U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Away From Democracy?


Photo by Nate Gowdy of a Trump rally in Loveland, Colorado.

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.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. “. . . 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.”

    I agree. I think formal thought in a post-Nietzschean and post-Darwinian world (not to suggest a simplistic post hoc way of thinking) needs to take into account studies of the body, the neural turn, and the history of emotions (Peter Stearns, etc.).

    On the other hand, formal thought, if conceptualized as the cognitive/emotive/embodied experiences of Americans, does not seem as irrelevant unless a suspicion of “formal” texts implies a perspective-less, objective crafter of such thoughts.

    I’m hoping to read Kloppenberg’s book soon. Does he include any recent studies of the above (emotions, etc.)?

    • Addendum:

      I was thinking about this quote from Peter and Carol Stearns’s piece on “emotionology”:

      “In fact, modern social history was born in the United States and Britain with a rather rationalist bent, not only in assumptions about scientific methodology but also in a tendency to claim sweet reason in the popular attitudes of the past. One of the first contentions of crowd historians . . . was that rioters carefully selected their methods and goals—logical choices that can be easily grasped by historians once the rioters’ basic assumptions are understood. The historical study of protest, indeed, remains dominated by the claim to rationality, to the extent that some authorities argue that emotion enters their subjects not at all (italics added). This is more than a refutation of the conservative, mad mob assumptions of Gustav Le Bon, the rationalists’ first target. Charles Tilly has continued to see emotion as an irrelevant by-product of protest, whose contours are firmly determined by organizational potential and rational crowd goals.”*

      *Peter N. Stearns and Carl Z. Stearns, “Emotionology: Clarifying the History of Emotions and Emotional Standards,” American Historical Review 90, no. 4 (October 1985), 816-17.

  2. But unlike Madison and most American thinkers, Robespierre and the other leaders of the French Revolution valued unity more than they valued reciprocity.

    In a revolution who would not value unity. I have not read Klopperberg’s book, but Michael Soenscher’s new interpretation of Sieyes and the French Revolution is interesting.

  3. Personally, I’ve always respected the political historians of the 1950s — Hofstadter and especially Marvin Meyers — who saw political thought as an articulation of certain social and moral “persuasions,” rather than a discourse arrived at by any Hegelian march toward Truth. What we’re seeing in America today is certain “persuasions” finding their voice in to express discontent. Think of the major themes that recur in present-day (lower-case “p”) populism: the evils of “political correctness” and dissimulation; the evils of the “establishment” that operates behind closed curtains; the mystical, sinister influence of money in politics. (As I type this, I realize that I’m transposing the “Paranoid Style…” argument onto present day politics.) “Formal thought” seems aloof from these themes because its acolytes pride themselves on rational argument, whereas most large political persuasions tend to be more… well, for lack of a better word, more platitudinous. I can look at the political thought of an older populist like Andrew Jackson and trace the genealogy of his platitudes to more “formal” thinkers like Tom Paine; and until recently, we could do the same thing for most mainstream politicians, creating a (valid!) intellectual history behind slogans and sound bytes. What we’re seeing today is that political intellectuals have less influence than ever on their constituents’ thought — they’re moving in totally different epicycles. Would this have been equally true in the 1790s? I’m not so sure.

  4. It’s routine for contending factions in a democracy to threaten to bring down the whole system in order to get their way; but miscalculations are always possible in this game of chicken, especially when there is a deficit of loyalty to the nation itself in one of the parties. I think that’s what’s going on now. A lot of the Republicans figure that if he country won’t revert to being a white Christian nation, the Hell with it, while other Republicans are counting on the Democrats to blink—one of the unspoken features of the American political system is the expectation that the Republicans can afford to be ruthless because it’s the role of the Democrats to give way. As I said before, miscalculations are always possible.

    • ” A lot of Republicans…..give way.” Where do you leftists get this crap from? Personal anecdotal journalism? Statistical interpretations of rhetorical answers? The left has fifteen stock answers to everything and they all begin with an accusation. You are preterite.

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