Book Review

Democracy: Telic or Contingent?–*Toward Democracy* Roundtable

Here are links to the introduction, the Brewer response, and the Arcenas response.

By Daniel Wickberg

The central tension in James Kloppenberg’s long-awaited and magisterial intellectual history of democracy is between the historicism of its practice and its commitment to establishing a universal model of democracy more akin to the goals of political theory than to those of history.  The first leads us into a world of contingencies and particularisms, unintended consequences and ironies, an over lapping of multiple languages and systems of ideas in particular contexts.  The second, super imposed on the first, judges the adequacy of those particular expressions in terms of their success or contribution to a telos, their roles in filling in the spaces in an already defined concept of democracy. These two sit uneasily with one another, and the apparent conflict between them is never explicitly addressed.

The title gives the Whiggish game away: Toward Democracy.  The idea that the struggle of thinkers in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries had a direction, that they can be strung on a line that is pointing somewhere through all the contingencies and alternative intentions, announces a conception of history that is at odds with the historicism and contextualism so much in evidence throughout the text.  Those contingencies appear in the narrative as so many obstacles to the achievement of a fully realized democratic ethos. Historicism says democracy is what people in any period understood it to be, that it has no essential characteristics, that it is a concept contested at its root.  There are no right or wrong versions of democracy in this conception, just the struggle over its meaning.  Following the revolution in the study of intellectual history wrought half a century ago by Kuhn, Skinner, and Pocock, the local context is where that struggle would appear to take place; the metaphysics of a trans historical conception of political ideas is exactly what needed to be abandoned if truly historical understanding—the seeing of ideas in their time and place—was to be accomplished.  Kloppenberg has studied his Cambridge School methods and conceptual apparatus well, and has even taken a step beyond them in his application of a more thorough going historicism (more on that below).  But that historicism continually runs up against his vision of a direction in history and a model of the democratic ethos, never fully achieved but offered as the end point of that historical direction.  When Herbert Butterfield criticized British political historians in The Whig Interpretation of History (1931), he sought to dismantle an ideological conception of history that distorted the past by seeing in it a march of liberty, and that read a contemporary liberal idea into the fabric of history.  Seeing a seed of incipient liberty in the Magna Carta, and history as a story of unidirectional progress, the Whig conception made history into an account of contributions to a desirable end.  Kloppenberg’s Toward Democracy raises the question of whether the much-vaunted return of the long-range history of ideas can avoid a return to the Whig model of history, and whether it might be possible to synthesize such a conception with a greater focus on local contingency, context, and circumstance, as Kloppenberg seeks to do.

This is a magnificent work, the product of years of deep, intensive and extensive reading. I can hardly do justice to the many arguments and readings developed in the text in the brief space I have here, so I want to focus on only a few of Kloppenberg’s claims, many of them counter intuitive and representing challenges to received wisdom.

Democracy, Kloppenberg tells us, is something more than a political idea, a system of government with recognizable features and institutions, or a generalized commitment to political egalitarianism.  It is, rather, an ethical ideal.  It is a way of seeing, a set of values.  In the introduction, he defines the elements of this ethical vision, and returns to these elements throughout the rest of the book, using them as a means of judging the successes and shortcomings of his historical actors. The six components of Kloppenberg’s idea of democracy are the “contested principles” of popular sovereignty, autonomy, and equality; and the “underlying premises” of deliberation, pluralism, and reciprocity (6). One is tempted to see these as the “unit ideas,” to use a Lovejovian term, of the democratic vision, combined and emphasized in different proportion in their particular manifestations.

While each of these ideas is complex, what should be clear is that Kloppenberg’s concept of democracy is a far cry from a conception of majoritarian rule or a populism rooted in the will of the people, which have sometimes been cast as central features of at least some forms of democracy.   His take on various figures with widely different political views such as Robespierre, Stephen Douglas, Andrew Jackson and Karl Marx—all of whom are not “true” democrats in his presentation of them–is premised on the idea that fundamental to democracy is a recognition and respect for difference and individual autonomy.  Without a pluralistic tolerance for diversity, a generous sympathy for those with different views and a willingness to check simple majoritarian rule by respect for deliberation and individual autonomy, real democracy is not possible.  Sometimes Kloppenberg refers to “self-proclaimed democrats,” such as Auguste Blanqui or to those like Douglas who failed to “embrace the values of autonomy, equality, toleration, and mutuality,” but “who nonetheless still consider themselves democrats” (653, 660).   It is clear that Kloppenberg, on the other hand, does not consider these figures to be democrats.  He, rather surprisingly in light of recent reconsiderations, argues that the state established by the Haitian Revolution and its Constitution of 1801, although reflecting “some ideas about self-government, can scarcely be characterized as a democracy” (515). And what are we to make of statements such as the following: “As democracy moved from the margins to the center of political discourse in the second half of the nineteenth century, it failed to redeem its promise because necessary commitments to deliberation, pluralism, and reciprocity remained unfulfilled” (656). The idea that democracy had a “promise” that could only be “redeemed” by “necessary” commitments suggests a metaphysics of democratic essentialism, struggling to be born.  If “self-proclaimed” is not a sufficient way to define democracy historically, then we must invoke some trans historical standard.

