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Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education
Danielle S. Allen
University of Chicago Press, $25 (cloth)
Everyday Politics: Reconnecting Citizens and Public Life
Harry C. Boyte
University of Pennsylvania Press, $18.95 (paper)
Critical Mission: Essays on Democracy Promotion
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, $24.95 (paper)
Materializing Democracy: Toward a Revitalized Cultural Politics
edited by Russ Castronovo and Dana D. Nelson
Duke University Press, $23.95 (paper)
The most insidious threat to democracy these days may not be terrorists but overzealous advocates of freedom. Too narrowly construed and too aggressively promoted, freedom can give so much protection to propertied interests that democracy degenerates into de facto plutocracy. When a democracy’s wealthiest citizens are given absolute freedom to maximize their advantages over others, steadily growing inequalities of wealth will inevitably produce widening differentials in power. Ordinary citizens may be left with the bare right to vote, but their choices will be predetermined, and the information they require will be tailored to suit a script that serves the interests of the rich. Freedom may flourish, but actual democracy will wither and die.
A healthy democracy must therefore continuously affirm the principle of equality to offset the dangers of freedom. But making that case has always been an uphill battle in the United States, and today the slope is especially steep. At his second inauguration, George W. Bush was speaking his own mind but also shaping the public’s when he uttered the words “freedom” and “liberty” 39 times, the word “democratic” just twice, “equality” and “justice” once each, and “democracy” not at all. Under his administration, wealth inequality in the United States has risen to record levels.
But wealthy interests and their public servants are not the only ones responsible for equality’s lack of cachet today. The work of making equality a compelling political principle has been set back also by the understandable reluctance of many intellectuals to specify exactly what equality consists of. People who care about equality know that it is one thing to make the abstract claim that all citizens are “equal” and quite another to say what it is about citizens that makes them equals. They know that providing such substance may also provide cause to exclude citizens who lack (or are accused of lacking) some indispensible quality.
There is a history here, after all. When it was said that citizens were equal insofar as they could exercise judgment independently of one another, property was thought to be a guarantor of minimal independence and property qualifications were used to restrict enfranchisement. When it was said that citizens were equal insofar as they could engage in informed deliberation, mandatory literacy tests were devised to exclude the uninformed. Today, convicted felons are disenfranchised in many states precisely because they are seen as not possessing the indispensible qualities of responsibility and trustworthiness that would constitute their equality with other citizens. Substantiating equality always risks legitimizing exclusion.
Nonetheless, it is increasingly clear that equality must be given some substance because it has so little force as an abstract principle. To resonate with Americans, equality must be something they feel, something they believe in because they sense its presence within them. This means that what we might call the “subjective” dimensions of democracy must be excavated. Democracy is not just a set of institutions, a cluster of marble buildings, and a collection of laws. Democracy is about self-government, and therefore the nature of the self stands at its center. As Barbara Cruikshank has put it, “Democratic politics is not just out there, in the public sphere, or in a realm, but in here, at the very soul of subjectivity.”
Bringing out the subjective dimensions of democracy is the daunting task of all the books under review here. In Materializing Democracy: Toward a Revitalized Cultural Politics, the editors, Russ Castronovo and Dana Nelson, launch their ambitious, multi-disciplinary effort to make the subjective turn by warning against the danger of reducing democracy to “an exclusively moral category that is no longer connected with political, economic, or social categories.” They point, for example, to Robert Putnam’s work on the decline of civic associations. Far from shedding light on democracy, they argue, his “folksy research” simply “corroborates a widespread belief that democracy should somehow rest outside the political.”
Their concern with the inherent dangers of the subjective turn explains why the first essay in the collection is Donald Pease’s iconoclastic attack on Tocqueville—or, I should say, on “Tocqueville,” for it is Tocqueville as an unexamined symbol of American democracy that so annoys Pease. Updating observations Norman Birnbaum made about Tocqueville nearly 20 years ago, Pease suggests that Tocqueville saw in American democracy only what he wished to see: democracy without the conflicts that so beset the republic he had left behind in France. This is why Tocqueville has always been able to serve as a “transhistorical resource” for positions across the political spectrum, just as he is now put to use by thinkers as far apart as Newt Gingrich and Michael Sandel. Tocqueville can legitimize innumerable and contradictory positions because he is a signifier of American democracy, not the brilliant analyst of it he is conventionally taken to be. He serves, therefore, as both a source and the symbol of the problem this book sets out to address: how to think about American democracy without abstracting it from specific historic and material conditions.
