Two Cheers for Politics: Why Democracy is Flawed, Frightening—And Our Best Hope By Jedediah Purdy • Basic Books • 2022 • 304 pages • $30
Like many nightmares, Election Day 2016 fused the terrifying with the surreal. As the infamous “blue wall” evaporated state by state, the awful realization dawned that it is happening again: A Republican was going to lose the popular vote and yet win the presidency. For the second time in just 16 years, the nation’s most celebrated democratic pageant would be rendered meaningless by the vagaries of geographical dispersion. Americans born at the start of the new millennium would witness two such disgraces before they were old enough to register to vote.
Jedediah Purdy’s new book, Two Cheers for Politics: Why Democracy is Flawed, Frightening—And Our Best Hope, is appropriately scathing about the constitutional provisions that produce such outcomes. But Purdy’s survey of democratic decay is not limited to one person (however dangerous), one presidential election (however consequential), or one text (however important). Its sweep is broader, its historical reach is longer, and its conclusions are more daunting.
The “basic fact” of politics, Purdy writes, “is coexistence.” This is an insight traceable to the earliest works in the traditional canon of political thought. Aristotle wrote that “man is by nature a political animal,” and maintained that any creature who was wholly self-sufficient—who had no need of political community—must be either “a mean sort or superior to man”: “a beast or a god,” perhaps, but not one of us. If we have no choice but to live together, then we can’t escape the need for some ground rules of our coexistence. As Purdy puts it, “Politics is not optional.”
So far, hardly anyone could dissent from these conclusions. It is when Purdy reaches the punchline that he reveals his own democratic commitments. The “point of politics,” he writes, is “to turn collective life from fate to shared choice.” In the place of fate, the democrat hopes to substitute neither divine will nor kingly fiat, neither the wisdom of our social betters nor the demands of tradition, but the shared choice of the people.
This core democratic hope—of “rule by equals,” as Purdy describes it—is the familiar foe of monarchy and aristocracy, but it is also challenged by the dangerous fantasy that “we can do without politics.” The lure of that fantasy will be familiar to anyone who has ever scorned the ignorance, short-sightedness, or cruelty of majorities. One of the virtues of Purdy’s book is his generosity of intellect: He takes seriously the thinkers and ideas that he criticizes, and he finds the appeal in appalling views. “Antipolitics can have value,” he writes, when it helps us order things “peacefully, safely, and decently” without having to engage in politics. But in its current, pervasive form, “antipolitics is killing us.” Its assurances of peace, safety, and decency are beginning to look like guarantees of conflict, danger, and indecency.
Where can we find this antipolitical impulse in modern American life? Purdy has three principal targets, all of which present themselves as “alternative sources of order” that avoid the messy, dangerous business of letting the people decide: “enduring constitutions, sober norms, [and] the wisdom of markets.” These would-be replacements for politics are chimerical, because rather than eliminating the issue of power, they merely substitute unaccountable powers for democratically authorized ones. As the book explores each form of antipolitics, Purdy takes a long historical view, avoiding the suggestion that there is anything new about the ideas that have led people to substitute judges, culture and norms, and markets for democratic world-building. The antipolitical temptation may manifest with particular ferocity in contemporary America, but as Purdy shows, it cannot be fully understood if we begin the story only with its appearance on the scene in our Trumpian present.
To an extent that may surprise some readers, then, the book reaches our present moment by way of a tour through classic works of political theory, with Purdy as a genial and illuminating guide. Purdy offers accessible discussions of Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the American Founders, Alexis de Tocqueville, Benjamin Constant, Adam Smith, Walter Lippmann, and John Dewey (among others). As he shows, many (but not all) of these figures mistrusted democratic politics, and so embarked on a search for other bases of social order.
The market is perhaps the most obvious challenger to the vision of democratic life that Purdy endorses. Rather than proceeding from the basic premise that people disagree and yet must agree on some common, binding rules—from which it follows that politics is how we achieve social order—the market’s most enthusiastic boosters imagine a world where this messiness is largely avoided, where free exchange efficiently harmonizes human wants. As Milton Friedman once put it, “The possibility of co-ordination through voluntary co-operation rests on the elementary—yet frequently denied—proposition that both parties to an economic transaction benefit from it, provided the transaction is bi-laterally voluntary and informed.” Under the right conditions, then, market coordination could occur without the coercive force that politics requires—for unless both parties expect to benefit from an exchange, they simply won’t exchange at all.
