U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Toward Democracy Book Club: Installment 1

Dust Jacket for Jim Kloppenberg’s Toward Democracy (OUP, 2016).

I’ll be spending the next few months on a very close reading of James Kloppenberg’s Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought (OUP, 2016). Because it’s a BIG BOOK (710 pages!), and because I’ll need some encouragement to keep going, I’m creating this unofficial blog book club as a kind of accountability group. Right now this “club” consists of me. Since I’m just getting started, you can buy a copy and join the reading!

I love the challenge of big books. I respect the effort that goes into their making—the forethought, the research, the outlining, the writing, the rewriting, the critical reading and readers’ reports, the copy editing, marketing, etc. I have nothing but admiration for authors and presses that take on this kind of challenge. As a reader, I love taking apart these creations—thinking through motives and assumptions, finding the critical terms, looking for clues about theoretical foundation, enjoying the narrative, exploring the sources, etc. It’s all fun and always rewarding.

On the topic presented by Kloppenberg (i.e. democracy), I’ve been thinking about a closely related topic, ‘democratic culture’, since my first years of graduate school. That notion was central to my first book, wherein I pondered intersections of print culture, intellectual history, the history of ideas, citizenship, reading groups, education (K-16), and the Culture Wars. In every chapter I meditated on how citizens accessed the life of the mind in the United States, and how engagement with ‘great books’ and the great books idea created smarter citizens. I wanted to know how the intellectual life might be democratized, and how great books were used for that purpose. This is the professional background I bring to my reading of Toward Democracy.

As of today I’ve read only five pages. Despite that seemingly small number, I’m surprised to report that I’m already both highly engaged *and* having major concerns (questions and potential disagreements) with Kloppenberg’s approach and theoretical set up. There’s plenty of time for his narrative to assuage my concerns. But I want to take a moment, here, to outline a few issues that have arisen early.

Kloppenberg claims that “the book does not seek to provide a theory of democracy” (p. 4). But the next sentence begins “Nonetheless it [i.e. the book] emerged from and reflects a conviction that we need to change the way we think about democracy.” So now I’ll be looking for a theory of democracy, especially because of the invocation of a “conviction” by the author. I’m also now questioning the author’s precise motivations with his audience (i.e. historical, historical and theoretical, or some disguised theory).

That questioning was heightened at the end of the very same paragraph, when the author cast doubt on the notions of “active participation” and “direct democracy” (p. 4). I think Kloppenberg is talking about the 1960s ideal of participatory democracy, but I’m not 100 percent sure. Yet this active and direct version is set up against representative democracy. There is a continuum between those poles (between direct and representative), and I’ll be anxious to see how Kloppenberg’s historical thinkers address that continuum. How “romantic” is the notion of “popular engagement”? Why is that a “misunderstanding,” strictly, of representative democracy?

The next paragraph—the last full one on page four—sets up democracy as an “ethical ideal” dependent on toleration, reasoning, persuasion, mutuality, reciprocity, and a sense of the common good. These themes address the process of self government, but not its highest ideals—i.e. justice, equality, and peace (or fraternity). Kloppenberg enumerates a similar list of higher ideas in the “modern North Atlantic world,” but he identifies “popular sovereignty, autonomy, and equality.” I suppose that autonomy partially addresses justice through the notion of emancipation. But popular sovereignty seems to be just another way to talking about all the elements of process (i.e. the themes above).

In transitioning from those process themes to higher ideals, Kloppenberg asserted that “self-government meant something more than a set of institutional arrangements” (pp. 4-5). I don’t disagree with that, strictly (per my discussion of democratic culture above). But arrangements are highly important in relation to all the process themes. Arrangements as human institutions express those process themes as practical procedures. Or, looked at in reverse, procedures show citizens how toleration, reasoning, persuasion, mutuality, and reciprocity function on the ground. For instance, the application of Robert’s Rules of Order (1876) is, in fact, a particular expression of deliberative ideals. So I hope that rules like those are addressed, in their institutional contexts, in the book to show the cash value of democracy as an “ethical ideal” in various contexts. Procedures matter.

I have 705 pages to go, so my fears and early questions have plenty of time to dissipate. Let’s keep going! – TL

14 Thoughts on this Post

    • Thanks Wesley. Hopefully they’ll get better. Even as a read few more pages in, JTK clarified further his “contested principles” and “underlying premises.” That helped a bit with regard to one of my questions above. – TL

    • Stalled out at chapter 5?! Wow. Then we really do need this group. …I don’t even want to look at those online notes—yet. – TL

  1. Glad to see this post. I have been working on a review essay of this marvelous book for a while now (where “working on” means “hanging fire”). To swap metaphors, I must either fish or cut bait — an apt enough metaphor, since the book is positively oceanic in depth and scope. How do you distill 1,000 pages (give or take) into 1,000 words? The world may never know! In the meantime, will enjoy watching somebody else wrassle with this worthy work.

    • Summarizing 710 of text, and 828 with notes, in only 1000 words? That’s just unfair. It’s your work, of course, but I’d be tempted to cut bait—depending on the editors demand for summary in the review (a variable imposition across publications). – TL

  2. To be a bit acerbic, this book darn well better have emerged from “a conviction that we need to change the way we think about democracy,” because otherwise I’m not sure it would be easy to justify writing 700 pp. on what must be a well-worn subject.

    I wouldn’t mind seeing a 1000-word review, but offhand my reaction is there’s no way I’m reading 700 pp on this subject, or even 400 pp. (Just a matter of priorities and interests, plus in my case not having any professional obligation to read it.)

    • p.s. Just read the publisher’s description and table of contents. I sort of see now why it has to be so long. Part III, just going from the t.o.c., looks perhaps the most interesting (to me at any rate).

  3. I really appreciate the close reading, Tim, definitely looking forward to this post series. Btw, I can already detect a bit of the Rousseau-bashing that will unfold later in the book. Ah, Rousseau and the eternal divide around his ideas…

    • Ah, I obviously was mistaken in my assessment of Rousseau–just read a bit online on the book and it is clear that Kloppenberg defends a liberal reading of the general will. He is definitely going against the grain in this regard, scholars who defend Rousseau these days usually are to the left of what Kloppenberg is proposing in the book. Oh well…

  4. I’m in. I’m on p. 141, but I’ll start over and read through it as you go along. I’m no professional historian, but just a USIH enthusiast… so I may not have much to add other than cheerleading.

  5. Now I’ll be joining. For some reason notices on FB stopped, and life trying to fathom how life will go on have kept me busy

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