Most of the essays in the collection are concerned with such specifics. They engage questions about democracy by exploring the ways it is embedded in and dramatized by cultural productions and texts as varied as John Wayne’s The Alamo, Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Rebecca Harding Davis’s Waiting for the Verdict, and Samuel Delany’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. But if the essays’ topics are varied, their aim is single. It is to urge us, as Dana Nelson writes, “to see that if democracy is to be made into anything more than a hollow and unsatisfactory formalism, it will be and is already germinating there between us, in the interstices of daily living, and that it would be as useful to try to appreciate and cultivate it there as it would be in the politics surrounding presidential elections.”
Political theorists, not to mention political organizers, might be aghast at such a view. And understandably. Again and again, the contributors to this book stray over the line the editors have so carefully inscribed and wind up committing the error they seek to avoid: seeming to depoliticize democracy by extending the bounds of the political to the point of equivalence with “daily living.”
But this is exactly the risk they have to take. In a way, it is the academic’s version of Saul Alinsky’s famous dictum, “He who fears corruption fears life.” American academics who hope to renew their democracy have to risk the corruption that always attends the crossing of boundaries. There is no way to get at the nature of democratic subjectivity without locating democracy in daily living—in movies and TV shows as much as in political campaigns and congressional debates.
In fact, for democracy to thrive it has to be taken back from politics as narrowly defined and managed by professionals. That is the message of Harry Boyte’s most recent book, Everyday Politics: Reconnecting Citizens and Public Life. Boyte is a leading figure in a national movement that promotes a “citizen-centered” or “non-professional” politics that operates alongside rather than through the electoral process. Democracy, according to Boyte, might culminate in the act of casting a vote, but it has its vital origins and energies elsewhere: in a citizen’s experience of his or her own political empowerment.
The problem with voting, says Boyte, is that many Americans have become entirely cynical about it. They see no connection between their vote and their life. They eventually drop out of the electoral process because they have never seen their vote do anything for them. And not having learned that democracy can be experienced apart from voting, many opt out of politics altogether. The best way to break this cycle of cynicism and disempowerment, Boyte argues, is to create opportunities for citizens to reconnect with politics. Citizens should have more opportunities to work together to achieve common goals: turning a vacant lot into a playground, for example, or getting the city to put a stop sign at a dangerous intersection.
The problem Boyte is addressing is what Christopher Newfield, in one of the best essays in Materializing Democracy, calls “the everyday feeling of powerlessness in people who are formally and technically empowered.” Newfield argues that progressives have repeatedly failed to understand that the solution to this problem lies not in rejecting the Right’s emphasis on individual freedom but in establishing the possibility of individual freedom outside the market. He asks, “Aren’t there ways of fulfilling democratic potential that are democratic rather than market-based, that in fact make democracy possible and meaningful?”
Boyte’s book—indeed his career—is in essence an affirmative answer to this question. There is a realm of freedom outside the market, he asserts, and that realm is the world of work. “The living tradition of democracy in America, understood as a way of life, not simply formal institutions, confounds any opposition of work and public life. The distinctiveness of American democracy, indeed, has been especially its tie to work.” Democracy can be renewed, then, only when disempowered citizens recognize themselves through the collaborative production of their agency and freedom. It is through our work together that we most powerfully experience our equality with one another.
Anyone who has ever worked side-by-side with others knows what Boyte is talking about. Whether you are co-editing a volume of essays or organizing to keep a waste incinerator out of your neighborhood, cooperative labor means respectfully negotiating your differences and then collectively putting your shoulders to the wheel. It means listening and doing. It means allowing for the fullest possible play of individual ideas, methods, goals, and desires in order for the best of these to be selected without alienating your co-workers. And it is through such collaborative labor that we can arrive at what Boyte calls “a politics of respect, not of sympathy, compassion, or indignation.” Through such a politics, citizens produce their self-respect together, and with it their sense of equality and their willingness to self-govern.
