U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What is a democracy anyway?

According to some headlines from about a year ago, a study found out that the US is no longer a democracy. However, what the study really attempted to figure out—with the application of quantitative methods—is which sectors and interest groups in the US exert the most power to affect policy. Not surprisingly to anyone familiar with the United States, it concluded that economic elites have much more impact than other sectors. More importantly perhaps, it found that “[w]hen a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organized interests, they generally lose.”(1) According to the authors of the study, this implies that the US is no longer a democracy—at least according to the “populist” idea of what constitutes a democracy.

The most alarming aspect of this study to me is that whether the authors examined “populist” democracy or other ideas of what constitutes a democracy, they never wavered from the very myopic view that democracy is in some form a state with a government that carries out the policies that are in the interest of the majority of its citizens. They also implied that until recently the US was a democracy.

Indeed, it seems that not only in common perception, but also in the academia—and as far as I can tell in American historiography—the assumption is that democracy by and large translates to rule by the people. And since “the people” is in reality an impossible abstraction the best way to tell what “the people” want is to follow the will of the majority of the citizens. What this study best illuminated to me is that too little attention is given to whether such a definition of democracy proves useful. To what extent have we been uncritically employing a concept used by Americans to evaluate the political system they think they live in?

Furthermore, what to me, as an Americanist, seems even more perplexing is that we mostly tend to think of the US as having transformed into a full democracy during the removal of property restrictions to white male suffrage in what some still regard as “the era of the common man” in the late 1820s and 1830s. Thus, most Americans—and American historians it seems to me—think of the US since that period as a democracy, even though a majority of people living in America did not have the suffrage legally until the passage of the nineteenth amendment in 1920. Indeed, even under the quite limited definition of democracy offered by most Americans the US was, for most of its existence, not a democracy. This certainly seems to be the case in early American history (my subfield), where the two most significant recent syntheses of the early republic period are titled The Rise of American Democracy and Empire of Liberty (though the latter title highlights liberty as a concept, the close link in American imagination between liberty and democracy render them almost synonymous).

To be sure, early American historians have carefully traced how notions of democracy changed over time. It is particularly common to examine the change of tone in the way contemporary Americans regarded the term between about 1790 and 1810. The transformation of the concept from a pejorative to a positive in public discourse is to most historians—I think quite accurately—a barometer of systemic changes in American politics, society, and culture. However, it seems to me that we have exerted too little effort to evaluate the concept critically and employ it more rigorously in an analytical capacity.

Before I offer a few suggestion as to how to go about this problem—assuming that you agree it is a problem—I thought to stop here and see if anyone would be interested in chiming in.

Do you think we need a better intellectual history of democracy?

If we need a new or better definition, what should it be, or better yet, what would be the pros and cons of different concepts of democracy?

[1] Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, “Testing theories of American politics : elites, interest groups, and average citizens,” (2014), p. 576.

15 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Eran, great points. I just wanted to offer up some thoughts. I agree that we should probably be wary of too abstract of a notion of democracy. We should see democracy as a historical formation rooted in historical time, rather than any ideal type. But perhaps we could posit some loose type or telos to illuminate the extent to which democracy has come into being in American history?

    Let’s take Dewey who insists that we can understand democracy as a way of life. Certainly democracy can be understood as a type of state and a way of ordering political life, but it also runs much deeper than that:

    “Democracy is much broader than a special political form, a method of conducting government, of making laws and carrying on governmental administration by means of popular suffrage and elected officers. It is that, of course. But it is something broader and deeper than that The political and governmental phase of democracy is a means, the best means so far found, for realizing ends that lie in the wide domain of human relationships and the development of human personality. It is, as we often say, though perhaps without appreciating all that is involved in the saying, a way of life, social and individual. The key-note of democracy as a way of life may be expressed, it seems to me, as the necessity for the participation of every mature human being in formation of the values that regulate the living of men together: which is necessary from the standpoint of both the general social welfare and the full development of human beings as individuals.”

