Clues from the Past, Recent American Politics

Two Cheers for Pragmatic Democracy

Originally published by the Society for U.S. Intellectual History on March 16, 2018:

With democracy pragmatic style, complete realization of ideals is always out of reach—and that means both constant self-correction and, in the words of Frederick Douglass, “agitate, agitate, agitate”

Once upon a time, marketplace thought and practice was associated with the work of accountants and the policies of cold-hearted politicians.  In 1978, Irving Kristol wrote Two Cheers for Capitalism to retrieve the reputation of free markets for their intimate role in democratic freedoms.  The rest is history, the history that is of the surge of marketplace conservatism.  From Ronald Reagan’s 1980 call to “get the government off the backs of the people,” to Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America in 1994, to the current president’s eagerness to deregulate business, marketplace thought and practices have moved from margin to mainstream.

The cachet of markets in the last four decades has put progressive goals on the defensive.  From welfare programs to education, advocates for social justice and public purposes have felt the need to show how their programs will pay in marketplace terms, as expressed succinctly by the slogan of the National Endowment for the Arts: “Art Works.”

James’s Kloppenberg’s Toward Democracy has potential to revive the influence and toward democracysignificance of progressive democracy for our own time.  He focuses on “the Struggle for Self-Rule,” in the words of the book’s subtitle, as citizens achieved freedom from aristocratic rule in the early modern Western world, and continued to strive for freedom from the power of concentrated wealth since the nineteenth century.

As Kloppenberg shows, the practice of democracy has achieved the goals of popular sovereignty and citizen autonomy beyond the dreams of eighteenth-century republican revolutionaries; and democratic dynamics in the nineteenth century put still more emphasis on these goals.  However, democracy has not fulfilled that other democratic dream of greater social equality; in fact, those triumphant features of democracy have acted to promote greater inequality.  Not only have free markets enabled great and unequal accumulations of wealth, but also, autonomous citizens have not necessarily chosen democratic goals.

Especially in America’s mass democracy, market forces have penetrated not only the economics of production and services, but also the public sphere.  Well-funded ideological organizations take advantage of the information abundance and “attentional scarcity” of our time, as Columbia Law Professor Tim Wu points out, to manage citizen choices.  Many of the choices that Americans feel they are making freely are directed by the miracle of the marketplace.  Concentrations of wealth are able to generate persuasive communication from think tanks or media trolls to organize public relations campaigns.  For example, in contemporary public discourse, the democratic ideal of equality has actually come to seem undemocratic even to many who would benefit from an egalitarian ethos because advocates of free markets have associated this democratic thinking with socialism.

While modern democracy has faced these illiberal challenges, the tradition itself does not have a purely progressive pedigree.  Democracy began as a Eurocentric ideal, and it has grown alongside colonial hierarchies and globalized reshuffling of regional social and cultural practices, from the days of the fur trade to our time of multinational corporations headquartered in the West.  Modern democracy did indeed emerge alongside not only the commodification of furs and countless other consumer products, but also the commodification of human beings in the slave trade leaving dark legacies in chattel slavery, segregation, and racial hierarchy as Manisha Sinha and Michelle Alexander have pointed out.  And modern democracy, for all its founders’ enthusiasms for dramatic social transformation, has in its practices of checks and balances, become associated with moderation.  Johann Neem makes this point with an edgy question: is this “stumbling” tradition up to the challenge of confronting enormous injustices; “can we sustain moderation?”

When democracy has not lived up to its ideals, it invites such criticism and doubt.  This can produce a portrait of democracy as a political system ready to justify complacency, with its turn from ideals enabling settlement for the status quo.  By providing historical understanding about the frequent gaps “between democrats’ aspirations and their achievements,” Kloppenberg is also presenting a tacitly pragmatic plan for continued support of democracy despite its imperfections.  He responds to progressive doubters of democracy by placing the ideals themselves as part of the democratic process; the goals for social justice, human rights, and more, can be achieved only in struggle, in active resistance to the forces holding them back.

In the face of ways in which democracy “unleashes forces that can endanger the sensibilities it requires,” Kloppenberg votes for redoubling efforts to boost those sensibilities, to approach democracy not just for its structures, but as an “ethical ideal.”  This characterization of democracy points to the theoretical spine of his historical coverage of the rise of democracy in the modern world.  In fact, he points out that the “underlying premises” of “deliberation, pluralism, and reciprocity,” while “less visible” than the contests of politics, are the crucial life blood that enable a government with democratic structures to thrive with democratic culture.  This points to the philosophical roots, or in political terms the values-oriented rhizome, feeding the life of democracy.  These attitudes and ways of thinking mean plural openness not only to different people but also to different ideas; they mean readiness to deliberate with listening and dialogue across those differences; and they mean reciprocal interaction in talk and action so that each position includes attention to the broad consequences of one’s own views and also to the potential significance of contrasting views.

