“Democracy, in silence, biding its time, ponders its own ideals….”
–Walt Whitman, Democratic Vistas, 1871
In 1981, Ralph Ellison explained that he had offered his 1952 novel, Invisible Man, as “a raft of hope, perception, and entertainment that might help keep us afloat as we tried to negotiate the snags and whirlpools that mark our nation’s vacillating course toward and away from the democratic ideal.”[i] James T. Kloppenberg’s monumental Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought does a great deal to chart this “vacillating course.” Colossal in its scope, rigorous in its attention to detail, simultaneously synthetic and path-breaking, Toward Democracy asks readers to explore Ellison’s whirlpools and snags, rather than plot a straight course through the currents of democracy’s history.
On one level, what Toward Democracy offers is a narrative tracing those ebbs and flows of democratic thought across the Atlantic and through more than two centuries of religious reform, civil war, and revolution—a narrative that explains how democracy has “become the world’s governing ideal” (1). Kloppenberg’s story is, as he is quick to point out, as much a history of ideas as it is a history of “social movements and political and economic development.” More specifically, it is a story of “ideas in history” (2). [ii] While guiding us through multiple thought registers, continents, and centuries—from Montaigne’s château to the battlefield of Gettysburg, from the Putney debates to the nuances of Adam Smith’s conception of self-mastery—Kloppenberg invites his readers to think differently about democracy, as much more than “merely a set of institutions” (4).
For Kloppenberg, democracy is a “way of life,” comprising three principles (popular sovereignty, autonomy, and equality), which “have no meaning except in relation to each other” and derived from three premises (deliberation, pluralism, and reciprocity) (9, 8,). It is also an “ethical ideal” that has always been difficult to reach but remains worth striving toward. As an ideal whose “promise” has yet to be “fulfilled,” democracy is often further away than Kloppenberg himself, or many of his subjects, would have liked (18). This distance is precisely Kloppenberg’s point. Democracy has always been what’s just over the horizon—sometimes more, sometimes less, within reach. It is and has always been, in other words, aspirational.
On a second level, therefore, what Toward Democracy offers is a different kind of history: a history not only of ideas but also of ideals. Kloppenberg’s work invites us to think deeply about what it means to have and to seek a “democratic ideal,” as Ellison put it. More than this, Toward Democracy challenges its readers to think about what it means to write a history of that ideal. Reading Toward Democracy, I found myself returning to a set of recurring questions: When writing about an ideal (or package of ideals), can historians do justice to context, contingency, change-over-time, and human agency? Can one write a history of an ideal without being teleological or, perhaps worse, programmatic? Kloppenberg’s work demonstrates that it is possible, but it also raises important corollary questions about the relationship between change (changing ideals) and failure (failure to realize or achieve certain, more or less timeless, ideals).
Thinking of democracy in terms of ideals is not new, of course. Recently, though, discussions of the place of ideals in studies of democracy (albeit of the more theoretical sort than Kloppenberg provides in Toward Democracy) have focused on making important distinctions between active struggles and change within democratic thought, on the one hand, and what are seen as static, timeless ideals of democracy, on the other.[iii] With this in mind, I couldn’t help but wonder if Kloppenberg successfully moves beyond such distinctions. In other words, can one both construe democracy as an ideal and do justice to its ever-changing nature? The answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, turns out to be somewhat complicated.
One of the many strengths of Toward Democracy is Kloppenberg’s ability to illuminate broadly and through specific examples the very way in which democracy can at once “possess a certain directionality” and yet have always been “messy,” “paradoxical,” and anything but “foreordained” (14). Indeed, Kloppenberg excels at explaining how “[t]he consequences of establishing democratic institutions of government have been neither what the thinkers [he presents] intended nor what they anticipated” (18). In short, Toward Democracy shines when uncovering unexpected consequences, even failure, in the results of those thinkers’ actions.
Take, for instance, the instigators and beneficiaries of the American Revolution who could not have anticipated the “unexpected development of a new consciousness” wrought by the Enlightenment (313). Even the United States Constitution proves a dark reminder of the unintended consequences of actions taken in the name of advancing democracy. “If the deliberations in Philadelphia provided a chance for Americans to imagine how ideals of reciprocity, autonomy, and equality might be nourished in a federal system of representative democracy,” Kloppenberg writes, “the convention itself instead produced a document that made possible the emergence of something very different, a culture of domination, dependency, and inequality” (408).
Such failures, such unintended consequences and unexpected outcomes, provide good examples of what Kloppenberg sees as the “tragic irony” of democracy (more on that in a moment). But they also raise questions about the relationship between writing about failure (failure, for example, in codifying “ideals of reciprocity, autonomy, and equality” in the US Constitution) and change (how these same ideals may have been changed, created, destroyed, or resurrected). Toward Democracy may well be a better story of failure than of change. Put another way, Kloppenberg is at his best showing us shortcomings in achieving ideals rather than showing us how these ideals themselves have changed.
For most of Toward Democracy, democracy is, as the title of chapter three puts it, “deferred,” as nations and people fail to realize its ideals, and democracy’s promise remains unfulfilled. The continued and often violent fervor of religiosity exhibited by Augustine’s followers, for example, “obscured” what “democratic potential” there was “for nearly 1000 years” after his death in the fifth century (45). Fast-forward to a later time, and the tumults of seventeenth-century England “delayed the further advance of popular government in England for more than two centuries” (93). Moving ahead still further, the continuation of slavery in the United States “stall[ed] further development of democracy in America,” even as the Haitian—and perhaps more surprisingly, as Kloppenberg convincingly shows, the French—Revolution forced new kinds of reckonings (575).