    Anyway, this is what Richard Schneirov and Gaston Fernandez do in their new book “Democracy as a Way of Life”. They posit this conception of democracy, and insist that American history can be understood in terms of the formation and deterioration (two steps forward and one step back) of waves of American democracy. This sounds Hegelian, in the sense that a history of democracy can be understood as an unfolding history (certainly not “gradual”, even, or linear) of the recognition, and the nonrecognition, of individuals as such. For example, the expansion of political democracy during the Age of Jackson can be read as the recognition of the white patriarch citizen producer within civil society, and the simultaneous oppression/non-recognition of women, slaves, indigenous peoples. The formation of industrial democracy in the progressive era and the New Deal (to the limited extent that it was formed) can be seen as the opening of citizenship to the wage-worker–again, usually white and male. The long 1960s could be seen as the expansion of democracy into the field of culture, and the recognition of new sexual and gender identities, but also a reaction of this in terms of the conservative backlash.

    Such a telos could be politically useful to us contemporaries. What action(s) could be taken to further realize (or to realize) a society configured around the equal participation and actualization of all individuals? Of course, we should avoid any naive triumphant narratives of democracy’s expansion, which fail to take into account those individuals who don’t count, or whose oppression has serviced the expansion of democracy for others. Yet, I think that the above conception offered by Dewey, Schneirov, and Fernandez is flexible enough to allow us to retain a loose ideal of democracy, while also allowing us to rigorously historicize democracy.

    • Thanks for this great comment. I agree we need a more capacious definition of capitalism if we are to think of it positively. Dewey’s seems like a good one to think about.
      We can also opt to use the term to contend with what it was and is. For instance, I wonder if Jacob Talmon’s notion of “totalitarian democracy” is not at times more useful than any other definition of modern totalitarian states.

    • It strikes me that the Schneirov/Fernandez model (I haven’t read the book, and thank you so much, Kyle, for bringing it up and synopsizing it) is rather similar to one presented by Albert Hirschman in The Rhetoric of Reaction. Hirschman is more interested in the similar arguments used to oppose any advance in human freedom, but he makes use of a three-part progression that I find useful. You can pull up the chapter on Google Books here, but the gist of it is that there have been three significant advances in the expansion of democracy or freedom: an advance in the civil dimension of citizenship (freedoms of speech, the press, and assembly, the rule of law, abolition of aristocratic and/or ecclesiastical privileges, etc.); an advance in the political dimension of citizenship (the expansion of the franchise); and an advance in the social/economic dimension of citizenship (the rise of the welfare state, guarantees to collective bargaining, etc.).

      As I said, Hirschman uses this tripartite scheme heuristically rather than historically; the history in the book comes from closer study of particular case studies of intensive reactionary response. One of the advantages to Hirschman’s focus on the reactionary responses rather than to some (Hegelian or Whiggish) story of freedom’s advance is that it doesn’t presume that any one of these dimensions of democracy–the civil, political, or economic–is complete, or that it must be completed before the next advance is to take place. Hirschman can, in a sense, have progress without teleology–a scheme in which democratic advances build on one another without the presumption that there is only one order or sequence by which democracy expands, or that each expansion pushes to universality by some kind of internal logic (i.e., that the first expansion of the franchise to a larger set of men logically entails further expansions of the franchise until it is universal).

      This is a roundabout way of appreciating the points you raise, Eran: what I take away from your comments and critique is that Wilentz and other celebrants of Jacksonian democracy seem to be insisting that all of us are indebted to the Jacksonian era because later democratic victories are logically entailed in this first severing of the franchise and property qualifications for men.

      Any way, thanks for this very stimulating post!

  2. Back in the early 1990’s, the late Nathan Huggins published a piece entitled, “The Deforming Mirror of Truth: Slavery and the Master Narrative of American History.” The syntheses by Sean Wilentz and Gordon Wood show the continuing strength of the master narrative of freedom being the story of America.

    The era of the early national period of the United States was an era of Negro disfranchisement and Native American dispossession, (and a hardening of gender roles) and yet it is still characterized as “Jeffersonian / Jacksonian democracy.” If one looks at employer law during the era it shows that masters had little to fear from an expansion of the franchise to the common man. Common law circumscribed free laborers by criminalizing collective withholding of labor, enforcing trespass and vagrancy restrictions,, etc. Seth Cotlar has shown how radical “democracy” of the 1790s deliberately shed its radicalism for moderate Jeffersonianism.