What terms like deliberation, pluralism and reciprocity represent is not majoritarianism at all, but something more like its opposite—not “minoritarianism,” but a set of psychological and intellectual checks against all forms of domination in a polity defined by egalitarian and universalistic values.  They suggest something more like democratic liberalism.  The heroes of Kloppenberg’s tale are in fact, liberals such as John Adams, James Madison, James Wilson, Tocqueville, Adam Smith, and John Stuart Mill.  These figures, many of whom have been associated with a fear of mass democracy and popular representation, seem initially like an odd set of choices.  Adams, in particular, has frequently been portrayed as an increasingly conservative thinker, who emphasized a hierarchical society and the leadership role of a “natural aristocracy” as a check on the will of the people.  The Federalist Party elite, in the tradition that comes down to us from Progressive Historiography, sought a politics based on deference of the people to their betters, and sought a legal order that would protect the rights of property against the rule of the unpropertied mob.   The John Adams of the Alien and Sedition Acts hardly seems a likely candidate for the articulation of a democratic ethos based on pluralism and respect for difference.  But in Kloppenberg’s treatment, the anti-democratic consequences of the French Revolution and the Terror help explain Adams’s commitments, and his desire to find common democratic ground with Jeffersonians.  In fact, we find an echo of the consensus school in Kloppenberg’s treatment of the events of the 1790s, in which party differences are more apparent than real.  According to Kloppenberg, “all but a few outliers in both American parties shared a commitment to the same principles of representative democracy” (569).  In order to establish Adams’s (and others) democratic credentials, one of the claims Kloppenberg makes is that far too much has been made of the distinction between the terms “democratic” and “republican,” with the latter imagined as in some sense a representative form of government at odds with democracy.  He makes a good case that for the American revolutionary generation, the terms “democracy” and “republic” were essentially interchangeable (328-329).  The creation of the American Republic, and its ideological support by figures like Madison, Wilson, and Adams, was not an expression of fear of popular government, but a commitment to democracy through institutions that embedded the ethical vision of reciprocity, mutualism, and pluralism, and made the peaceful transition of power through elections possible.

The historicism of Kloppenberg’s approach is most evident in his analysis of the variety of intellectual sources from which democratic ideas were drawn.  Following his earlier claims in The Virtues of Liberalism (1998), he rejects the debate that roiled the field of American revolutionary ideology from the 1960s through the 1980s, as creating a false divide by insisting that political “languages,” such as “classical republicanism” or “Lockean liberalism” were mutually exclusive, and that any interpretation had to choose between them.  Rather, Kloppenberg argues that there were multiple intellectual sources for democratic ideas and values, including Puritanism, classical and civic humanism, Protestant notions of virtue and reciprocity, social contract theory, and Scottish Enlightenment conceptions of moral sense.  These languages overlapped, and were often used in combination; they were not hermetically sealed paradigms of internal consistency, incommensurable with one another.  In this sense, his historicism both draws on the important work of Skinner and Pocock, but goes beyond it in seeing the intellectual worlds of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as awash in conceptions that helped shape the democratic ethical vision he sees coming into being at this moment.  He is particularly successful in his articulation of Scottish moral philosophy—and Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments— as the basis for imagining a society based on sympathy, in contrast to the vision of society as a product of competing interests, each struggling for domination over the other (242-251).  The central idea of reciprocity is premised on the Scottish conception of sympathy as an active agent in the human constitution.  His treatment of the ways in which American thinkers such as Madison, Wilson, and Adams were deeply indebted to Rousseau’s Social Contract and its conception of the General Will provides another example of a reinterpretation of the conventional understandings of Anglo-American political ideology.  Because Rousseau had been associated by Cold War era thinkers such as Isaiah Berlin with Robespierre and the Terror, it was convenient to downplay his thinking as a source for American constitutional order.  Here Kloppenberg argues that the sovereign “We the People” of the U.S. Constitution is rooted in a conception of the General Will drawn from Rousseau.  By highlighting the different traditions and social conditions of the American and French Revolutions, Kloppenberg is able to demonstrate the ways in which common ideas had different consequences, and were used to different ends in the American and French situations.