Newfield is quite correct to castigate progressives for failing to realize that freedom is and always will be the dominant value in American political culture; appeals for a more just society have to be made in terms of freedom, not in opposition to it. (I would go even further and add that the progressive imagination has to rediscover the wisdom of Herbert Croly, who wrote, “I am not wholly false to the accepted American tradition . . . [because] that tradition may be transformed, but it will not be violated.”) But recognizing the supremacy of freedom in American ideology should not mean scanting the principle of equality. Even while progressives question what “freedom” means, they must also work to redefine “equality” so that it can once again become a viscerally compelling idea in our political culture.
This is the work undertaken by Danielle S. Allen in Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education. Like Castronovo, Nelson, and Boyte, Allen understands that democracy originates in the subjective dimension of everyday life, and she focuses on what she calls our “habits of citizenship”—the ways we often unconsciously regard and interact with fellow citizens. If democracy resides in “the very soul of subjectivity,” then for Allen subjectivity itself cannot be understood apart from relationships. And the particular relationship that concerns her most is that between white and black Americans.
Allen’s focus on race is entirely appropriate. When it comes to relations between the citizens of the United States, race cannot be dismissed as external or as a mere contingency. It is, and always has been, essential to those relations—a fact embarrassingly enshrined in the Constitution. When it comes to habits of citizenship in the United States, the most challenging problem of the 21st century is still the problem of the color line. Allen nowhere explicitly says so, but she everywhere implies that if black and white Americans could develop a more trusting relationship with each other, other concentrations of social distrust might also dissolve. Put differently, as long as white racism covertly produces this one form of social distrust, the production of social distrust everywhere receives indirect legitimation.
More than 50 years ago, Allen points out, the Brown decision reconstituted American democracy by sweeping aside the legal legitimation of a model of citizen relations based on dominance and submission, disrespect and humiliation. But while the legal basis of that model is gone, the bad habits it engendered are still with us. Allen writes, The events of . . . the whole civil rights movement revealed, to those who cared to look, that citizens of the United States have deeply engrained bad habits: we evade straightforward consideration of when and where public policy asks some citizens to sacrifice for others; we have little interest in cultivating habits for generating trust; we idealize unanimity rather than aspiring to maximize agreement while also dealing fairly with disappointment, anger, and resentment. Our most deeply ingrained lesson in citizenship is ‘Don’t talk to strangers.’
Allen believes that the debilitating problem of American politics today is the pervasiveness of social distrust, which she attributes to two sources. The first is that even the healthiest democracy necessarily produces winners and losers, those whose will prevails and those whose will is sacrificed for the common good. Allen argues that those who are sacrificed repeatedly eventually become resentful, alienated, and distrustful, seeking to opt out of the democratic process altogether, perhaps even to subvert it. Some way of healing the wounds of sacrifice must be incorporated into our political habits.
The second source of social distrust in the United States is actually a specific form of the first. Allen understands racism as being, in effect, the institutionalization of sacrifice along the lines of race. Again and again, Americans of color have been asked (forced) to make sacrifices that benefit white Americans. The most pervasive and unacknowledged of these sacrifices has been that of becoming the “other” in order for whiteness to become a system of privilege. White citizens, especially those who are poor, have depended on their whiteness to confer majority status on themselves. “At the very least,” writes Allen, “assimilating into the white majority increased one’s chances of being trusted by others of the majority, and trust, as social capital, is very easily converted into material security.”
This process has created distrust both coming and going. The white majority constructs itself in large part by manufacturing distrust of blacks. And in their turn, black Americans grow increasingly angry, resentful, and distrustful of whites—not just because blacks have been sacrificed to whites’ interests, but because that sacrifice is not and will not be acknowledged.
