More Democracy! More Revolution!

By Barber, Benjamin R. | The Nation, October 26, 1998 | Go to article overview

More Democracy! More Revolution!


Barber, Benjamin R., The Nation


For all its undeniable prosperity, in part precisely because of its undeniable prosperity, there are many things amiss in America today. For each thing that is right, something has gone wrong. For all the prosperity, there is far too much inequality; for all the practiced tolerance, there is too much incivility; for all the push to the center, there is too much recrimination, too much polarization; for all the productivity, there is too much disemployment, too much meanness, too much commercialism; for all the rollback of bureaucracy and welfare statism, there is too much antigovernment paranoia, too much distrust of democracy. In a word, for all the democracy, there is not enough democracy.

Yet the left appears to have neither an obvious constituency nor a persuasive political program to contend with these ills, and the disarray caused by the Clinton crisis can only exacerbate the difficulties it faces. The old coalition that created the New Deal and the Great Society represents an ever-tinier minority of voters. The old programs embody living ideas but dead policy options too wedded to vanished notions of nineteenth-century capitalism. Are there new "first principles" that can make a difference? Or will old first principles do? Although we progressives often make sport of our historical legacy, America's most promising progressive principles have in fact always been its first principles; for America's first principles (if not its practices) have always been fundamentally progressive. Foremost among those principles is Jefferson's bold claim that the remedy for all the defects of democracy is simply more democracy.

More Democracy

"More democracy!" has from the outset been the American battle cry--the cry of colonialists against the British, of tenants against landowners, of farmers against bankers, of disfranchised women against men, of slaves against slave-owners and of workers against those who would expropriate their labor. Radical proponents of democracy have historically made war not on American ideals but on hypocrisy--the distance power elites have put between those ideals and the nation's actual practices. Where Europeans have seen in politics the rationalization of class hegemony and called for a revolution against the political, Americans have seen in politics the means of their emancipation and have used political means to forge revolutions of inclusion. Revolution has taken the form: "Let me in!" "More democracy" has been the American ticket to emancipation, inclusion, equality and social justice. For more democracy means institutions and attitudes that are more democratic, and so means a more democratic democracy and thus a better democracy.

In the years before the Civil War when the women at Seneca Falls sought a place in the American sun, they refused to assail the rights language that had empowered men. Instead they held that language up to the test of its own entailments, asserting that the "self-evident truths" of the Declaration made all men and women equal. William Lloyd Garrison proclaimed he would "strenuously contend for the immediate enfranchisement of our slave population" precisely on the basis of those "inalienable rights" vouchsafed by America's founding documents. To abolish slavery required--more democracy. Martin Luther King Jr. assailed the American nightmare of racism by embracing the American dream. More democracy.

What does such a broad formula mean today? More democracy, yes, but how? Where? Well, as Walt Whitman would say, everywhere! "Did you suppose," he queried in his Democratic Vistas, "democracy was only for elections, for politics and for a party name? I say democracy is only of use there that it may pass on and come to its flower and fruit in manners, in the highest form of interaction between men, and their beliefs--in religion, literature, colleges, and schools--democracy in all public and private life."

If democracy is, as John Dewey insisted, less a form of government than a way of life, then more democracy means specifically more democracy not only in the domain of government but in the domain of business and the domain of civil society. …

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