I’ve been pretty inactive on the blog in recent weeks. I wish it could tell you that it was entirely because I was busy doing other work-related tasks. However, while this is a busy time of the semester, the truth is that this election campaign has pretty much taken up all my emotional energy.
Under the best of circumstances, I tend to be a political junky, prone to obsessive concern over elections and their outcomes. Heck, I even stayed up late watching Canadian election returns a little over a year ago. But this election weighs on me not merely because it’s important and close, but because of its tone. I feel as if we are currently skating on very, very thin ice.
Throughout this semester, I’ve been coordinating an Honors reading group on James Kloppenberg’s Toward Democracy, his new, monumental history of democratic thought in Europe and America. One of Kloppenberg’s central concerns is explaining why democratic thought seems to succeed some places and fail in others. Why was the United States more successful at creating a functional democratic (or at least aspirationally democratic) polity in the late 18th century than the English were under the Commonwealth or the French were during their Revolution?
Kloppenberg’s answer is complicated, but at its heart is the presence (or absence) of an ethic of reciprocity. Under the heavy influence of Scottish moral philosophy (and an attendant commitment to Protestantism), American thinkers like John Adams and James Madison believed that people were fallible but capable of virtue. For Madison, factions were, in Kloppenberg’s words, “a troubling indicator of malignant growths to be controlled if they could not be excised” (428). And since, as Madison argued in Federalist 10, the methods of their excision would essentially make republican government impossible, their effects had to be mitigated. The solution lay in democratic deliberation among elected representatives. The goal of such deliberation was not, as Kloppenberg points out, merely horse-trading among factions in an anticipation of 20th-century ideas of pluralism. Rather it was also to force representatives to overcome their passions and self-interests and “cultivat[e] a disciplined conscience” (429) that would allow them to perceive and implement the common good. Through deliberation, factions could themselves be made to produce virtuous outcomes. Such deliberation was baked into the constitutional systems of most states and eventually the federal government.
During the French Revolution, Robespierre could often sound surprisingly Madisonian in his commitment to representative institutions. But unlike Madison and most American thinkers, Robespierre and the other leaders of the French Revolution valued unity more than they valued reciprocity. Thus, argues Kloppenberg, smashing dissent (real and perceived) quickly became the order of the day in the French Revolution.
This is, of course, incredibly well-trodden historical ground. And I’ll leave to others who work on these times and places the task of evaluating the adequacy of Kloppenberg’s account (and of my extraordinarily brief simplification of it). I mention it today because of something this election season has made me feel is missing from Kloppenberg’s account…and absence that perhaps presents a problem for intellectual history…or at least a certain sort of intellectual history.
How important is formal thought in explaining political events, especially in highly unusual situations in which the very location of power seems up for grabs? Though I think we need to recognize Robespierre as a theorist of democratic government (broadly speaking), is it as a democratic theorist that his actions during the Revolution should be considered? And how much can the thought of Robespierre, Tom Paine, Olympe de Gouges, Condorcet, and the other thinkers and theorists in France in the early 1790s explain the course of events?
To be fair to Kloppenberg, the background of political culture also plays a key role in his account. In his analysis, democratic traditions grew in British North America during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, laying the groundwork for the emergence of a democratic republic in the 1770s and 1780s. No such traditions were at hand in France.
Nevertheless, when I try to understand what’s going on in America today and to evaluate the state of American democracy, formal thought, while neither absent or unimportant, does not play nearly so large a role in my thinking. This is not at all to demote the importance of people thinking. Indeed, how different groups of people think seems to me to be the central issue (I’m still an intellectual historian). But formal intellectuals are, for better or worse, at best marginal players in what is going on in our country at the moment. The answers to the mysteries of our current situation lie in other realms of thought. And we’re not even in the chaos of a revolutionary situation. Yet.