Democracy on Trial, by Jean Bethke Elshtain
A New Covenant?
Democracy on Trial.
by Jean Bethke Elshtain.
Basic Books. 153 pp. $20.00.
Jean Bethke Elshtain, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Ethics at the University of Chicago, is a self-described “feminist political theorist” and the author of several academic works on how Plato, Machiavelli, Hegel, and the like illuminate the condition of modern women. The mere fact that she is willing to take seriously the thought of these dead white males, and even to entertain an occasional conservative argument, has provoked other feminists to deny that she is one of them, and even to label her (the horror!) a classical liberal.
On the surface there may seem to be some basis for this accusation. In earlier books like Public Man, Private Woman and Meditations on Modern Political Thought, Elshtain argued that those dead white males are not for the dead, white, and male only. In her many essays she has defended the family, challenging those who caricature it as a hotbed of child abuse, wife battering, and patriarchy. And in a 1982 article in Salmagundi, she blasted the gay-liberation movement for its “politics of self-delusion and narcissistic insulation.” Perhaps most tellingly of all, she has unrelentingly criticized the radical wing of the feminist movement, charging that its leading lights—Shulamith Firestone, Susan Brownmiller, Catharine MacKinnon, among others—are elitist thinkers whose sympathies are anti-democratic, even fascist.
But none of this quite adds up to being a classical liberal, much less a conservative. Indeed, particular opinions aside, what Elshtain’s work seems to represent above all is an attempt to recapture those heady days of “community” in the 1960′s when the cultural revolution was picking up steam and, for many young liberals, self-absorption became confused with having a social conscience. In her writings the same familiar names and events keep bubbling up, from the Kennedys and Nixon to Bob Dylan and the Beatles to the Vietnam war and the golden days of political protests. So too, 60′s-style, do extended quotations from her diaries, along with ostentatious references to “consciousness-raising groups” wherein a youthful Elshtain and her friends engaged, for instance, in thought experiments about “what seemed tantalizing about homosexuality—being different, courting social danger, antagonizing ‘proper folks,’ including our families.”
Now, in Democracy On Trial, adapted from a 1993 series of public lectures, Elshtain addresses a more general audience than she has done in the past. The book is relatively free of footnotes and academic jargon, and it is quite short, coming in at just over 150 pages spread over five chapters. The pace is quick—we move rapidly from the current state of American democracy, to the political forces that are said to be destroying it, to the philosophical roots of our travails—but the style is vintage Elshtain. With scarcely a conservative in sight, Elshtain draws upon a laundry list of Left-leaning intellectuals—from Christopher Lasch to Cornel West, from E.J. Dionne to Frank Rich to Christopher Hitchens, from Michael Walzer to Charles Taylor—in order to mount a defense of democracy against its various enemies. These, as it turns out, are also mainly on the Left—which makes the book something of a conversation within the family. But as with Elshtain’s more scholarly work, the question remains: what does it add up to?
In a preface, Elshtain informs the reader:
I have joined the ranks of the nervous generation. I believe we are in the danger zone. No outside power will take us over and destroy our freedom. We are perfectly capable, my nervousness tells me, of doing that to ourselves. . . .
What makes her nervous are two troubling phenomena: the breakdown of civil society, and what has come to replace it.
Her first chapter focuses on the breakdown. “Our current discontents,” she writes, are traceable to a variety of forces: the gradual replacement of responsible individualism with selfish, acquisitive individualism (“egoism,” Tocqueville called it); the growth of what Harvard’s Mary Ann Glendon calls “rights talk,” at the expense of a common sense of social obligation; the ideology of statism; and the corrosive forces of capitalism.
All this is familiar enough; conservatives have been writing about it for years. But Elshtain parts company with them in her solutions. Essentially, conservatives have offered two strategies for combating the decay of civil society. For some, the keyword is “devolution”; if civil society is to flourish, Big Government must be tamed by handing over its responsibilities to localities. For others, like Gertrude Himmelfarb, the key word is “remoralize”; in addition to shrinking government, we must relearn the language and the habits of virtue.
