U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Additional thoughts about the problem of democracy in America

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.

[1] 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.

8 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Eran,
    Unless I’m very mistaken, the Nazi Party never received a majority of the vote in any election. The fact that dictators may enjoy a certain popularity — which Hitler did, up until the point when it became clear to many Germans that Nazi Germany could not win WW2 (say, following the German defeat at Stalingrad, just to take a convenient marker) — does *not* mean that their regimes are in some sense democratic. I think there is something wrong with any approach that leads to the conclusion that (to quote the post) “Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy were in a peculiar way democratic and that the line between democracy and fascism is rather blurry.”

    However one defines democracy (and one could ditch that word entirely and use, e.g., Dahl’s “polyarchy” or some other word if one preferred), I don’t think much of anything is gained, in terms of historical clarity, by suggesting that the line between democracy and fascism is “rather blurry.” Fascist movements made use of democratic forms and processes in their bids to seize state power, but that, again, does not mean that once in power, the regimes they established bore much of any resemblance to anything one would want to label democracy.

    As a book like Paxton’s Anatomy of Fascism makes clear, fascism was the product of a particular 20th-cent historical moment, when political (defeat in WW1) and economic (Great Depression) forces combined to give strength to nationalistic, militaristic movements of national ‘regeneration’, coupled, in the Nazi case, with a fanatical racialist ideology. In other words, fascism is its own thing in many important respects.

    I agree that democracy is a somewhat slippery word, but I think even Wolin for instance (despite his use of “inverted totalitarianism”) would not look favorably on efforts to blur the distinction betw. fascism and democracy (again, however exactly one defines it).

    • p.s. Italy was not on the losing side in WW1 (iirc), so I was talking about Germany there.

    • Thanks for this, I think it will help clarify the point I am making. I’m not trying to say that the US and Nazi Germany are similar but that they are on the same spectrum of populism. That Hitler received less than half the vote does not mean that he was not popular. In fact most historians suggest that he was adored by Germans even when they didn’t have the vote (see Ian Kershaw’s work). The vote is not the only barometer. The idea is to think about the mass modern states as posing a new problem. This is the *democratic* era, if you will, broadly construed.
      Furthermore, if we look at such examples we will find a multiplicity of different ways this can work. At times certain popular blocks that do not clearly have the majority, but certainly constitute a large enough mass movement, can erect a regime in their image. Nazi Germany was one; the white man’s republic of the nineteenth century US was another. Furthermore, and here I think is where it gets particularly useful to think of them on the same spectrum, they relied on a powerful ideology that dehumanized other blocks. This at times can be small minorities as in the case of the Jews in Germany or Native Americans in the US. But it could also be the systemic dehumanization and marginalization of much larger blocks like blacks in the American south, blacks in Apartheid South Africa and Arabs in Israel today.
      Also, I want to emphasize that today, when we think of the incarceral state in America and its reliance on the criminalization of the poor and the war on drugs to dehumanize large populations, we can put it squarely on this spectrum of populist regimes.
      That they are on the same spectrum, however, *does* mean, I think, that the lines between these regimes can get rather blurry. Therein lies the danger. Only by realizing that popular regimes are constitutionally pregnant with such dangers can we try to contend with them.

      • Thanks for the reply. I’ve never thought of ‘the spectrum of populism’ in quite the way you describe it here, but I do understand your position that the “mass modern states,” or mass politics (to use a phrase current some decades ago), posed or poses distinctive problems in ‘the democratic era’.

        On a side point: since you were educated in Israel, I assume you know the history of the WW2 period well, but in the interest of clarification I’d point out that in Hitler’s deranged belief system it was “world Jewry,” not just the Jews in Germany, that was the enemy that had to be destroyed. Since the Nazis eventually targeted virtually all European Jews for extermination and killed roughly two-thirds of them, that was dehumanization on a large scale. (p.s. Which is not to downplay the genocide of Native Americans or other genocides.)

  2. “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.”

    Again, thanks so much for these thoughtful reflections. I’m just going to push back against this suggestion, a bit. No, I don’t think this follows from an historicist understanding of democracy. And I don’t think we should historicize democracy to the point of obliterating its meaning so that it blurs fascism and democracy. Evoking, respectfully, the ghost of Hannah Arendt, the goal of totalitarian states was the elimination of civil society, that sphere within which men acted, appeared and were recognized by their fellow peers. The telos of fascism was the elimination of civil society as well as that “nowhere” within individuals minds through which judgement could be exercised. We could draw on Schumpeter here and say that this is kind of how American democracy functioned in the 20th century, but why would we want to? It seems to me that civil society burst wide open towards the latter half of the century, tearing open a space through which countless social movements articulated new identities, modes of being, discourses, whatever.

    According to Gramsci, a key difference between “modern industrial democracies” in the “West” and the states and societies of “The East” lay in the ways in which power operated. The former being a war of maneuver, and the latter a war of position. The former, like Britain and the United States beginning somewhere in the late nineteenth century, developed an elaborate and byzantine network of civil society, a public sphere, interweaving myriad institutions which at a certain level connected with the vast edifice of the state, and within which discourses and social movements conflicted and negotiated, historic blocs formed, and hegemonies were negotiated and countered. Gramsci’s entire project warns against any narrow
    statist understanding of democracy or power in a democratic society. Of course, you could make the argument like Dahl, Lindblom, and Schumpeter that civil society was overwhelmed by the state in the twentieth century. That would be valid, but I fail to see the utility of blurring the lines between 20th century American and German fascism. Fascism partially managed to crush German civil society, which had emerged in Weimar period, snuffing out the roots of political opposition by eliminating the possibility of a war of position.

    “Rather than regard democracy as an historical phenomenon, we can opt to cast it as a powerful historical ideal”

    I don’t understand why we can’t do both?

  3. On second reading, I fear that I “strawmanned” your analysis of Nazi Germany. Let me think up a better critique. Read my thoughts above as merely an attempt to bring Gramsci, Arendt, and civil society into the mix.

  4. These two posts raise topics and questions about which I’ve had an abiding interest for over 30 years now. Apart from expressing gratitude for their composition, I would like to note two essays that would be a nice starting point (at least perhaps by way of establishing some preliminary common ground among interlocutors). The first is by the late Raghavan Iyer (one of my former teachers), who is best known for his nonpareil examination of Gandhi’s moral and political philosophy: “Democracy and Liberty in Emerging Polities,” found in his book, Parapolitics: Toward the City of Man (Oxford University Press, 1979: 172-221). I found this essay–by someone raised in India and educated at Oxford–to be refreshing for its ability to avoid some of the typical ideological shibboleths and Anglo-American Liberal nostrums regarding democratic theory and praxis. The second is by Adam Przeworski, who grew up in “communist” Poland but received his PhD in the U.S. and has taught in countries around the world: see the extremely helpful introduction to his book Democracy and the Limits of Self-Government (Cambridge University Press, 2010): 1-16. Readers may also want to browse through my bibliography on democratic theory at my Academia.edu page for other relevant titles (some years ago my companion compilation for ‘democratic praxis’ was published in the journal, The Good Society, and it now sorely needs updating, but it may be too onerous a task!). I am working on a review of Nadia Urbinati’s Democracy Disfigured (Princeton University Press, 2014) and hope to address (as much as one might do in a book review) at least a couple of the questions broached in these posts.

    • Thanks for these suggestions. I’ll be sure to check out Iyer and Przeworski’s books, and will be looking forward to your review.

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