The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 19 No. 2 (Summer 2017)

Democracy and the Passions

Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought

James T. Kloppenberg

Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2016.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Summer 2017

(Volume 19 | Issue 2)

In his 1998 book The Virtues of Liberalism, historian James Kloppenberg argued that “beneath our democratic procedures…lie deeper commitments to substantive values that justify and sustain our laws and institutions, and to virtues that are immanent in the principles—if too often betrayed in the practice—of liberalism.” In his new book, Toward Democracy, Kloppenberg returns to this subject with a sweeping account that begins with Montaigne’s castle in France and ends three centuries later during the American Civil War.

This time, however, Kloppenberg is striking a more somber note. “Democracy,” he writes in his introduction, “depends on cultural resources that the struggle to achieve democracy can erode.” Yet that is not all, because “the successful creation of self-government unleashes forces that can endanger the sensibilities it requires.” Democracy requires deliberation, pluralism, and reciprocity so that popular sovereignty, autonomy, and equality can flourish. This is “the tragic irony of democracy”: a recurrent tendency to release passions unrelated to virtue, recreating hierarchies and dependencies even as our lives become ever more ostensibly equal.

Even virtues that we continue to celebrate become something different over time. Consider the lesson of the famous marshmallow experiments. Led by psychologist Walter Mischel, then at Stanford, the studies used marshmallows to test whether children could defer gratification; those who resisted eating the marshmallow would be given a reward. Mischel found that delaying gratification as a child correlates positively with later life outcomes such as healthier weight, higher IQ, and a better ability to cope with setbacks.

The kind of restraint tested by Mischel was once thought of as a social rather than individual good. In different ways, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, and Norbert Elias all argued that such self-restraint was the origin of civilization itself: We have to control our passions in order to be able to participate meaningfully in a society; indeed, society itself won’t work unless we do. Mischel’s research rephrased this in terms of interests: If you only do what you want to do right now, you won’t be able to do what you really want to do later on. That’s a kind of restraint, but a very different kind from the ones early theorists of democracy described.

Just as the economist Albert O. Hirschman showed how capitalism was able to develop by turning the control of passion into the development of interests (in a book titled, appropriately enough, The Passions and the Interests), Kloppenberg tells us how democracy grew out of similar questions about what people really wanted and how our societies might be better off if we left people to their own idiosyncratic desires. The first is a story about capitalism, the second about democracy, but they’re both really about how liberalism depended upon, but then helped to develop, a different conception of the moral self.

In Toward Democracy, Kloppenberg’s early focus on the virtues is given historical depth and geographical breadth. He pays particular attention to the Scottish, French, English, and American Enlightenments, dedicating space to their antecedents as well as their effects. The narrative arc lingers more on America, as much because of Kloppenberg’s interest as it is because of his argument: American self-rule made it possible to imagine another way we could live. And not just in the case of the European settlers: Kloppenberg regularly refers to early theorists of democracy who were inspired by Native American politics.

Kloppenberg’s focus on virtue is another reason why America matters. Democracy and religion could work together in the United States, and this helps drive home his insistence that these two institutions (along with a third, liberalism) can actually get along. Moreover, all three are genealogically related. Because both defenders and opponents of liberalism remember it as emerging from the wars of religion, they assume its relative incompatibility with religious belief. Yet, as Kloppenberg wrote in The Virtues of Liberalism, the “central virtues of liberalism descend directly from the cardinal virtues of early Christianity: prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice.” One of the most compelling parts of Toward Democracy is the careful attention Kloppenberg gives to correcting glib assumptions and bromides associated with the thinkers who helped to develop democracy. One of the most important of these corrections, repeated in profile after profile, is that all of these proto-atheists (Voltaire, John Locke, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams) were not really as atheistic as we think, and that their religion was not so easily separable from the “good, secular” parts of their political theory.

In positing this Enlightenment synthesis of political and spiritual belief, Toward Democracy calls to mind Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, another very big book about the religious origins of modernity. If Taylor’s argument is about the paradox of a wholly religious world containing within it the seeds of a secular age, then Kloppenberg’s is about the irony that democracy’s virtue might well enable modernity’s vice. And as with Taylor’s account, it’s really the ideas that rule: Kloppenberg and Taylor both acknowledge states, economies, and material conditions, but these are made possible because of particular ideas, and it’s on those ideas that both men focus. Taylor’s account of “social imaginaries” is a bit better at explaining how those ideas relate to broader sociological explanations, but Kloppenberg is less interested in accomplishing that task. His book’s subtitle places “the struggle for self-rule” in the context of thought, after all.

Like many works of intellectual history, Kloppenberg’s is a story of transatlantic intellectual pollination: the American Revolution over here, the French Revolution and Glorious Revolution over there. Yet these revolutions (as well as civil wars and plain old regular wars) are more important for the ideas that caused them and the ideas they inspired. One of the more impressive parts of the book is Kloppenberg’s parallel and intersecting treatments of the French and American revolutions—a task that, given the vast amount of data now available, other serious contemporary scholars are nervous about taking on. Even though everyone already knows how related the two revolutions were—how many people went back and forth across the ocean, how many ideas were shared—Kloppenberg shows in painstaking detail how these concurrent stories are as much about virtue as they are about political developments.

For all of the many ultimate differences between France and America, Kloppenberg argues, what really mattered was the American capacity for reciprocity, the ability of people with different ideas of the good life to live with one another—and maybe even to change one another’s thinking about what was right and good. This particular social resource explains why the United States didn’t have Jacobins shortly after its revolution and France did. (Not that Americans have been innocent of such excesses: There’s a reason the book ends at the Civil War.)

As with wars, so with institutions: Kloppenberg pays some attention to how particular cultural and organizational forms make it easier to think democratically, but his evidence tends to consist of what particular thinkers say about such arrangements and their own hopes (or concerns) about what these new ways have wrought. These arguments are largely implicit in the body of the text, making the book a challenge for those seeking a clearer, more obvious chain of reasoning. Yet for those in search of an account of just about everyone who thought about democracy between Montaigne and Lincoln, it’s hard to imagine a more satisfying book.

On the last page of Toward Democracy, Kloppenberg acknowledges that “the obstacles to a culture of democracy are perennial, because self-interest never meshes smoothly with the ideal of reciprocity.” What we want might not fit with what our society needs. What we think is right might not actually be right. And even if it’s right, it might not be good. And so we come back to the marshmallow. It might be good for that child if she can put off eating a marshmallow. But is it actually good? And how might that goodness be directed toward all of us? Even in his description of the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment—those progenitors of common-sense philosophy, the invisible hand, and the separation of ought from is—Kloppenberg shows how social obligation was always part of the story. Or, as he writes, “A world dominated by the instrumental reasoning and the scramble for economic success by any means was not the world that eighteenth-century champions of popular government sought.” The beauty of democracy is the freedom and community it might provide. The tragedy is that we too often settle for our own individual marshmallows.

Jeffrey Guhin is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles. His first book, on Muslim and evangelical high schools in the New York City area, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 19.2 (Summer 2017). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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