These “underlying premises” of democracy are political applications of pragmatism.  Although Kloppenberg does not make much explicit reference to this tradition of American philosophy, it is the guiding spirit of the book.  The pragmatism in the Kloppenberg brand of democracy is not only a way of thinking and an ethical ideal; it is also a way to cope with democracy’s own shortcomings.  While progressive critics grow impatient with democracy for not living up to its ideals, the pragmatic core of this politics is a reminder that its very ideals involve a commitment to process; so in effect, what he calls the “tragic irony of democracy” means commitments unhooked from ideals.  Ideal results are unpragmatic absolutes that would undercut the ability of society’s diverse groups and plurality of perspectives to interact.  And absolutes stifle deliberation and reciprocity; why listen and dialogue if the result is already fixed?  A pragmatic approach to democracy involves recognition of its messiness.  When Klopppenberg calls democracy an unfinished labor, he is offering a political channeling of a favorite phrase of pragmatist William James, “ever not quite.”  For James, this phrase assumed his psychological awareness of the abundance of experience, from which we pay attention to selected portions; and he urged using our selective awareness for melioristic improvement of the world, with realization that no one person—and no one ideal—could do it all.

Kloppenberg not only narrates his history according to pragmatic ideals; he also finds precedents for them.  For example, when evaluating the democratic practices emerging adjacent to rank exploitation of non-whites, he focuses on Roger Williams, one of the few European settlers to apply democracy consistently on both sides of the frontier, insisting that the colonists “could assume dominion only by attaining the Indians’ consent.”  This ethic made Rhode Island “one of the first successful, if tumultuous, experiments in democratic government.”

Considered theoretically, the pragmatic qualities of democratic ideals are paradoxical because the ideals are always out of reach; but in the nitty gritty of politics, democracy means engagement in pragmatic processes with constant calls for civic engagement, since only our efforts can help the polity realize these goals.  As Reinhold Niebuhr suggests, “what ought to be true … may become true” with enough commitment and effort.  That effort includes holding on to ideals, in effect as GPS guidance through the undertow of very unprogressive impulses for interests that often stray far from what the American founders called public-spiritedness.

One of those founders, James Madison, worked to set up a “republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republic government.”   However, as Elizabeth Dowling Taylor points out in Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons, Madison did not have the foresight or moral courage to act on the contradictions he himself acknowledged when one of his own slaves, William Gardner, “covet[ed] that liberty for which we have paid the price of so much blood.”  But the pragmatism in Madison’s tainted ideals have allowed deliberate dialogue to emerge among citizens with genuine and deep disagreements—up to and including challenges to the founders’ own cruel mix of slavery and liberty.  The structure he helped design, and the hope he banked on to keep the system afloat, would involve engaging those disagreements and even making use of them to work toward democratic ideals.

There is a constant need to invigorate the public sphere as it goes through—and because it goes through—many problems and not-so-public-spirited challenges.  This contingency and need for self-correction is the pragmatism in democratic theory, a theory put into practice with cultivation of deliberation, pluralism, and reciprocity.  Ideals fall short at any one time often simply because so ideal, so out of reach, but they are also the standards for keeping eyes on the prize while engaging in democratic cultural practices.

The recent challenges for democracy have been foreshadowed by monarchical and aristocratic dismissal of government of the people.  Kloppenberg illustrates the autocratic resistance to democracy with a story of royal puzzlement.  Like most of those on the powerful side of status politics, King Maximilian II of Bavaria assumed deference from the people with their betters managing their affairs, top down.  In 1848, he invited historian Leopold von Ranke to explain his subjects’ democratic discontent.  The scene reads like a version of the song from the musical Camelot“What Do the Simple Folk Do?”  When the historian explained that with the democratic impulses of this “new force in the world, … power should come from below.”  The king’s haughty tone parallels the attitude of Camelot royalty; we can imagine him scoffing in disbelief about such uncanny behavior of the unwashed masses: They deliberate; they act with autonomy; they vote….  “Really?,” the musical’s Queen Guinevere asks in bafflement about what the “simple folk do”….  As with the musical’s King Arthur, the Bavarian king now “ha[s] it on the best authority,” but it doesn’t make this democratic earthquake any more palatable to royal folk, or anyone else wanting to dominate the people top down.

This story is a reminder that Toward Democracy is highlighting just how brash was the modern turn to democracy.  The word on elite street was that the demos could not self-rule; once in power, “the people” would of course spin into greedy corruption or anarchy.  Those elites had a point, which the frequent chaos of modern democracy sometimes confirms.  But Kloppenberg offers the reminder, however, that setbacks do not define the whole of the democratic experiment, and the problems can actually be the basis for summoning the greatest virtue of this politics, its capacity for pragmatic self-correction.  The third cheer for democracy is always in the future.

This history book suggests a present purpose: the progressive criticism of democracy should not be cause to give up on the politics of self-rule.  In fact, the criticism is essential to the future of democracy.


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