Allen forcefully argues that this manufactured distrust cannot be healed by a model of citizenship consecrated to neutrality, distance, and a purely abstract notion of equality. Borrowing from Aristotle, the solution she proposes is friendship. “Only the idea of friendship,” Allen writes, “captures the conjunction of faculties—the orientation toward others, knowledge of the world, developed practices, and psychological effects—that must be activated in democratic citizenship.” In short, an I’ll-leave-you-alone-if-you-leave-me-alone attitude won’t do the job. As Whitman saw so long ago, democratic citizens must be more than strangers to each other. They must respect each other, and that respect must come from the belief that others have worth, not just rights.
* * *
What these three books suggest, then, is the emergence of a response to the conservative movement’s identification of democracy with freedom. All three books help renew the appeal of equality by giving more substance to the meaning of democratic citizenship. Crucially, this meaning is rooted not in shared standards but in shared experience. What all citizens have in common is not a particular trait or a certain fitness for democracy but their immersion in a democratic environment, with all its conflicts and complexities. And it is this shared experience of democracy as the water we are swimming in that provides an answer to the reasonable question, Equally what? We are equally present in democracy. Or potentially so. For as Boyte emphasizes, because we are not yet able to participate equally in democracy, we must imagine our democratic presence as a condition we have to help each other achieve.
One way to do so is through shared work on a shared goal. Another is to recast citizenship as a kind of friendship. And yet another—even more distant from the conventional definition of politics, participation in the electoral process—is simply to become more conscious of the democratic environment we inhabit. This, I think, is what Castronovo and Nelson mean by “materializing” democracy: coming to recognize that it is all around us, albeit imperfectly and incompletely. Seeing it, feeling it, knowing it. People can step fully into their citizenship only if they become aware that their citizenship already permeates them.
How much is at stake in recognizing these experiential aspects of democracy becomes even clearer when we look at efforts to promote democracy beyond the borders of the United States. Do the officials of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad understand that democracy is more than a body of laws and institutions—that it is “in here, at the very soul of subjectivity?”
According to Thomas Carothers, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of Critical Mission: Essays on Democracy Promotion, the answer is “no.” Rather, democracy is usually understood by its official promoters to be “a gleaming edifice made up of larger-than-life institutions and structures. It is also characterized as self-evident truths with the assumption that democratic values, once properly introduced, will take hold naturally and cement into perpetuity the proper institutional system.”
It turns out, in fact, that the difficulties of promoting democracy abroad spring from some of the same problems that have weakened democracy in the United States and Western Europe. These problems have as much to do with the way people feel about their lives as with their actual conditions. Carothers calls one of these “postmodern fatigue—the movement from alienation to detachment, from irony to cynicism, and from the loss of meaning to the loss of interest in meaning.” He calls another “anti-political functionalism”—the tendency of people to “want to be left alone at the political level but taken care of at the social and economic levels.”
Sound familiar? If Carothers is right, then the vision of democracy being promoted abroad will fail for the very reasons it is failing here. It ignores the subjective, experiential dimension of democracy and focuses too much on laws that establish abstract equalities and individual freedoms. If such a vision has little appeal in the streets of Los Angeles and Chicago, what allure can it have in the streets of Baghdad?
We confront the irony, then, that democracy will fail to take root in Iraq not simply because Iraq is so different from the United States but because the version of democracy being promulgated there aims to reduce democracy to what it is becoming here: a vehicle for “freedom” only, an open market for the global consumer culture that trivializes the self that is supposed to be self-governing.
The work ahead is clear. Promoting democracy means helping people remember that it is about equality, not just freedom. That means, in turn, rendering equality palpable but not restrictive. It means understanding that human equality is rooted in the activities of human beings, not in abstract rules that treat humans as mere blanks. Democracy doesn’t just allow us to govern ourselves; it produces selves that find the labor of self-government worth the effort—worth it because those selves are worthy of respect. That may be what the subjective turn in democracy studies is finally about: a recovery of the self that Whitman found it worth his while to sing about.
Nick Bromell was a founding editor of Boston Review. He is now a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and the author of Tomorrow Never Knows and By the Sweat of the Brow. His most recent book is The Time Is Always Now: Black Thought and the Transformation of U.S. Democracy.
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