Volume XXVIII Number 1
Photo © Tyagan Miller
Photo © Tyagan Miller
Democracy in Dark Times?
We tend to take for granted the things we hold most dear—friends, family, health. And likewise, we tend to ignore the larger institutions that shape our lives, foremost among them our American democracy. Yet given the sweeping aftershocks of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, analyzing the present and future of democracy in America has never been more crucial. How has the democratic ideal fared since 9/11, and what does its present state bode for our future?
As a topic, “the future of American democracy” generates innumerable scholarly works. For Indiana University Bloomington political science professors Aurelian Craiutu and Jeff Isaac, however, the issue resonates beyond academic interest. While intensely devoted to the scholarly study of democracy as a concept, Craiutu and Isaac are equally concerned about democracy’s effectiveness as a real-life system influencing the fate of nations, populations, and individuals. In short, they study democracy as a living entity affecting us all.
Seeking the Future in the Past
The drawing hanging on the wall behind Aurelian Craiutu’s desk is frightening. Framed in black, a dark serpent, forked tongue unleashed, sits coiled atop a leering face. What does it mean? Is Craiutu—a bespectacled, Romanian-born professor in his late 30s sitting at the desk strewn with papers—a closet revolutionary? Is there a hint of menace in his well-groomed goatee?
“Ah, no,” Craiutu says with a laugh, “it has no relation to my work. It’s not political.” The drawing, titled Inspiration, is by one of his favorite Romanian artists, Marcel Chirnoaga. “I was seduced by the movement in the picture,” he says.
But the arresting work does provide a striking contrast to Craiutu’s animated and thoughtful fervor for his main intellectual interest: the writings of the eminent French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville and his 19th-century contemporaries.
“Unlike many contemporary historians and political scientists, Tocqueville was both an incredibly astute observer of American life and politics and a brilliant analyst able to draw large philosophical conclusions from his fieldwork,” Craiutu says.
Sent by France in 1831 to study the American penal system, Tocqueville spent nine months in the United States. Unlike most other European critics of American culture and politics of the time, he traveled extensively throughout the continent, from Boston to west of the Mississippi and from New Orleans to Canada. During his travels, Tocqueville dutifully studied American prisons but also extended his observations to encompass American social and political life. Contrary to many of his French contemporaries, according to Craiutu, Tocqueville took America seriously; he focused not only on its deficiencies but also on the strengths of American democracy, which he came to see as a useful model for Europe.
“He was fascinated by Americans’ obsession with equality and foresaw that in America there would be a continuous growth of the equalization of conditions,” Craiutu says, pointing to the Civil Rights movement and affirmative action as two late 20th-century movements proving the accuracy of Tocqueville’s analysis. Also relevant today is Tocqueville’s observation that democracy’s flaws are best fixed by more, not less, democracy. “Tocqueville understood that demo-cracy’s weaknesses can be improved by electing better leaders and making better laws,” Criautu says. “But the best way to accomplish this is through the democratic process.”
Tocqueville’s insights were so astute that his work is still revered by political scientists today, commonly taught in university courses, and venerated in the wider public culture. A May 2005 Atlantic Monthly essay, “In the Footsteps of Tocqueville” by French public intellectual and writer Bernard-Henri Levy, is only one example of the enduring legacy created by the author of Democracy in America.
What would Tocqueville say if he revisited America today?
“A wonderful question that would deserve at least one book,” says Craiutu, who is author of Liberalism Under Siege: The Political Thought of the French Doctrinaires (Lexington Books, 2003). “In short, I think Tocqueville would stand by his claim that democracy leads inevitably to more equality of conditions and would be encouraged by recent trends in America concerning women, minorities, and so on. But he would also maintain that to keep democracy alive there must be a constant effort to tend it. Democracy is like a plant—you need to water it and enrich the soil in which it lives.”
The soil of democracy, Craiutu elaborates, includes many things, foremost among them a strong tradition of pluralism. In the 1830s, Tocqueville observed that for the inhabitants of a decidedly individualistic society, Americans were remarkably conformist in their attitudes and aspirations. “Tocqueville would recognize something similar today,” says Craiutu.
“In an age when so many kids go to business school and law school, he would want us to encourage young minds to pursue things other than the typical, lucrative paths. Non-conformism, in other words, is crucial, because without new ideas and principles, democracy tends to stagnate and wither.”
Alongside a pluralism of ideas and lifestyles, says Craiutu, Tocqueville emphasized the importance of a strong, participatory civic culture. In that regard, he would be concerned by the decline of civic engagement in America.
“In Tocqueville’s time more people were actively involved in civic associations. There are just as many associations today, but it’s more common for people to pay dues and not really participate in the life of the association,” Craiutu says. “Without being involved in the day-to-day workings of democratic institutions, it’s easy to lose touch with what it takes to keep a democracy healthy.”