The champions of market order made it their chief political goal to protect this idealized realm of free, voluntary, uncoerced coordination from democratic intrusion (and, indeed, to expand it into ever-new realms). But as Purdy writes, recent events have shown that whatever protection markets may need from democracy, it is at least equally true that “democracy needs protection from the market.” The market order that now predominates is a “bizarro democracy,” justifying itself with the language of choice and promising freedom and prosperity, but delivering inequality, oligarchy, and environmental disaster. Under such conditions, reality cannot resemble the sunny portrait of individuals happily meeting on “a neutral platform for mutually beneficial cooperation.” Everyone is “under pressure to contribute somehow to profit,” to remake themselves in the image of the market, to the point of indignity, humiliation, or penury if they cannot. In this process of merciless sorting, some become hedge fund managers and others earn minimum wage. It is, as Purdy writes, a fantasy to pretend that this all falls “beyond the reach of politics,” or that it’s somehow irrelevant to the question of whether our social life meets the standard of “freedom and equality.”
If markets can’t generate a form of social order that escapes the dangers of democracy, where else might the skeptic of popular rule turn? Many observers of American society, convinced that the rhetoric of democracy was reckless and potentially explosive, have concluded with relief that such rhetoric wasn’t meant in earnest. Observers such as de Tocqueville maintained, as Purdy puts it, that “Americans were held together by moeurs, or mores: shared moral intuition, political imagination, habits of judgment and feeling absorbed so deeply they felt natural.”
This appeal to culture and norms is another of Purdy’s examples of antipolitics. For de Tocqueville and his latter-day successors, culture provides a (quiet, organic, less than wholly conscious) consensus that politics could never match, and the preservation of political order in a democratic society requires tempering what Purdy wryly calls those “excesses of confidence or enthusiasm for our own principles” that might inspire citizens to unwisely rock the boat.
Such arguments have always had an awkward relationship to even the most minimal ideals of democratic equality, since one of the most deeply embedded traditions in American culture is white supremacy. In a revealing passage, Purdy shrewdly observes that interest in de Tocqueville spiked in the late nineteenth century—more than a half century after the publication of Democracy in America—when his arguments were marshaled in the service of postwar reconciliation between white Northerners and Southerners. As part of this effort, genuine American culture was identified with the localities that had jealously protected their ways of life from intrusion by distant busybodies besotted with absurd egalitarian ideologies. From this point of view, Reconstruction and its nationalist pretensions were unnatural, and “localism” was “the bulwark against egalitarian democracy”: In “neighborhoods and commercial relationships, churches and clubs,” Americans lived by an “implicit moral grammar” whose organic roots went deeper than any written law. In its “diffuse communitarianism,” this rhetoric captured the political logic of Confederate sectionalism and postwar white Redemption, and it anticipated the campaign of massive resistance to civil rights and integration in the mid-twentieth century. (Its echoes can still be heard whenever someone utters the ugly phrase “real America.”)
All true, but as Purdy notes, the problem extends beyond this example—for whenever norms are celebrated and norm-breaking is condemned, a more important question is evaded. As Purdy puts it, “Norms are like statues of dead leaders: to be for or against them, you need to know which values they uphold.” The widespread fretting over Donald Trump’s “norm-breaking” thus expressed a certain conservatism, and insofar as it rested on the assumption that norms automatically merit deference, it sidestepped more overtly political questions about whether they are compatible with ruling ourselves on terms of equality.
Rounding out Purdy’s trio of antipolitical forces is the Constitution. For most Americans, Purdy acknowledges, the Constitution is more or less synonymous with democracy. But this is seriously mistaken. “The Constitution called on popular sovereignty for its authority,” notes Purdy, “but baffled, inhibited, even imprisoned its sovereign.” It frustrates democratic electorates through the Electoral College; through the Senate, it “gives extra influence to conservative, rural, and white voters in less populated states”; and in myriad other ways it obstructs political action—resulting in a political system that struggles to effectively address a range of growing crises. But even as the Constitution’s creakiness is becoming undeniable, nobody seriously thinks it is likely to be amended, given the excessive hurdles involved. (It is possible, Purdy writes, that states representing more than 90 percent of the population could have their favored amendment blocked by states representing less than 10 percent of the population.) With meaningful alteration practically unattainable, the text recedes from popular grasp, becoming “ever more remote, alien, even mystical”—alterable by a Supreme Court where Brett Kavanaugh is the median vote, but not by citizens. (This is a point worth pondering: Even if the amendment process addressed the Senate and the Electoral College, we’d still be left with judicial review.) Surveying this grim situation, Purdy concludes, “Our mainstream political language still lacks ways of saying, with unapologetic conviction and even patriotically, that the Constitution may be the enemy of the democracy it supposedly sustains.”
