November 20, 2016


Two cheers for democracy : A review of Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought by James T. Kloppenberg (James Piereson, New Criterion)

Professor Kloppenberg hits upon a couple of broad themes that were important in the rise of popular government but which are not sufficiently appreciated today. The first is the link between the Protestant reformation and the rise of popular government and of the mutually reinforcing spread of these two movements from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. He emphasizes the connections between the Christian virtues of benevolence, simplicity, and reciprocity and the rise of democracy. As Benjamin Rush, one of the American founders, wrote in a letter to John Adams: "The precepts of the Gospel and the maxims of republics in many instances agree with each other." Jefferson described Christianity as the religion "most friendly to liberty, science, and the freest expansion of the human mind." Still, Christianity dominated the European continent during the twelve centuries from the conversion of Constantine to the Protestant reformation without provoking any movements in the direction of democracy. It was the specifically Protestant interpretation of Christianity, with its various emphases on congregational government, the disestablishment of religion, the authority of individual conscience in matters of religion, the literal interpretation of the Bible, and the corruption of the Roman Church, that ignited the movements in Europe and North America toward popular government and away from monarchy and theocracy. The cause was strengthened in America by the fact that many of the early European settlers were Protestant refugees from religious oppression, though very little of it came from Roman sources. Professor Kloppenberg deftly follows the religious thread all the way through this period showing how Christian ideals--usually Protestant interpretations of those ideals--found secular expression in movements for popular rule.

A second theme in the book is the central roles played by revolutions and civil wars in the rise and eventual triumph of the democratic movement. The three great revolutions of that era--the English, American, and French--provide ample evidence for that point, as does the American Civil War, which Professor Kloppenberg sees as a culminating event in the three-century struggle for popular government. Perhaps it was inevitable, as he suggests, that a novel movement in the world had to make its way forward through revolution and civil war. At the same time, as he also emphasizes, the hatreds and lingering resentments that flowed from these events also slowed the further march of democracy in all three countries. His point about violence is entirely accurate, and one that he might have pressed further. After all, the rise of democracy as a governing ideal in our time would have been inconceivable absent those victories in the three great wars for democracy between 1861 and 1945--the American Civil War and the two world wars in the first half of the twentieth century. In view of this, it is a good question why Professor Kloppenberg ended his narrative with the U.S. Civil War instead of developing it further to take account of the world wars that proved so decisive to the triumph of democracy in the twentieth century.
Toward Democracy is an important and finely crafted book, but there is a muddle at the center of it. What is democracy? Professor Kloppenberg never provides a clear definition of what he means by it, or how his understanding comports with or departs from the traditional understanding according to which democracy is a flawed form of government. He does attempt a definition of sorts when he writes that democracy rests upon the pillars of popular sovereignty, equality, and autonomy, though this seems incomplete and unsatisfactory as a definition. The fact remains that none of the great popular governments of our time would qualify as a democracy as that term has been traditionally defined. The authors of the United States Constitution did not create a democracy but a constitutional republic based upon representation and formal checks on the power of majorities.

Posted by at November 20, 2016 2:24 PM