Fighting Like a Liberal
No doubt a resurrected Tocqueville would be concerned about the future of American democracy, given the recent history of low voter turnout in American elections as well as the general decline in civic participation. So he would likely be intrigued by Jeff Isaac’s Democracy in Dark Times (Cornell, 1998), a study of political theory and the prospects for democracy at the end of the 20th century and beyond.
“One of the themes of the book is that democracy, understood as a form of politics in which citizens have meaningful participation and voice in the affairs of their lives, is really experiencing dark times,” says Isaac, Rudy Professor of Political Science and currently chair of that department at IU Bloomington. “Wherever you look, even where there’s been the institution of certain forms of procedural democracy, the institutions that have been created are typically far removed from ordinary citizens and are, in their own way, very disempowering.”
Dressed in a black shirt with a shock of dark hair covering his forehead, Isaac reclines on a couch in his office, a spacious one by academic standards. He speaks with the urgent, incisive tones of his native New York, where he grew up the son of a trade unionist and graduated from Queens College, City University of New York. Influenced by the socialist writer and teacher Michael Harrington and other public intellectuals, Isaac developed a strong sense of indignation towards injustice that inspired him to become an academic and social critic. Nearly 30 years later, Isaac couldn’t agree more with Craiutu’s speculations about what Tocqueville would say concerning the current state of American democracy.
“American democracy is kind of stuck in place,” Isaac says. “The future is likely to be characterized by a great deal of public dissatisfaction and the irresolution of many pressing social problems.” While Isaac does not believe that the decline of democracy will result in the major repression of the rights of millions of citizens, he is wary of increasing cynicism towards the efficacy of democratic institutions and public policy.
For Isaac, a proud liberal, the antidote to cynicism is liberalism. Isaac’s form of liberalism involves social action as well as intellectual openness. A founding member of the social activist group Bloomington United and a member of the editorial board of the public intellectual journal Dissent and several other publications, Isaac’s commitment to liberal democratic ideals ranges well beyond his many books, articles, and classes taught on the subject.
“For me liberalism is a kind of public ethos, and it’s important to articulate it in the face of many threats to it, including political ideologies that are cynical about liberalism,” Isaac says. “To be a liberal is to articulate liberal values in a way that’s pragmatic and speaks to public problems, whether they have to do with war and peace, or the future of Social Security, or civil liberties.”
Democracy in the Academy
At a time when liberalism in the public sphere is often vilified as a spineless form of cultural relativism, the university plays an especially significant role in democracy’s future. It is mainly in the academy, after all, where the liberal arts still hold some (if gradually eroding) sway over the hearts and minds of young citizens. Critics call academe a bastion of liberal indoctrination and bias, but Isaac contends that the university’s liberal values are essential to American democracy.
“The notion that the university is a stronghold of liberal values is true, but not in the way that some conservatives claim,” Isaac says. “Most universities are committed to basic liberal values of freedom of inquiry, suspicion of authority, and the individual as a seat of reason.” The university must uphold these values, Isaac argues, because in society at large, they are not always honored in a meaningful way.
To further educate themselves, their colleagues, and ideally the wider public, Isaac and Craiutu organized two spring 2005 conferences, one marking the bicentenary of Tocqueville’s 1805 birth and one focusing on “America Seen Through Foreign Eyes.” Drawing scholars from the United States and Europe, the conferences examined images of America, particularly the work of 19th-century French and English historians and sociologists. The topic is especially close to Craiutu, whose political and intellectual interests were forged in large part by the 1989 Romanian revolution, a week-long series of protests and riots culminating in the overthrow, trial, and execution of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.
The conference on Tocqueville, in particular, “helped us think historically about America as a social and political idea,” says Craiutu, who, with Isaac, plans to publish the conference papers. “One lesson we can draw from reading Tocqueville is that sometimes foreigners see our society better than we do because we’re so close to it. On the other hand, there’s always the temptation for foreigners to see only what they want to see and to simplify America as only New York or Hollywood or Britney Spears. The reality is, of course, much more complex, and it’s our job to try to understand it.”
Isaac concurs. “Although as academics we are very limited in our reach, universities do perform liberalizing and democratizing roles in the society at large. That’s why it’s so important that, in places like Eastern Europe where democracies are new and still emerging, free universities and libraries exist as spaces for critical inquiry, teaching, and learning.
“Democracy is an idea, a powerful, important idea,” Isaac continues. “But without the freedom to rethink, question, and revise it, democracy can not have a meaningful future.”
Jeremy Shere is a freelance writer in Bloomington, Ind.