and then forward to the present.


There is no point in denying the unique histories of France and the US—just as the histories of Iceland, Ireland, Switzerland, and Swaziland are unique. But the idea that the French Revolution was animated by categorically different ideas and aspired to categorically different ideals does seem to me overstated. Both revolutions grew from Enlightenment ideas, but different thinkers drew from different strands of the Enlightenment. The most important American thinkers and the most influential American political figures drew primarily on the moderate rather than the skeptical Enlightenment, i.e., from Locke, Rousseau, and the Scottish common-sense philosophers rather than from the heirs of Spinoza. The most important French thinkers and the most influential French political figures either drew from the more radical wing of the Enlightenment or understood Rousseau very differently from the way in which Americans understood him. But contrary to common opinion, Rousseau was indeed a profound influence on early Americans such as John Adams, James Madison, and James Wilson. Rousseau, in the article “Political Economy” that he contributed to the Encyclopédie, identified the common good with the general will, and denied that individuals would have to be coerced to accept it; in Emile, he argued that citizens must learn to identify and internalize their duty rather than simply following their inclinations; and in the constitutions he wrote for Poland and Corsica, Rousseau proposed representative rather than direct democracy. Just so, Adams, Madison, and Wilson argued that the purpose of a Constitution—whether for the state of Massachusetts in Adams’s case or for the nation in Madison and Wilson’s—was to provide the institutions that would make possible the unending search, through deliberation by the people’s elected representatives, for the common good or the general welfare.


The idea that the American Revolution sanctified individual freedom, or the rights individuals hold against the government, whereas the French Revolution elevated fraternité alongside liberty and equality, is a caricature—even though it has long been held by many French thinkers unfamiliar with American thought and by conservative Americans at least since the 1950s. In the eighteenth century, by contrast, as well as in Tocqueville’s writings, Americans’ commitment to the social and economic as well as the political equality of all citizens was widely acknowledged on both sides of the Atlantic. The contrast that was actually drawn at the time focused on the gulf separating the vast inequalities in the monarchical and aristocratic nations of Europe from the relatively more equal standing of white male citizens in the United States. Of course, the institution of chattel slavery, which endured in the US decades after the Haitian Revolution brought it to an end in France’s Caribbean empire, is an important difference. But the idea that the US stands for individual rights, and France for community, is grossly overstated, and much of Toward Democracy is devoted to demonstrating what Tocqueville saw clearly while he was in the US.


The insistence on American individualism and the fairy-tale story of a weak American state are ideological constructions that have appealed to thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic for diverse reasons. For a more recent, and much briefer, statement of my argument concerning Rousseau’s ideas and their impact on American thinkers in the 1780s—i.e., before the French Revolution turned into a civil war—see my article “Why Madison Matters,” forthcoming in Supreme Court Review.


You situate Madison as a champion of deliberation in pursuit of the common good, inspired by Rousseau’s volonté générale. During your recent talk on Madison at the University of Chicago, this view was met with skepticism by a well-known scholar in the law and economics tradition. The point of contention seemed to be whether or not the “common good” is a coherent concept at all, given that, unlike the sum of all individual wills (according to the notion of Pareto equilibrium), it cannot be determined or defined empirically. You may never persuade Richard Epstein of the virtues of deliberative democracy, but what is your response to this perspective?


As I said in response to Richard Epstein, the gulf separating his libertarian perspective from that of Rousseau, Adams, Madison, and Wilson will never be bridged. These eighteenth-century thinkers did not consider individual preferences as any given moment to be brute, unassailable, or sovereign. Instead they were complex products of culture, subject to challenge, interrogation, and change as a result of deliberation and self-scrutiny. The assumptions governing much contemporary social science concerning the significance of responses to surveys and polls would have prompted eighteenth-century thinkers to shake their heads in sorrow. Our momentary desires for anything under the sun, although interesting, should hardly be taken as the last word in political decision-making. Instead, the purpose of politics, as these thinkers understood it, is to try, through the back and forth of critical inquiry and debate, to ascertain what is in the public interest, not the interests of any particular individuals or group of individuals. That is a concept of politics familiar to thinkers in the tradition of Rousseau and Kant, Smith and Reid, Adams and Madison, Hegel and Marx, as well as to students of critical theory, but it is seemingly foreign to those for whom stated individual preferences are the beginning and end of social science. “Why do we want our wants?” is the question posed by the central thinkers in the moderate Enlightenment, just as it is the central question posed by Dewey and Habermas.


Finally, you write that the distinction between “equality of opportunity” and “equality of results” that is so common in American discourse obscures the true problem of equality in American and democratic life. Do you see this distinction becoming less salient in contemporary discourse as people begin to look at issues of inequality more seriously?


Yes. If one listens to the speeches of candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2019, one hears a great deal of talk about the hollowness of the idea of equal opportunity in a world in which the top 1% hold 20% of the wealth and the bottom 90% own little or nothing. Anatole France had it right, as Americans are coming to understand. It’s bracing to hear even the relatively moderate candidate Peter Buttigieg—two-term mayor of the medium-sized city of South Bend, Indiana—speak passionately about the emptiness of negative freedom and the need to secure positive freedom. As Dewey wrote over and over, freedom is meaningful only when individuals have the resources necessary to develop their capacities as they wish. It is meaningless when it means only “freedom from” government. Such formulations, familiar in French political language from the Renaissance onward, are not uniquely French, and the common contrast drawn along those lines between the American and French polities is not only mistaken historically– Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Wilson shared it, as did John Quincy Adams, Lincoln, and countless progressives for over a century—but it is also debilitating in its consequences, on both sides of the Atlantic, for contemporary understandings of the richness of the American democratic tradition.


Photo Credit: George Caleb Bingham, The Verdict of the People (1854), via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.


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