A Republic, If We Can Keep It

Americans today seem awfully complacent about the health of their democracy — which would shock thinkers and citizens of the past.

By Nathan Pippenger

Jedediah Purdy’s review of Zephyr Teachout’s Corruption in America (reviewed in our previous issue by Lee Drutman, to whom Teachout has now responded in the new issue) contains this sharp insight about how the Supreme Court’s campaign finance rulings reveal a distinct lack of concern for the fragility of democracy:

Teachout sees the Supreme Court as equal parts cynical and naïve, and in all the wrong ways. The Court cynically sees legislation governing elections as venal and selfish, in effect denying the very possibility of civic virtue in the ground rules of politics. It seems at the same time complacent about democracy. But it is also historically naïve. Unlike early Americans, who were obsessed with the decline and fall of republics, the justices seem to suppose that, once established, democracy cannot fail. This view flies in the face of history. It also suggests why the justices seem so complacent about the danger that their own rulings will erode democracy.

This analysis of costly complacency pairs well with a recent post by Robin Marie Averbeck at the U.S. Intellectual History Blog (as it happens, she’s also in the new issue), about the “temptations of teleology”—of writing as though progress were inevitable, of reinforcing Americans’ confidence that history is an unstoppable forward march towards enlightenment, peace, and freedom. As Averbeck describes the mistaken, but stubborn, popular view: “freedom is a chia pet, so just sprinkle some water on the Declaration of Independence, wait 200 years and watch it grow!”

Confidence in historical progress deflates our willingness to invest much effort in political change, with ironic results. Whether, as Averbeck writes, “out of laziness or shame,” we might want to believe in the comforting—and absolving—myth of historical progress, “American history gives us no reason to condone such complacency.”

Nor have Americans historically been so complacent. As Purdy notes, the Court’s confidence that big money is no threat to democracy would shock citizens of the early republic, who worried deeply about the threat of corruption—often in the form of a “moneyed aristocracy”— and who guarded zealously the political-economic preconditions of equal democratic citizenship. It would also have shocked generations of political thinkers who believed that all regimes are born and die, that no regime can last forever.

In fact, it’s hard to think of any precedent for our contemporary blend of historical confidence and political lethargy. In the nineteenth century, for example, elite political thinkers were committed to some kind of belief in historical progress, in a way that they largely aren’t today. Alexis de Tocqueville thought history was bringing about greater and greater equality; John Stuart Mill thought that history increasingly delivered enlightenment and liberty; Karl Marx thought it would deliver equality, science, and a truer human freedom than the capitalist societies of his day could provide. Yet for the most part, these thinkers combined a belief in history’s general trends with some theory of how that trend would be realized through human action. So Mill’s belief in enlightenment and individualism was matched with his worry about the stifling conformity of mass society, a combination which motivated his articulation of the famous “harm principle” of On Liberty. And Marx’s belief in the historical inevitability of socialist revolution was nonetheless paired with his political agitation, the promotion of class consciousness, and other steps necessary to produce that result.

Nowadays, this confidence in history’s forward march survives largely as a popular conviction, not as a consensus among philosophers and political theorists. But in its popular modern iteration, that belief is strangely stripped of the only force that makes it plausible—some sustained program of political action. Earlier political thinkers, whether they thought liberal democracy was likely to persist or not, have largely agreed that it can’t run on auto-pilot. One dispiriting way to read our current moment is as a half-conscious experiment to determine if they were wrong.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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