How Does Democracy Work?


Democratic Vistas: Reflections on the Life of American Democracy
edited by Jedediah Purdy

Reviewed by Adam Fleisher

Democratic Vistas, edited by Jedediah PurdyThe political scientist Adam Przeworski’s minimalist defense of democracy is that it is the best system for changing government without bloodshed – power changes hands by election, and the losers can take solace in knowing they will survive to fight another contest. But for Democratic Vistas, a collection of essays based on the DeVane lectures at Yale University, such narrowness will not do.

Here, as Jedediah Purdy explains in his brilliant introduction, the goal is to “sort out” democracy in America. Purdy starts with the inherent contradiction of the democratic ideal, which Anthony Kronman addresses in detail in his essay on Plato, and which is explored throughout the collection: a deep commitment to both the idea of individuality and to “tearing down distinctions.” Purdy continues with a succinct overview of how this contradiction appears across the diverse themes addressed in the remaining twelve essays, which range from the baseline question of what democratic values are to the roles of family and religion in our democracy to examinations of education, capitalism, inequality, foreign policy, science and technology.

Walt Whitman, from whose work of social criticism comes the title of this collection, identified individuality and “adhesiveness” as essentials of democracy. According to David Bromwich’s essay, Whitman, along with Abraham Lincoln, “enlarged our idea of the discipline and the imagination of democracy.” Making their contributions during the national argument over slavery, they each articulated the moral basis of democracy as grounded in the notion of the supremacy of the individual – over himself, but not over others. Or, as Whitman put it, with kings beneath us, “every man a knight.”

But from there arises the paradox of democracy that Purdy identifies – that individual freedom to achieve can lead to the inequality that democracy promises to eradicate. It’s particularly noticeable in this country’s education system, and particularly in regard to institutions like Yale. As Richard Brodhead, Dean of Yale at the time of his lecture, points out, higher education has expanded access beyond the privileged few to the striving many. Of course, as Brodhead notes, selectivity means there will be discrimination; the real question is what kind. As for Yale, Brodhead says, the school seeks students with “quick, inquiring minds,” which “rewards differences of gift and accomplishment” but provides opportunity “without regard to family background or ability to pay.” Money, however, is the real issue. Merit-based aid distributes more advantages to those who already have much, and yet schools with smaller endowments might feel competitive pressure to offer relatively less need-based aid in order to attract top students. Brodhead does not claim to have a solution, though he thinks figuring out how to resolve them is the key question for the future of democratic education.

While Brodhead embraces the difficulties of the many and the few, Richard Levin and Ian Shapiro, in their essays on markets and democracy, are less sanguine. Levin, president of Yale, starts with a premise implicitly similar to Brodhead’s: competition inevitably leaves some people behind. Markets are liberating and therefore tend to reinforce democratic freedom and create opportunity. But they also engender inequality. Levin invites democratic government to “remedy the deficiencies of market outcomes” and he is optimistic that we can indeed create the right policies to do so.

Shapiro more explicitly looks at distribution of wealth and the struggle to get Americans on board with broadly redistributive policies. He admits that for many Americans, redistribution means from “us to the government” rather than from rich to poor. Shapiro blames this sentiment on “anectodal distractions.” Granted, it isn’t surprising that there was no room in this visionary volume for public choice theory, but there is certainly some substantive basis for the notion that government redistribution is effectively of, by and for the connected.  Shapiro’s wish to “push redistributive politics in the desired direction” seems about as viable as admitting everybody into Yale.

Though the lectures on which these essays are based are not necessarily very new, they address timeless questions about how we govern ourselves. Or, as Purdy eloquently puts it, they are “contributions to a national project – the project of the nation itself.” And yet in a country founded on and still dedicated to forward movement, the national project “cannot be completed unless by an unhappy ending.”  In other words, American democracy is committed to the perpetual promise that tomorrow is another day.

Excerpt: For Whitman, and for us, the belief that diversity has value and that the highest purpose of the state is to promote its exuberant expression and joyful appreciation – beliefs so commonplace in our contemporary culture that we scarcely even recognize them as such – are the secular by-products of that radical revaluation of individuality entailed by the religious doctrine of creation from nothing, a teaching whose implications could never be absorbed within the limits of Greek thought.  For once it is granted that the absolute distinctness of every individual is something real in its own right – a proposition foreign to the whole spirit of Platonic philosophy but required by the doctrine of creation ex nihilo – the way is open to the celebration of diversity as something divine, as the revelation of the Creator in His creatures, and to a view of the state as a union of individuals gathered for the purpose of enjoying their own diversity.

Further Reading: Democracy’s Values by Ian Shapiro and Casiano Hacker-Cordón and Democracy: A History by John Dunn

Adam Fleisher is a law student at the University of Virginia.

*Photo courtesy Adam Solomon.


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