Last week I suggested that one of the greatest conceits of American ideology writ large—and as we know well every ideology rests on numerous conceits—is that the US is not only a functioning democracy but that it is and has been for two centuries a beacon of democracy for the world. Furthermore, it contended that in American imagination a democracy is all too often viewed as a state with a government that is an extension of the people and does the bidding of the people by adhering to the will of the majority.
Based on several illuminating responses to that post and some tentative thoughts, I would like to consider three different ways to address the problem of the concept of democracy in American historiography and weigh the pros and cons of each.
The first is viewing modern democracy as an historical phenomenon that reached fruition in America. Such a view often implies, as several commenters from last week observed, that although the United States and American society underwent numerous transformations, some form of democratic essence was first realized during the Jacksonian era. The challenge then is to find that democratic essence. In many ways this is the canonical approach of American historiography. Some historians are more sanguine than others about the notion of democracy, but most seem to imply that American democracy appeared on the scene with both positive features and attendant negative ramifications.
As such a conceptualization of democracy is well-rooted in history it is certainly quite useful. However, such usage of the term is perhaps the most challenging and dangerous for it is ridden with myriad ideological and disciplinary hang-ups. First, such a view of American democracy echoes the American nationalist ideology and its many conceits, such as the myth of American exceptionalism, the myth of American freedom (including the assumption that we understand what freedom is), the myth of a free market and of the American meritocracy, and many more.
Second, such an approach to American democracy rests in some form on the all too prescriptive observations of De Tocqueville in Democracy in America. As the pioneering work in the “ambivalent genre” of the study of American democracy it has fascinated Americans to a fault. As Eric Brandom indicated in his response last week, De Tocqueville’s ambivalence stems mostly not from a critique of American myths, but from an aversion to the vulgar democratic “style” of Americans. Indeed, the greatest danger Democracy in America poses is that it too has become part of the conceit of American democracy, giving the appearance of a lucid and ambivalent examination of American democracy without fully tackling its most fundamental shortcomings.
Third, as such an approach is embedded within a national history of the United States, it usually does little to evaluate democracy from a broader perspective that addresses the linkages between the American popular regime to the ostensibly European phenomena of totalitarian (1) popular regimes. Indeed, if we opt for this more historicist framing of the discussion we must wrestle with the notion that Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy were in a peculiar way democratic and that the line between democracy and fascism is rather blurry.
In this vein, it seems that critical counter-intuitive definitions, such as that of Jacob Talmon of “totalitarian democracy,”or—from the recommendations on last week’s responses—Sheldon Wolin’s notion of “inverse totalitarianism,” are good starting points for this line of inquiry.
The second approach we can take to the predicament of democracy is also rooted in history but in a different way. Rather than regard democracy as an historical phenomenon, we can opt to cast it as a powerful historical ideal—for it, quite often, operated and still operates as such in western imagination. Indeed, in this regard it is an historical artifact just like witches in early modern Europe—real in as much as it was real in people’s imagination. In this fashion we can trace a vibrant humanistic tradition that regards democracy as a just and humane society that cherishes human rights and stands for the dignity of human life. That many have argued over what this might look like, or that Americans might be wrong in their assumption that democracy in America is—with some usual caveats—a realization of that ideal, does not mean that we must regard it as ahistorical.
Taking this route seems to better lend itself to a critical approach to American democracy. Comparing the ideal of democracy with the stark reality, for instance, allows for a more lucid examination of the workings of American ideology and its foundational myths. It also might present more compelling avenues for striving closer to such an ideal in the future. However, such a definition of democracy—in as much as it remains historical—must also remain nebulous and slippery, for we do not know what such a democracy looks like. We only know how it appeared and appears in people’s imagination.
Finally, we can simply elect not to use the term at all, which is perhaps both the easiest and hardest way out. Easy because we eliminate the problem; hard because writing American history without the idea of democracy might prove just as challenging.
 Though the concept ‘totalitarian’ itself has operated as part of the conceit of American democracy, I think it still could prove useful, though should be used carefully.
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