On Democracy
Joshua Cohen and Joel Rogers
Viking/Penguin, $6.95 (paper)

The problem of social change has rarely seemed so acute in America. On the one hand, we are told again and again that liberalism “failed,” that the reforms of the late 1960s and early ’70s did little good. On the other hand, we have a President who, portraying himself as the embodiment of traditional American values, has relentlessly gutted the welfare state, embarked on an aggressive, militaristic foreign policy, and offered tax policies that enrich the wealthy as a stimulant to our faltering economy.

On Democracy, by Joshua Cohen and Joel Rogers, offers an argument to challenge these misplaced priorities and a moral idea to counter Reagan’s mythology. The authors seek reform—but through traditional American values. Their aim is to see how our political system, which is democratic in theory, can be made more effective in practice. Their book is:

above all an argument about democracy, the idea that free and equal persons should together control the conditions of their own association. . . . Democracy is neither an ephemeral dream nor a dusty collection of legal rights, but a form of social organization and political practice which can define a unified movement.

To their credit, Cohen and Rogers present this conception of a true and effective democracy by speaking to Americans in familiar terms and language. Unlike many radical leftist critics, who simply try to weave European issues and analyses into the American fabric, Cohen and Rogers understand the “exceptional” nature of the U.S. polity. Theirs is a distinctly American book, aimed at the American situation. They understand and believe that certain American values, most notably a theory of justice based on equality and individual rights, cannot and should not be swamped by European socialist collectivism.

Cohen and Rogers begin by arguing that we must understand the dimensions of the current crisis in very specific terms. Their first chapter, “Symptoms,” graphically illustrates how difficult contemporary conditions are for millions of Americans. Unemployment remains high, and so does the crime rate. Americans have an extraordinarily high divorce rate, widespread mental health problems, and, overall, a standard of living that in 1980 ranked only eleventh in the world. The authors note that the U.S. seems driven to pursue an interventionist, bellicose foreign policy, and cite the U.S.-sponsored overthrows of democratically elected governments in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Brazil (1964), Chile (1973), and (perhaps) Nicaragua. Most importantly, they show the fundamental ways in which our political process is eroding, our democracy failing. While election campaigns grow more and more expensive, thanks to huge corporate campaign contributions and political action committees, a smaller percentage of Americans is actually voting. Indeed, more than twenty other industrialized nations have higher voter participation rates than the United States.

The most important part of On Democracy, however, is the chapter entitled “Structure,” in which Cohen and Rogers describe the tension between formal democratic rights and substantive disparities of wealth and power:

The political rights granted to all citizens do not take into account in their own form and application the inequalities in the distribution of resources, characteristic of capitalism, which decisively affect the exercise of political rights and importantly limit their power of expression.

They also point out that the American variant of this “capitalist democracy”—with its relative absence of collectivist traditions and its weak labor movement—provides even less support to its working-class and middle-income citizens than do the European “capitalist democracies.”

The question they raise is why so many people in this country consent to a system that clearly offers them much less than their counterparts in other industrialized countries. Why, for example, did such a high percentage of union families vote for a candidate who has nothing but contempt for working people and barely tries to conceal the fact that his only interest is in helping to make the rich richer? Why do many American union leaders persist in refusing to challenge corporate power?

The answer, Cohen and Rogers explain, has much to do with the persuasive tools capitalist democracy’s leaders have at their disposal. The threat of sheer force can not be minimized, but force is not the only (or even the most common) way in which capitalist democracies are maintained. What really channels people away from collective struggle is the constellation of political forces that encourages them to seek “short-term” personal advantage, not long-term structural change. In societies like ours, all political conflict, the authors explain, tends to be reduced to conflict over short-term advantage:

[Because] . . . individual workers lack information about how other workers will behave . . . it therefore makes sense for individuals to get as much as they can for themselves before even contemplating cooperation with others in the long term. But the achievement of short-run material satisfaction often makes it irrational to engage in more radical struggle, since that struggle is by definition directed against those institutions which provide one’s current gain.

This inability to work for long-term change is intensified by what Cohen and Rogers call “resource constraints.” We may have democracy in theory, they argue, but people without access to money and power cannot participate effectively in local or national arenas. The authors contrast the ease with which business executives can get information about ivvestment decisions with the difficulty workers have in getting similar information about such issues as wage rates and contract negotiations.

Moreover, as Cohen and Rogers point out, because so much information is supplied by organizations advancing their own narrow agendas, many people begin to feel that all information is tainted. As we have seen in this season’s primary election campaign, people are suspicious of “special interests” and fear that no one represents a collective or majority interest. How, then, can we reform our capitalist democracy? Cohen and Rogers focus on what they call the “principle of democratic legitimacy” (PDL), which defines the freedom that is essential to authentic democracy:

The PDL requires that individuals be free and equal in determining the conditions of their own association. . . . The PDL thus requires an ongoing order of mutually assured and encouraged autonomy in which political decisions are manifestly based on the judgements of the members as free and equal persons.

In order to insure that this freedom to determine the conditions of our association is guaranteed in practice, the authors list seven main “institutional requirements for the democratic order.” These include: 1) public subsidies for competitive political parties and groups, which would prevent wealthy parties and individuals from “buying” an election; 2) an electoral system of proportional representation, which would insure that the percentage of the vote each party receives in an election would translate into an equivalent proportion of seats in the legislature (as opposed to the U.S. winner-take-all method); 3) an authentic commitment to “equal opportunity,” which would require both a free educational system at all levels and the required availability of day care; 4) public control of investment, which would guarantee that capital allocation be used to benefit all the people and not just the rich; 5) workplace democracy, which would mean that job-related decisions would be made by all and not just by owners and managers; 6) a foreign policy informed by the “principles of democratic legitimacy” (PDL), which would see the U.S. support instead of oppress popular liberation movements. These “institutional requirements for the democratic order,” Cohen and Rogers believe, “would serve as a solid foundation for any progressive society.”