The Constitution is supposed to provide a means by which “We the People” will promote the general welfare, but since it so effectively disempowers that same “We,” it is complicit in leaving Americans at the mercy of markets, constitutional courts, and culture—domains of power and sources of social order that operate beyond the reach of explicit popular control. Reading Purdy’s analysis, one begins to appreciate the brilliance of the conservative movement’s attempt to capture all three domains of antipolitics: through the economic doctrine that unregulated markets embody freedom and reward industry; through the originalist doctrine that our (nearly unamendable) Constitution requires Republican policies and prohibits Democratic ones; through the cultural mythology of “real” America as a white, (conservatively) Christian, and patriarchal society. In all of these realms putatively “beyond politics,” it just so happens that the way of things turns out to more or less demand GOP orthodoxy. Imagine that.
This disquieting analysis goes beyond the increasingly mainstream view that the Constitution, rather than merely protecting minority rights (where its record is decidedly spotty, in any event), is actually guilty of promoting minority rule. Purdy persuasively suggests that it has another problem, one that is both self-inflicted and existential: In simultaneously promising and denying collective democratic power, it also generates the very forces which now threaten its survival. There is an understandable feeling of frustration, alienation, and civic impotence among the large number of Americans who don’t benefit from a Senate stacked in favor of white rural conservatives, or an Electoral College that selects Republicans over the voters’ will, or a Supreme Court packed with right-wing justices nursing lifelong grievances against voting rights and abortion access. But as our ongoing constitutional crisis demonstrates, the real threat to our fundamental political order comes not from those the document fetters, but from those it flatters. (As another canonical theorist might say, our constitution produces its own gravediggers.) One venerable reformist proposal, as Purdy notes, is to reshape the American system on the model of “the British Parliament, in which elections produce a clear majority and the resulting government has the power to pass laws and put its program to the test.” He comments: “This is basically right. Praise for our inherited scheme of separated powers is mostly obscurantism today.”
The significance and meaning of the Constitution’s particular democratic distortions are not lost on Americans. By erecting a structure that suggests the people of Wyoming and Idaho need some special protection from New Yorkers and Californians, it taps into something deep in the American racial psyche: the figure of what Purdy calls “the historical people.” Perpetually haunting discussions of American identity, this group sees itself as embodying real Americanism, “defined by some blend of race and nationality,” which just so happens to overlap with those for whom the Constitution “puts a thumb on the political scale.” In doing so, our legal order “encourages” such Americans to think “that real legitimacy belongs to [them].” And as they’ve told us, they will not be replaced.
Purdy’s way of connecting these dots makes it easier to see how Trump himself—however incompletely, however ironically—perceives the peculiar contours of America’s basic political problem. Trump continues to openly menace the very constitutional order on which he and his movement are utterly dependent, but out of a seeming belief that if that order falls, it will somehow leave intact the real Constitution, the one that favors real Americans, and thus fulfill its actual historical purpose. In this limited respect, he intuitively grasps the appeal of the democratic promise, and the sense of shock and betrayal when that promise is broken. Even if nothing in his career suggests a genuine concern for Americans who feel left behind or ignored, Trump nonetheless seems to appreciate Purdy’s point that if the political system cannot offer a persuasive “institutional expression” of the people’s sovereignty, they will begin to look for one somewhere else. “I alone can fix it,” he can tell them, because we all know that the system can’t. (This bottomless cynicism about political institutions also enables the GOP to feign concern about problems like inflation and crime without even pretending to offer a policy response, aside from restoring Trump to power.)
The tragedy, of course, is that Trump is incapable of understanding the other part of the democratic promise: not only that we transform fate into choice, but that we do so in common, ruling ourselves together as equals. This part of the bargain is incomprehensible to somebody who understands power only as a one-way exercise in domination. Some people dominate, and others are dominated. There is no other way.
Or is there? For those of us who reject that grim conclusion, the challenge is to show that democracy can be a real possibility. The task is daunting—in part because, as Purdy shows, Trump was no mere aberration. His electoral defeat or retirement from politics will not return us to a halcyon, pre-MAGA status quo. The alternatives we actually face range from dispiriting to disastrous. In the opening pages of Two Cheers for Politics, Purdy imagines four textbooks written in the middle of this century, each one reflecting on the crossroads of the 2020s from the perspective of a different future. Will ours be the future ruled by authoritarians, administered by experts (such as central bankers, technologists, and public health officials), or plagued by an interlocking series of unsolved disasters? Or will it be a future where the people solve their problems by acting in concert? By making the different possibilities so vivid, it serves as a creative, disturbing introduction to a creative, disturbing, and yet ultimately hopeful book. For shallow optimism and cheap complacency about the eventual success of American democracy won’t save us—and might, indeed, doom us. But we might yet save ourselves if we come to recognize, and quickly, the real nature and scale of the crisis we face.