At the risk of saying that Kloppenberg’s 710 pages of text (plus notes, most of which are available online) makes it too short to accomplish its goals, I have one final comment.  Because Kloppenberg imagines a struggle for democracy unfolding toward an end, he tends to make the enemies of democracy those who failed to be sufficiently committed to the ethical ideal, or who stressed parts of the democratic outlook at the expense of other parts, or who produced unintended consequences.  He calls this, in an echo of the political thought of the 1950s, “the tragic irony of democracy” (13).  Noticeably absent in his account are those who explicitly rejected democracy, who developed systems of thought, often reactionary, against a democratic mode of life and politics.  While he mentions Robert Filmer, for instance, there is no discussion of those antidemocratic conservatives such as French reactionaries Louis de Bonald and Joseph de Maistre, proslavery theorists such as Henry Hughes and George Fitzhugh, and British romantics like Thomas Carlyle. Yet, the story of the struggle for democracy cannot be a tale told of a self-contained working out of a political theory and a vision of life by those who aspired to be democrats, without any attention to their engagement with those who repudiated it. One is reminded of Richard Hofstadter’s claim in The Age of Reform that the liberal tradition is the only tradition in American thought, that its battle is an internal one against itself and its unintended consequences.

This is a great book.  It gives us the intensive reading of texts paired with the situating of ideas in relation to one another that offers a valuable model for intellectual historians. Its notion of democracy as an ethical vision first, and a political theory second, asks us to do what all good intellectual history does—situate the ideas of the past in the context of the larger sensibilities of which they are a part.

Daniel Wickberg is Associate Professor of Historical Studies and the History of Ideas at the University of Texas at Dallas and past president of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History.  He is the author of The Senses of Humor: Self and Laughter in Modern America (Cornell University Press) and numerous articles on intellectual and cultural historiography and methods.  His current book project is tentatively titled The Idea of Tradition in a Culture of Progress: Thinking About the Past and Future in Post-World War II America.

2 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Nice critical summary; almost feel I don’t have to read the book now (just kidding).

    After reading this post, I had occasion to think of Arendt’s On Revolution, which also takes a generally favorable view of the American Founders and contrasts the American and French Revs. to the disadvantage of the latter. Not that I’m suggesting there might be particular similarities between On Revolution and Toward Democracy beyond that. Arendt turned John Adams, for one, to her own purposes, as in the passages where she writes that “the laborious” in early America were “poor but not miserable” (that may be a close paraphrase rather than direct quote) and the problem they posed was therefore not “social” but “political” — i.e. being excluded from the chance to earn or display “excellence” in the public realm because they were too busy earning a living or were not ‘visible’. And then she quotes John Adams on “the poor man… [feeling] himself out of the sight of others, groping in the dark…. To be wholly overlooked, and to know it, is intolerable.” This line of argument, it seems to me, emanates mostly from her own particular preoccupations; still, I thought I’d throw it out here fwiw.

  2. Dan,

    Thanks for this review. I always profit from your contributions here.

    On Kloppenberg’s book and the topic of contextualizing democratic ideals, is it not true that a present-day historian could identify sufficient commonalities in language and ideals, even with appropriate consideration of historical context (social, cultural, philosophical, and ideological), to develop a thread of relevance to present-day readers? While it’s true that historians and readers ought to start with the notion of the past as a foreign country, sometimes commonalities remain despite our best efforts to be rid of them. If that’s true, do those remains constitute a whiggish, superimposed telos? I think not. The historian did not foreordain that end, but rather discovered it, and wrote about the discovery in a narrative fashion that seems to posit it as such. Perhaps the mistake is in style, because of an affection for the ideal? But my point is that a seeming telos (i.e. an object of study as the end of one’s work) is not the same as an actual negative whiggish telos.

    That said, throughout the rest of your review, you seem to posit enough constituent elements of good historicism by the author to leave us with the impression that the author has performed his duty. So maybe I’m misreading your observation of telos as something more than it is (i.e. as a critique).

    I thought Kloppenberg’s end—i.e. democracy as defined through several subthemes—was capacious enough to accommodate many outcomes, as expressed through emphases on particulars related to his many subthemes. And it feels as if another few volumes are forthcoming to put flesh on those variable bones. – TL

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