With “Toward Democracy,” James T. Kloppenberg has undertaken nothing less than the story of democracy “as it was imagined, understood, and practiced” from its origins in ancient Greece to its modern emergence in the 18th and 19th centuries. The book presents both a history of ideas and a political history and is, at nearly 900 pages, a weighty project in more than one respect. Though it sweeps back and forth across the Atlantic, “Toward Democracy” is above all an American tale. One of its many virtues is to remind us that democracy has always been more than a set of political practices. It is also, Mr. Kloppenberg writes, an “ethical ideal.”
Historically, that ideal developed by way of intense debates over three core principles—sovereignty, autonomy and equality—that could easily generate violence. Democracy, Mr. Kloppenberg notes, was born in bloodshed and “has never strayed far from it.” That shouldn’t be surprising. For to debate sovereignty was to ask who should have power, and to plead autonomy—from the Greek autos(self) + nomos (rule)—was to hint at an answer: Human beings should have the power to rule themselves. But were all human beings really of equal power? Surely some, whether by nature or circumstance, were better endowed than others? And if so, then what could be better than “rule by the best” (aristokratia) or even “rule by one” (monarkhia), the best of all?
These were the questions posed by the leading thinkers of Greece and Rome (from Plato and Aristotle to Polybius and Cicero), who fashioned their responses in the context of bloody social struggles between the many and the few. By and large they sided with the few, and their negative accounts of the rule of the people (dēmokratia) remained the norm until well into the 18th century. Democracy, they believed, tended to lawlessness and license. It was antithetical to rule of the best.
By James T. Kloppenberg Oxford, 892 pages, $34.95
It bears recalling that the “people” (demos) who vied for power in the ancient democracies were themselves a relative elite: adult males who possessed the good fortune to be neither aliens nor slaves. The last two groups, politically speaking, weren’t “people” at all. To conceive of them as such—and to conceive of this people as capable of ruling itself—would require the work of centuries.
Mr. Kloppenberg, a professor of history at Harvard, pays special attention to the role of religion in that process. “Christian ideas of humility, mercy, forgiveness, and equal respect for other persons,” he notes, “form the backdrop against which modern concepts of autonomy and equality emerged.” They did so with particular force in the novel setting of the New World.
For though neither Puritans nor their cousins to the south ever set out to build “democracy,” that was the effect of their labors. Having left Europe, they were forced to make rules for themselves, and in church congregations, town-meeting halls, market squares and courts of law, they did just that. Their relative autonomy was complemented by relative equality, born of the widespread availability of land and the absence of a hereditary aristocracy to declare itself the “best.” In this setting, Christian and philosophic ideals emphasizing reciprocity, pluralism and mutual respect took root. And in this setting, innovative thinkers reinforced experience with insights that bolstered the case for greater sovereignty, autonomy and equality.
Mr. Kloppenberg is at his best when analyzing these insights, showing how Americans negotiated vital currents of thought, including Protestant theology, the republicanism unleashed by the English Civil War, and a moderate form of the Enlightenment. In a series of finely crafted summaries of European thinkers and their American interpreters (including Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Franklin), he shows how the genius of democracy took shape in the American mind and then asserted itself in independence and in the ratification of the Constitution.
Mr. Kloppenberg’s admiration for this achievement is clear. But so is his disappointment. Not only was the American constitutional settlement “poisoned” by its inability to come to terms with the sin of slavery—a time bomb that would detonate in the Civil War—but the laudable expansion of the electorate in the 19th century systematically excluded women and people of color. Meanwhile, the stirrings of a great market economy released centrifugal forces—individualism and materialism, above all—that threatened to fracture a sense of common purpose and shared interest, while immigration and territorial expansion put further strain on what Jefferson called the “willingness to endure division,” so necessary to the democratic ideal. [JB highlight]
The situation was even bleaker in Europe, where the “tragedy” of the French Revolution’s extremism lent credence to age-old concerns about the license of the people and “stalled” democracy, in Mr. Kloppenberg’s judgment, for over a century. The failed European revolutions of 1848 did much the same, while the rise of Marxism erected a “wall of mistrust and misunderstanding” between advocates of democracy and parts of the working class, who dismissed it as a “delusion.”
Mr. Kloppenberg concludes his history at what some may find an odd moment: In the aftermath of the Civil War, with America’s “house divided” still. Abjuring the uplifting narrative of the expansion of the suffrage in the 20th century and the spread of democracy abroad, he opts to tell a darker tale, echoing themes first expressed by Alexis de Tocqueville. Democracy’s very success in securing greater sovereignty, autonomy and equality, Mr. Kloppenberg insists, threatens to erode the virtues on which the ethical ideal depends: a sense of pluralism and reciprocity, a respect for deliberation, difference and the common good. This tendency to self-sabotage, he suggests, is the “tragic irony” of democracy. And though he does not say so explicitly, it threatens to be the tragedy of our times.
Mr. McMahon, a professor of history at Dartmouth College, is writing an intellectual history of equality.
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. After leaving the State Department in order to express opposition to the planned invasion of Iraq, he taught courses at Georgetown University pertaining to the tension between propaganda and public diplomacy. For many years he shared ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" with Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future; now online).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States (also online). In the past century, he served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.