Although he emphatically states and restates over the course of the introduction that there is “no single essential ideal of democracy,” by the end of the book, Kloppenberg leaves readers with a clear “vision of democracy” (6, 709), comprised of the principles and premises of popular sovereignty, autonomy, equality, deliberation, pluralism, and reciprocity. Although “ideal” and “vision” are not perfect synonyms, this tension between Kloppenberg’s “vision of democracy” and his desire to do justice to the history, context, and contingency of the ideals he sees as comprising that vision is striking. It is also revealing. Let me explain.
There is more than one way to read Toward Democracy. The first time I read it, I took it as a somewhat surprisingly dark report detailing democracy’s achievement gaps. After a second time through, I now think the tensions between ideals, change, failure, and vision that sat uneasily with me the first time around may actually be revealing of something much more significant. Perhaps Toward Democracy, understood as a history in ideals, is best read as a work about democratic time itself.[iv] Like Whitman’s democracy, “biding its time, ponder[ing] its own ideals,” Kloppenberg’s democracy is future-oriented.[v] Kloppenberg’s project asks us to think about democracy not as an “endless present,” as others have suggested, but rather, as never entirely of the present.[vi] Writing about democracy as an ideal allows Kloppenberg to do for democratic thought what J. G. A. Pocock did for republican thought in his The Machiavellian Moment: it allows Kloppenberg to offer us a language of democratic time. Pocock’s work helped historians see “the moment in conceptualized time in which the republic was seen as confronting its own temporal finitude, as attempting to remain morally and politically stable in a stream of irrational events conceived as eventually destructive of all systems of secular stability.” [vii] Kloppenberg’s project helps us make sense of and come to terms with the irony that “[d]emocracy will always be unfinished precisely because it is an ethical ideal as much as a set of institutions and practices” (709). As such, the title’s preposition “toward” works well because democracy is never finished, never final; it is a sought-after ideal, not a completed product.
As Kloppenberg is quick to point out, there is a tragic paradox in this continual state of unfinished-ness. And there were times when I wanted more explaining, more unpacking, of, for example, the paradox that, as Americans and Europeans lost sight of the “ethical dimensions” of democracy, they went on to create increasingly democratic institutions in the twentieth century (5, 14).
What Kloppenberg gives us is a nuanced conception of what it means, and has meant in the past, to move toward democracy. Put in his own terms: “We can redeem the promise of democracy only if we realize that democracy by always kindling hopes for change, forever feeds frustrations, in part because of the tensions between democratic principles and in part because our struggle to resolve certain problems inevitably creates others” (17). So what are we do to? If the horizon beyond which democracy lies will “inevitably continue to recede,” where might we find reasons for hope? (17) Kloppenberg’s answer takes us back to Ellison.
Finding the timbers for Ellison’s raft of hope has always been a challenge. And the route “toward democracy” is certainly not inevitable. In fact, the path forward may be better put in the form of a question: “toward democracy?” For if not toward democracy, then toward what? Although we do not always know at every moment in which direction we are moving—toward or away from the democratic ideal—we can neither surrender in defeat to despotism nor rest on false laurels of accomplishment. Kloppenberg seems to find hope in uncertainty, in believing that it is in uncertainty that deceptive Truths in democracy give way to possibilities for pluralism, deliberation, reciprocity, autonomy, equality, and with them, self-rule. Perhaps in this hope, tied to the uncertainty of its realization, lies the democratic ideal.
[i] Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952; New York: Vintage, 1995), xx-xxi. Ellison, unlike Kloppenberg, saw his democratic ideal as a “fiction” (xx). C.f. Kloppenberg, 67.
[ii] For a nice discussion of the phrase and concept of ideas in history, see Leslie Butler, “From the History of Ideas to Ideas in History,” Modern Intellectual History 9.1 (2012): 157-169.
[iii] For a recent assessment and intervention in favor of democracy as an ongoing project, see Christopher Meckstroth, The Struggle for Democracy: Paradoxes of Progress and the Politics of Change (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).
[iv] For a recent use of “history in ideas,” from which my turn of phrase “history in ideals” derives, see David Armitage, Civil Wars: A History in Ideas (New York: Knopf, 2017).
[v] Walt Whitman, Democratic Vistas (1871), in Complete Poetry and Collected Prose (New York: The Library of America, 1982), 955. For an interesting take on Whitman’s view of democracy as “forever look[ing] to the future it wishes to make better,” see Stephen John Mack, The Pragmatic Whitman: Reimagining American Democracy (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2002), 152.
[vi] For a discussion of democracy as “an endless present,” inspired in part by a 1988 lecture delivered by Judith Shklar at Stanford University, see Jack Rakove, Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution (New York: Vintage Books, 1996), 366. As Rakove points out, such a rendering of democratic time extends back to John Quincy Adams’s suggestion in 1833 that “Democracy has no forefathers, it looks to no posterity, it is swallowed up in the present and thinks of nothing but itself” (quoted in Rakove, 366).
[vii] J. G. A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975), vii-viii.
Claire Rydell Arcenas is an assistant professor at the University of Montana. She received her Ph.D. in 2016 from Stanford University, where she was a Geballe Dissertation Prize Fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center. She is currently writing a book on John Locke in America.