Book Review: Toward Democracy
The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought
by James T. Kloppenberg
Oxford University Press, 2016
It’s been ten years since the appearance of Sean Willentz’s The Rise of American Democracy, and in his new book, Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought, James Kloppenberg works in the same furrow of both overloaded narrative and fuzzy categorization. In nearly 900 pages, Kloppenberg surveys the rise of popular democracies in the last three centuries, mainly in America but with digressions to pertinent precincts of France, and much like Willentz before him, this author is capable of some positively horrifying colonic blockages in the form of page-long single sentences like:
As this book attempts to show, we cannot understand the rise and consolation of democratic institutions, or the successes and failures of democratic reformers on either side of the Atlantic unless we look beyond our own contemporary categories of politics and economics, important as they are, and beyond the categories of conservative and radical, liberal and republican, capitalist and socialist, important as they have been, to see how such ideas have been changed and amalgamated in the historical discourse of democracy.
The implication in a title like Toward Democracy is of course directional in nature, and the “away” quadrant, the equatorial opposite of the democratic end-goal, is the uninvited guest throughout the book. If the better class of people are moving toward democracy, what are they moving away from that whole time? The answer, naturally enough, is aristocracy – some kind of elite oligarchy, whether based on money or land or heredity or cultural education – and the main focus throughout, the governing figure, is John Adams, about whose stances Kloppenberg is uniformly strong:
Adams’s contemporary critics, as we have seen, accused him of favoring aristocracy, but that charge confuses Adams’s fetish for mixed or balanced government with an aversion to representative democracy. Adams shared Madison’s conviction that the lines of conflict in every culture run all the way down and in many directions. Individuals will always emerge from the ranks of the ambitious and talented to contend against each other and attempt to establish their dominance. But they will never form a united class interest.
No American in 2016 will be able to read that last line without a painful grimace. Kloppenberg describes the process of free societies moving toward democracy as an unfinished, open-ended process, a story without an ending, a process without a conclusion. But wealth has concentrated in the 21st century to a greater disproportion than it has in centuries, and that concentrated wealth is an openly-professed enemy of democracy. One result of this is that democracy – the actual reality of it rather than the insincere slogan – is every bit as endangered in the world as it was in the days of Adams and Jefferson, and viewed every bit as warily by the world’s power-brokers as it was in the days of Montesquieu, who favored chosen representatives as governmental operatives over broader, directly-participating masses. “The great advantage of representatives is their capacity of discussing public affairs,” he wrote. “For this the people collectively are extremely unfit.”
In fact, a broad thread running through Toward Democracy, perhaps against the book’s own intention, is the recurring theme of the extreme unfitness of “the people collectively” to rule themselves. In scene after scene, it’s that united class of ambitious strivers who are pushing through legislation, devising social innovations, and sometimes wreaking havoc on the mass of people who have neither the education nor the drive nor even the sustained interest to do any of those things in their own name. Plebeian representatives steadily metamorphose over time into a more or less permanent governing class, the financial requirements to join that class grow steeper with every generation (the amount of money Herbert Hoover spent to get himself elected president in 1929, for instance, is roughly one-tenth of what it costs in 2016 to mount a successful campaign for your local state senate), and the will of the governing class becomes heedlessly proscriptive. Kloppenberg mentions colonial governor William Penn’s initial prohibitions against swearing, cursing, lying, profanity, drunkenness, drinking, incest, sodomy, rape, etc., for example, and reflects on what those prohibitions said about the broader culture:
Penn shared the view of many seventeenth-century English nonconformists that such practices were to be discouraged. Of course, the necessity of prohibiting everything on those lists confirms our strong assumption that such practices must have been widespread and commonly tolerated. Perhaps before we condescend to the priggishness of Penn and his contemporaries, we should reflect more carefully on the values implicit in those prohibitions, the reasons for our instinctive reactions to them, and the consequences for our democracy.
The central conceptual pillars of “our democracy,” in these pages, are “popular sovereignty, autonomy, and equality,” and although each of these concepts is deeply problematic – the will of popular sovereignty in 2016 America is for strict gun control legislation, but the oligarchic governing class consistently refuses to grant it, autonomy would seem to betoken privacy from round-the-clock government surveillance, and yet no American has such privacy anymore (your computer’s camera is on and filming you as you read this right now), and the very notion of equality is mocked when a police officer can be recorded in broad daylight executing an unarmed man and planting a gun on his corpse and face a “punishment” of two weeks’ paid desk duty – Kloppenberg wants to characterize them as essential truths guiding a slow, organic process. As a systematic analysis of that process, his big book fails as earnestly as Willentz’s predecessor did a decade ago. But as a soaringly intellectual account of John Adams and the Boston Revolution, it’s extremely good.