Elshtain has little to say about either devolution or morality. Instead, she calls for a barely defined “new social covenant” in which government will play a key role by “respond[ing] to people’s deepest concerns” and “by helping to stitch community institutions back together.” How government is to respond to our “deepest concerns” when it can neither deliver the mail on time nor help the urban poor is a matter she does not fully explore, though later on it will form the main basis of her prescription for our future.
In her next two chapters Elshtain argues that social break-down is not all that ails America. We are under assault from the “politics of displacement” and the “politics of difference.” The former term refers to the process by which the realm of public values and public discourse is reduced to trivial concerns—think of President Clinton advertising his choice in underwear—and the latter to the process by which one’s private identity comes to determine one’s political outlook.
The perspective of the “politics of difference” is best summed up by the 1970′s feminist slogan, “the personal is the political.” Though Elshtain can sound a bit giddy in discussing this development in feminist discourse (it was, she opines, “exciting and transformative”), in general she judges its effects on our political culture quite harshly. For if politics is merely the surface manifestation of fixed sexual or racial identities, as radical feminists, gay liberationists, and multiculturalists claim, then democratic governance, which is to say the politics of compromise, becomes impossible. As Elshtain puts it, “to argue against my subjective pronouncements is also to unhinge my private identity.”
This too is a familiar story, and again one told by conservatives for many years now. But it is good to have Elshtain joining others in pointing to the mortal danger such trends pose to America’s democracy.
Having described what ails us, Elshtain next combs the history of political philosophy for possible remedies. On what theoretical foundation is our “new social covenant” to rest?
For her model of democracy, Elshtain skips over The Federalist Papers, of which she is, in fact, quite critical. Instead, she goes all the way back to ancient Athens, and in particular to the Athens celebrated in Pericles’ famous Funeral Oration. She approvingly quotes Pericles’ admonition to his fellow Athenians: “Fix your eyes every day on the greatness of Athens, as she really is, and . . . fall in love with her.”
These, she comments, “are stirring words—the sort of oratory we Americans used to expect” on our civic holidays before we came to view them only as occasions for drinking beer and watching television. The sentiments evoked and celebrated in this kind of oratory are, in her view, precisely what we need to recapture if we are to repair our tattered society.
Yet here, in this one little example, we already see that Elshtain does not really understand the patient whose ills she is diagnosing. For American democracy, by design, bears little resemblance to Periclean Athens. That form of democracy, noble as it may sound, did not allow for an autonomous civil society or a private realm; to the contrary, Pericles insists that in “loving” their city, Athenians should regard their personal attachments—including the love between family members—as purely instrumental and subservient to the ends of the polis. This has very little to do with American democracy, and contrary to what Elshtain seems to think, a dose of it would only succeed in further corroding our already frayed social fabric.
Rebuilding America’s civil society requires, one would think, an understanding of our own classic institutions, such as federalism, and our own classic virtues, such as enlightened self-interest, that sustain it. Among other things, it requires a proper appreciation of Thomas Hobbes, who, though neither a liberal nor a democrat, is widely and rightly considered among the founders of modern liberal democracy. Yet Elshtain, oddly, attacks the hard-headed Hobbes as a “utopian” and an enemy of democracy. In this she inadvertently joins hands with a number of writers in the “politics of difference” school who are highly critical of major features of Hobbes’s political theory: they denounce the concepts of the social contract and consent as shams, representation as an obstacle to authentic democracy, individual rights as mere bourgeois property rights, and negative liberty (the right to be let alone) as a shadow of genuine liberty, which for them is the “freedom” to be part of some organic whole.
Though she has set out to defend civil society against its enemies, Elshtain thus ends up disowning its founders. Meaning to defend the bourgeois virtues of industry and civility, she ends up pining for the illiberal notion of selfless devotion to the state. Decrying the politics of difference, she ends up pronouncing, in its very accents, “Our differences must be recognized if they are to exist substantively.”
In short, despite Elshtain’s unhappiness with the multiculturalists and the feminists, and despite the many sharp and true things she has to say about our current troubles, she remains, as in her youth, too alienated from the sources of American democracy to be a helpful guide to their rehabilitation. Her feminist enemies are wrong: she is no classical liberal. Would that she were.