    You make excellent points about the need for a more precise definition of democracy. I, for one, believe that Sheldon Wolin’s idea of “inverted totalitarianism” is useful for understanding the modern American State. Then again my high school text in my civics class in 1980 was Dye and Zieglier’s The Irony of American Democracy, so I might be skeptical that mid 20th Century America was even a democracy.

    • Thanks for this! As always, I find myself in agreement with Huggins. I’m not familiar with Sheldon Wolin but his construction seems suggestive and useful. I’ll be sure to look it up.

  3. Just came across a great new book on New Deal Democracy: Jess Gilbert, Planning Democracy: Agrarian Intellectuals and the Intended New Deal (Yale, 2015). Laura Westhoff’s work on democratic social knowledge in the Progressive era would also be relevant here. See her book A Fatal Drifting Apart.

  4. It seems to me that the democracy must be defined not by the idealisms of some pure form but how it works. We can get clues by looking at the economics of a nation. When there is little or no economic democracy, it’s hard to argue that a political democracy exist. I agree this term needs to be interrogated rather than accepted as a matter of fact.

  5. “We are the first victims of American fascism.” Said by Ethel Rosenberg.

    The seeds of the demise of American democracy were sown with the National Security Act in 1947. Those seeds came to fruition and were harvested during the coup d’etat of November 1963. It’s been all downhill since. Don’t believe me just look around.

    America’s masters learned one important thing that the Soviets never did and that is you can give people all the rights they want but it doesn’t matter if they have no power.


  6. i think most 19th century european adversaries of democracy, or even folks who were ambivalent about it (like tocqueville) would not have thought that democracy was incompatible with dehumanizing a significant portion (although not a majority) of the population. greek democracy was after all a slave society. tocqueville was worried about the leveling effect of democracy, of course, and that’s partly what he saw in the US (in the 1830s, mostly, i think). and others were worried about what was lost when various forms of aristocracy were destroyed. but by those definitions it seems to me that, indeed, especially compared to other places, the US was quite democratic.

    but, also, i think this kind of debate is partly why some leftists (badiou!) want to give up on the language of democracy altogether. it’s a sick signifier.

  7. From the second paragraph of Eran’s post:

    The most alarming aspect of this study to me is that whether the authors examined “populist” democracy or other ideas of what constitutes a democracy, they never wavered from the very myopic view that democracy is in some form a state with a government that carries out the policies that are in the interest of the majority of its citizens.

    I am not sure this is a fair summary of what Gilens and Page say, based on an admittedly quick look at the paper (I’d been aware of it before, but hadn’t really read it). What they say, at the very end, is that if “average citizens” don’t in fact exert much influence on policy, if the views of average citizens, in those cases where they disagree with economic elites, don’t carry much weight in terms of either policy outcomes or agenda-setting, then the U.S.’s claim to be a “democratic society” (their phrase) is “threatened” (their word). I have to say this seems to me to be a fairly reasonable conclusion.

    Gilens and Page are political scientists and they frame their argument, in the beginning of the article, in terms of prevailing pol sci theories about how the U.S. polity (supposedly) functions (“majoritarian electoral democracy,” two forms of interest-group pluralism, etc.). They are not intellectual historians, and it seems perhaps not altogether fair to criticize them for not writing a paper about the evolution of different concepts of democracy in the U.S. context. That’s not what they do. That’s what (some of) you do. There is a division of academic labor, and while it’s good to break down disciplinary divides and have cross-disciplinary conversations as much as possible, it seems a little unfair for an historian to begin a blog post by saying, in effect: “Look at these benighted political scientists. Isn’t their lack of historical/theoretical sophistication alarming?” The paper is not, in my view, “alarming” for that reason; and its conclusions, assuming they are valid, are quite significant in providing empirical support for a conclusion that many people might intuitively have already ‘known’. There’s a difference between knowing something intuitively and demonstrating, or trying to demonstrate it, empirically.

