The Hedgehog Review

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



Wilfred M. McClay

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Summer 2017

(Volume 19 | Issue 2)

It is sometimes said that the history of ideas is the history of words, because what we are able to think is conditioned by what we are able to say. But this claim seems a bit presumptuous. It might be more accurate to say that the history of ideas is a history of compelling but poorly defined words, the sort of words that people sling around all the time, words that they assume they fully understand, that they serve up as incantations, even build their lives around, even fight to the death for, until they are called upon to give a more fine-grained account of what such words actually mean.

Then, under cross-examination, their responses become hesitant and defensive, or angrily dismissive, as hidden presuppositions wobble, sway, and then collapse. Plato’s Socrates was the all-time champion of this sport, exposing those with a penchant for using such words sloppily and unthinkingly as pompous fools venturing onto exceedingly thin ice. But as you may have noticed, the Great Gadfly himself rarely offered definitions of his own. Freedom, justice, dignity, equality, democracy, community, the market, the public, the people: Such grand notions form an essential part of our discourse, yet none of them are very well understood. We live our lives suspended in just such tenuous webs of signification.

There may be inescapable reasons for that. Alexis de Tocqueville observed that because people living in democratic societies are faced with constantly changing circumstances, they must learn to adopt “loose expressions” to grapple with them. Changes in language reflect changes in existential reality. Since democratic people never know whether today’s idea will be applicable to tomorrow, they naturally gravitate to the use of abstract terms, which have a unique utility. They are, Tocqueville said, “like a box with a false bottom; you may put in it what ideas you please, and take them out again without being observed.”

This describes the usage of even the most revered words in our political vocabulary, and none more than the people, the entity to which all democratic thought, and the US Constitution itself, bow as the ultimate source of legitimate political authority in the land. By extension, Tocqueville’s characterization of our democratic vocabulary also applies to the derivative word populism, a term now in near-constant use in America, particularly since the 2016 presidential election, in which two candidates—Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders—were consistently assigned that label. That two such dramatically different candidates, and other political practitioners as different as Elizabeth Warren Democrats and Freedom Caucus Republicans, would all be able to lay claim to the same political category tells us from the start that the category in question—populism—may be an elusive one. What meanings are being slipped in and out of that false-bottomed box?

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Wilfred M. McClay is G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty and director of the Center for the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma.

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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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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