What steps do Cohen and Rogers propose we take in order to accomplish those goals? In their chapter entitled “Present,” they outline three directions in which capitalist democracy might be headed in the next two decades or so: an ad hoc improvisation, or “muddling through,” as we are doing now; an “industrial policy” involving business, labor, and government cooperation; or “nationalist protectionism,” a xenophobic reaction to successful foreign competition. For progressive forces that wish to transform capitalist democracy, these three options are the contexts within which they are most likely to have to work for reform.

Cohen and Rogers don’t see much hope in any of these scenarios. “Muddling through” is obviously not so much a directional course as it is a temporary condition on the way to either “industrial policy” or “nationalist protectionism.” We can plausibly expect this first scenario to last only as long as American deficits don’t impede the current “recovery” or as long as the accumulated world debt doesn’t throw the international economy into chaos.

The authors’ conception of “industrial policy”—like that of many other analysts—sees business and government cooperating to increase American international competitiveness through “targeted tax relief for corporations, other investment incentives, and some control of the pattern of investment, exerted through the state, or more likely, through the private financial sector aided by the state.” Cohen and Rogers fear that such measures will be coupled with austerity budgets and attempts to undermine  the traditional role of large unions, while introducing only weakly articulated forms of democracy such as “quality circles” into top-down forms of “cooperative” industrial relations. Although Cohen and Rogers see some benefits accruing to those workers in “favored” industries, they question the ability of the American government to run such a program efficiently. However, despite their critiques, they do not view “industrial policy” as posing as great a threat to liberal democratic political and workplace rights as “nationalist protectionism.”

Nationalist protectionism would represent the worst scenario in which to work for reform. This would be an unstable, autarkic world in which the United States tries to “seal itself off” from other nations’ competitive pressures. The problem of sufficient resources and markets would be solved by even greater American economic and military dominance of Latin America. In fact, in such a world the Europeans would dominate Africa while the Japanese controlled South Asia, thereby creating a world order vaguely reminiscent of Orwell’s Oceana, Eurasia, and Eastasia. As a sort of late twentieth-century Bismarkianism (but without its generous social welfare schemes), nationalist protectionism would combine aggressive militarism (both domestically and internationally) with the propping up of backward and declining sectors of the economy. Public discourse would be dominated by calls for a reversion to “traditional American” values and by increased suspicion of divergent views and lifestyles. Increased repression and curtailed possibilities of expressing opposition would severely damage the quality of life for America’s citizens.

This is about as far as Cohen and Rogers go in pointing out a path for progressives. They lay great stress on the possibility of forging a genuinely democratic movement within the “space” provided by the individual liberties of capitalist democracy. They urge readers to build on those personal freedoms by mobilizing disenfranchised groups and individuals. But they fail to explore precisely how we can make use of this space. More unfortunately, they fail to show how a democratic movement should respond to the three capitalist adjustment strategies they outline.

Since nationalist protectionism should be avoided, and since “muddling through” is not likely to last long, this leaves us with “industrial policy.” If Cohen and Rogers had given more consideration to mobilizing democratic forces that could turn “industrial policy” in a more progressive direction, they might have moved beyond the agenda of the existing technocratic, corporatist policy planners, and imbued their own calls for democratic forms of participation with a larger democratic vision. There is certainly much to be said for spontaneous democratic organization, but without some conception of how to get to a better society, the authors’ “participation for participation’s sake” may prove far less capable of social transformation than they suggest.

Early in their book, Cohen and Rogers argue that one of the major failings of progressive forces in the United States was their concentration on short-term material gains rather than on long-term structural change toward a more moral and just society. In laying out their recommendations in the concluding chapter, the authors seem to have made the opposite mistake, namely emphasizing the moral aspects of democracy while neglecting the material requirements of this new society. Cohen and Rogers do not really deal with the problem of how the “short-term” interests of the working and middle-income people could be met while the transition to democracy takes place.

Even more serious is their failure to articulate a concept of a larger collective, public good. Their PDL is so heavily weighted with appeals to individual sovereignty, autonomy, and personal freedoms that the authors seem to forget their own caveats—that the sum of the parts does not always equal the whole. While it is important to preserve individual freedoms, in a society so thoroughly atomized as ours democratic forces need to recreate—on the most elemental level—a genuine sense of collective value.

In their concluding chapter, Cohen and Rogers seem to pre-empt those critiques that point out their failure to provide a program or agenda for change. It would be a violation of the PDL, they say, to try to impose a program or platform on what should be spontaneous.

The final shape of the democratic order is importantly contingent, not only because it is generally impossible to predict exactly what will happen in the future, but because open-endedness is built into the democratic order itself. What the democratic order provides is an institutional framework within which people are free and equal in the making of social decisions. If one were able to specify those decisions precisely in advance, then one would not be describing a democratic order at all.

Since most progressives now either indulge in grandiose fantasies of power and influence, or focus myopically on short-term strategies, there is something refreshing about On Democracy‘s modest, elemental recommendations. But we wish Cohen and Rogers had gone further. While they quite rightly hesitate to offer a full-blown, multi-faceted program for “revolutionary transformation,” they surely would not have violated the PDL by making more specific recommendations for immediate action.