U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Toward Democracy Book Club, Entry 2: The Introduction

Dust Jacket for Jim Kloppenberg’s Toward Democracy (OUP, 2016).

Just before Christmas, I promised a virtual book club on James Kloppenberg’s Toward Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2016). I’m here now to make good on that promise. Before I dive into the rest of my notes on the Introduction, I want to offer a few prefatory remarks on our club.

It is my understanding that this blog will host a roundtable on Toward Democracy in the spring. I don’t know the exact details (i.e. dates, participants). But I can say, definitively, that this books club should be considered supplementary to that effort. Perhaps our unofficial goal will be to become smart commenters for that event? If so, I’ll get more date details so that this book club concludes just before the roundtable.

For every post that follows, and for the text beneath this preface, please consider my words a mere beginning. Use the post to dive into other topics explicitly mentioned or implied in Toward Democracy (TD, hereafter). Let’s take the discussion where we feel it needs to go, either past or present. My only request—one of my rules in any book club or seminar situation—to keep the book in the orbit of discussion. Otherwise, and this hardly needs mentioning in this particular virtual space, is that we stay civil.

Since my words are a mere beginning, I will make no effort whatsoever to be comprehensive in these installments. My hope is that by sticking with what interests me, I’ll maintain some drive, and perhaps a bit of passion, for many entries.

Finally, I apologize in advance for what will likely be myopic comments. Myopia is a constant hazard in any first close reading. It means I’ll lack perspective, at times—getting caught in eddies and details on topics that will probably be covered later. I’ll do my best to pull back when I can sense those little whirlpools.

TD’s Introduction

Last week I began, after having read only five pages, by questioning some of the major themes, ideas, ideals, and theory to be addressed in the book. I’m happy to report that, for this reader, the rest of the Introduction allayed those concerns—even while others arose. On page 6, Kloppenberg posits three “contested principles” and “premises” that reside in “the heart of debates about democracy.” The principles are popular sovereignty, autonomy, and equality. These are classified as highly visible, while alongside there exist “less visible” premises: deliberation, pluralism, and reciprocity. This more/less visible construction belies the fact that, even in chapter one, the premises seem, at times, to overshadow the principles. Perhaps I shouldn’t take the term “visible” so literally.

In the same passage when Kloppenberg lays out those principles and premises, he promises exploration of North Atlantic democracy’s “religious origins” and “ethical dimensions.” Democracy as an “ethical ideal” had been broached a few pages before, but I was pleasantly surprised by the promise on religion. As a former Evangelical and current Catholic, whose maternal grandparents adhered to a branch of Mormonism then known as the Reorganized Church of Latter Day Saints (RLDS), I’ve long wrestled with questions about the intersections of democracy, religion, politics, morals, and ethics.

In discussing popular sovereignty—defined as “the will of the people [being] the sole source of legitimate authority”—Kloppenberg right away notes the “misgivings” on this front by “even partisans of democracy” (p. 6). Those misgivings were in relation to “the people’s capacity to exercise judgment,” meaning of course good judgment. Thomas Jefferson and Plato are cited as prominent doubters, though Jefferson is given more of a voice in these introductory passages. Kloppenberg notes Jefferson’s solution to problems of reason, enlightenment, and “wholesome discretion”: namely, more democracy, by which he meant that their discretion must be enlightened.

Also noted is the lack of specificity regarding the circle of “we” in relation to democratic movements. Kloppenberg asks whether this means direct democracy or representation? What kind of participation was meant?

Related to capacities, I found Kloppenberg’s introductory discussion of “deliberation” (one of his premises) to be important and relevant today. Noting the Latin deliberare means “to weigh well” or consider, the activity implied in the term is considered to be “at the heart of democracy.” This brings in democracy as an ethical ideal by assuming that selfhood derives from “dialogue with other persons engaged in the same process” (p. 9). This notion requires a certain kind of extroversion and ability to reason that continually raises questions about the viability of democracy and what kind of democratic culture must be nurtured. Kloppenberg observes that this problematizes “democratic deliberation,” making it also “subject to deliberation.” As we know, questions of procedure and process occasionally plague, or bog down, debates about social progress or regress. And how are confrontations about process resolved? What of force, and when the forces of evil outnumber and outgun the good?

After more discussion of his contested principles and premises, Kloppenberg very briefly narrates some of the disagreements, conflicts, revolutions, and wars that have troubled modern democratic movements, up through the American Civil War. These conflicts meant that the “ethic of reciprocity” had been violated, and remained a troubled premise after the conclusion of conflicts. Violence left “permanent scars” on efforts to reconcile popular sovereignty, autonomy, equality, and pluralism.

To me, these scars introduce a cycle of force and continued potential for violence. The memories of pain bring up the possibilities of resentment and retribution. And those feed into, or worsen, already vigorous arguments about procedure. Finally, there is the problem of evil being propagated by quantities of voters (e.g. slavery, or abortion for some present-day voters). Perhaps I’m anticipating Kloppenberg’s own admission of pessimism about the prospects of democracy, which arises near the end of the Introduction.

The discussion of violence, and the scars it leaves on reciprocity, bring Kloppenberg to what he calls “the tragic irony of democracy.” That tragedy consists of “the recurrent creation of social and political arrangements that, although often initially appearing to mirror popular desires, ended up either freeing previously repressed impulses that undermined democracy or generating other pressures that produced new and unanticipated forms of dependency and hierarchy”(p. 13).

With somewhat vague (or general and inclusive) terms used such as “arrangements,” “desires,” “impulses,” “pressures,” and “dependency,” I’ll have to let this statement stand, without judgment, until the historical events warranting the irony are introduced. But we need to return to this, chapter by chapter, to see how it holds.

That observation of irony helps Kloppenberg arrive at his thesis for the book: “From the early seventeenth century through the end of the nineteenth century, democracy was an ethical ideal as much as it was a political or economic ideal, and we cannot understand the historical development of American or European cultures without focusing on the moral and religious dimensions of the struggles that have given us the world we inhabit” (p. 14).

This focus on ethics is emerging as Kloppenberg’s key historiographic distinction—his way of separating his book from the field. It allows him to return to religion and morals throughout. Both arise in chapter one, covered in the next installment.

I apologize if this first entry doesn’t capture all of the subtleties you observed in TD’s Introduction. I look forward to your comments! – TL

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I’ve learned from Robert Greene, S-USIH Book Review Editor, that the the Toward Democracy round table will occur in early April. With that, I propose that we end this series by March 30, at latest. Since I post weekly on Thursdays, and the book has 14 chapters, here’s a tentative schedule:

    Entry 3. Jan. 12, C-1-2
    4. Jan. 19, C-3
    5. Jan. 26, C-4-5
    6. Feb. 2, C-6
    7. Feb. 9, C-7-8
    8. Feb. 16, C-9
    9. Feb. 23, C-10
    10. Mar. 2, C-11
    11. Mar. 9, C-12
    12. Mar. 16, C-13
    13. Mar. 23, C-14

    This schedule gives us one day of play (i.e. 3/30) in case we get off schedule. It also means I have my work cut out for me on the days we double up!

    If we like this schedule, I’ll circulate. Let me know if this makes sense. – TL

    • I think this makes sense–I actually need to play catch up in the reading anyways. Plus with the roundtable, the more informed commenters we have on each piece, the better.

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