    • Thanks for this push back. Although I can discuss the limited conceptual frameworks of Poli sci folks for very long–as some of my friends can attest to–I actually thought of what I was doing in this post as bundling public assumptions, political science and historiography, and particularly early American historiography at that, together as suffering from the same problem. This also includes myself as an early Americanist. It’s alarming to me that when I taught American history a few years ago, for instance, I did not sufficiently criticize the notion that the US is and was a democracy. Though I taught them about slavery, the destruction of Native peoples and the suffrage limitation for women, I did not have a conversation over what it means that we think of the US as a democracy or that Americans assumed and still do that they live in a democracy. We must think of this critically.
      As to the idea that a democracy largely reflects the interests of average citizens, I think that is indeed dangerous since the idea of an average citizen is slippery and dangerous. Populist regimes, including Nazi Germany, or indeed the US with its history of violence and marginalization might pass for a democracy under this criterion. We must wrestle with this implication.

  8. We’re going to get a new history of democracy relatively soon (within the next year, I believe) from Jim Kloppenberg. Apparently he’s been working on what may be his magnum opus on the subject for some time. I think it might even come in two books. – TL

  9. Eran,
    Sorry to be late to this discussion. I was surprised by yr characterization of the concept of democracy from the p.o.v. of early Americanists. Isn’t it a commonplace that the U.S. underwent a shift from republicanism to democracy in the early period? (i.e. Founders were classical liberals / Republicans, who believed in need for constitutional checks on power of kings and the mob; they did not promote the _political_ equality of all human beings, just white, propertied men,etc.) Isn’t this what Gordon Wood writes about in _The Radicalism of the American Revolution_? But perhaps yr pt. is that Wood’s usage, or Wilentz’s, is simply inadequate or misleading, that the US wasn’t a democracy at all in these yrs and we should stop saying so? that it isn;t a democracy today?

    I agree with Lilian that we need to distinguish b/t democratic theory / norms and dem practice (or more commonly, dem.’s _failure_ in practice). It is a mistake, I think, to treat liberty and democracy as synonymous (as you hint at above). These are separate concepts. democracy can be liberal (i.e. constitutional) or not (think China!); liberalism can be democratic or not (think England in 17th-18th c.)

    US citizens + historians often speak of “democracy” in the abstract when they really mean _liberal_ democracy. Without such a qualifier, “democracy” gets reduced to “populism”, a tendency which can, of course, be embraced by left or right (this is the gist of Talmon’s arg. He writes on p. 6: “There is nothing incompatible between popular sovereignty and single-party dictatorship.)

    Talmon’s book is esp. interesting in relation to Dewey, as you note above. The problem with defining democracy as a “way of life” is that it obliterates the distinction b/t the political and the non-political. Talmon again: “The liberal approach assumes politics to be a matter of trial and error, and regards political systems as pragmatic contrivances of human ingenuity and spontaneity. The totalitarian democratic school is based on the assumption of a sole and exclusive truth in politics. Totalitarian democracy widens the scope of politics to embrace the whole of human existence. Its political ideas are not a set of pragmatic precepts or a body of devices applicable to a special branch of human endeavor. They are an integral part of an all-embracing and coherent philosophy.”
    By these lights, Dewey’s theory is “totalitarian”–it quite literally aspires to totality. This aspect of Dewey’s theory of democracy has been criticized by Robert Talisse and John MacGowan, among others.

    I applaud your efforts to raise questions about the slippery and often incoherent meaning(s) of democracy. Having worked on this concept a bit over the years, there are times that i almost despair of ever deploying the word with much accuracy or historical depth. This is what led Robert Dahl to develop his notion of “polyarchy”, and stands behind John Dunn’s call for “breaking democracy’s spell” and Wolin’s fear that all democracy today is “inverted totalitarianism.” I’m hoping Kloppenberg’s big book will shed some fresh light on the subject.

    • Thanks for this great reply. I was excited to see that somebody else is a fan of Talmon. As for my talk on the early republic. Yes, the story we tell is republic turning into a democracy. The problem as I see it is that we use these words both as analytical categories, i.e talking about processes of democraticization, and also as concepts that were woven into a very particular ideological web in contemporary imagination.

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