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American Democracy

Political Sociology series

Daniel Béland, What is Social Policy?
Understanding the Welfare State

Cedric de Leon, Party & Society:
Reconstructing a Sociology of Democratic Party Politics

Nina Eliasoph, The Politics of Volunteering

Hank Johnston, States & Social Movements

Richard Lachmann, States and Power

Siniša Malešević, Nation-States and Nationalisms:
Organization, Ideology and Solidarity

Andrew J. Perrin, American Democracy:
From Tocqueville to Town Halls to Twitter

American Democracy

From Tocqueville to Town Halls to Twitter

Andrew J. Perrin

polity

Copyright © Andrew J. Perrin 2014
The right of Andrew J. Perrin to be identified as Author of this Work has been asserted in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
First published in 2014 by Polity Press
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ISBN: 978-0-7456-7435-3
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For Jonah and Daniel

Contents

Acknowledgments
Introduction
1  History and Theory of Democracy
2  Voting, Civil Society, and Citizenship
3  Deliberation, Representation, and Legislation
4  Public Opinion, Policy Responsiveness, and Feedback
5  Media, Communications, and Political Knowledge
6  Democratic Culture and Practice in Postmodern America
Notes
References
Index

Acknowledgments

Like citizenship, intellectual life is profoundly collective, and this book is a great example. I’ve been privileged to learn the theory and practice of citizenship from many people. The ideas I pursue here have developed through conversations, arguments, and question-and-answer sessions with mentors, teachers, colleagues, students, and loved ones.

I have been very fortunate to be on the faculty at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, which embodies the rigor, collective mission, and broad access that make truly public flagship universities absolutely central to democracy. This book started out with stimulating discussions about democracy and representation at UNC’s magnificent Institute for the Arts and Humanities (IAH), and continued at our Cultural and Political Sociology Workshop and in first-year seminars on “Citizenship and Society” and “Difficult Dialogues” in which great students discussed, considered, and debated many of these issues. My colleagues in sociology and across campus, and in particular those who give of their time and energy to be outstanding University citizens, are a great source of energy and ideas. I am grateful to Andy Andrews, Chris Bail, Susan Bickford, Neal Caren, Matt Cone, Gregg Flaxman, George Huba, Mosi Ifatunji, Charles Kurzman, Michael Lienesch, Abigail Panter, and Debra and Michael Simmons for their comments on the project. John McGowan went above and beyond to give wonderful advice on the manuscript itself.

The ideas here crystallized in my Philip and Ruth Hettleman Lecture in 2010, as well as a 2011 panel I organized at IAH on civility and incivility in politics. I have learned greatly from the audiences for these talks, as well as those at Duke University’s Kenan Center for Ethics; Swarthmore College; the University of California, Berkeley; UNC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication; UNC’s Program in the Humanities and Human Values; Wake Forest University; and Yale University’s Center for Cultural Sociology; as well as conferences in Paris and Trento.

I am also extremely grateful for the love and support of my family. My parents, Jim and Ellen Perrin, are consistently supportive of, and interested in, my pursuits, and actively fostered engagement in politics and citizenship at a young age. My wife, Eliana, has improved virtually everything I’ve written, very much including this book. She read every word and her insights have made the book immeasurably better. She is an extraordinary thinker and an incredible partner in every possible way: generous, wise, tolerant, and helpful. Andrea and Norman Miller are loving, supportive, and intellectually engaged, not to mention model citizens themselves. I am lucky to have them as in-laws. Norman read and provided very thoughtful comments on drafts of the entire book. My wonderful sons, Jonah and Daniel, keep me grounded and make me happy daily. I dedicate the book to them for the boys they are already and the men they are becoming: curious, kind, responsible, helpful, and committed. May they be part of a new generation of citizens to make the world better.

Parts of chapter 2 appeared as “Why You Voted”, Contexts, Fall, 2008.

Parts of chapter 4 appeared as “Social Theory and Public Opinion” by Andrew J. Perrin and Katherine McFarland, Annual Review of Sociology 37 (2011).

Introduction

One witty friend, when I said I was writing a book about democracy, joked that it must be a work of historical fiction. Like all true wit, my friend’s quip contains more than a grain of truth. In the United States and around the world, a host of indicators give people reason to be worried or even cynical about the way their democracy is working.

Americans have increasingly lost confidence in their government. Voter participation is low, rarely reaching much beyond 50 percent, and has remained so for over a century. A recent poll showed that Congress had only a 9 percent favorability rating, lower than Brussels sprouts, root canals, traffic, and even lice (Jensen 2013). Cynical, manipulating political actors can trick citizens into voting against their own interests (Frank 2004), and declining education and cultural marginalization exacerbate that (Bageant 2007). In a 2010 poll, 57 percent of Republicans said that President Obama was a Muslim; 45 percent that he “was not born in the United States,” 38 percent that he is “doing many of the things that Hitler did,” and even 24 percent that he “may be the Antichrist.” Beyond the United States, democracy is “under pressure in many parts of the world,” with more countries becoming less democratic than are becoming more so (Economist Intelligence Unit 2011).

Public “conversation” is just as worrisome. The media depict a landscape of an America deeply divided, “red state” vs. “blue state” as different cultures, different outlooks, entirely different kinds of people. Media commentators on newly partisan cable television trade charged accusations and barbs in place of substantive, thoughtful discussion and information. Most Americans prefer not to talk about politics at all, and those who do tend to talk about politics with people they already agree with. Dialogue across lines of disagreement seems all too rare, and when it happens it is often uncivil, generating more heat than light.

The sheer amount of money needed to run for a major office in the United States means that all but the wealthiest candidates spend a disproportionate percentage of their time raising money, a problem exacerbated by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Many candidates end up paying more attention to a few very wealthy donors than to the bulk of their constituents. Lawmakers seek to pursue their constituents’ own interests, or their own party’s concerns, without regard to the common good of the country (Mann and Orenstein 2012).

New presidential powers exercised by the George W. Bush administration after the September 11 attacks dramatically expanded the power of the president, thereby diminishing the public’s ability to oversee and object (Scheppele 2006). Observers at the time worried that these expanded powers would be all but impossible for future presidents to renounce, since any president would always prefer more power to less. Indeed, the Obama administration maintained many of these new powers, further eroding the influence of public and congressional oversight (Spitzer 2012), and laying the groundwork for the revelations of government surveillance leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013.

In short, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of democracy’s progress and pessimistic about its future. Many of these concerns have to do with the technical aspects of democracy: the structures of electoral and legislative processes that lawyers and political strategists hold in the foreground when talking about politics and democracy. Others deal with the changed media environment and the cultural disposition toward division and incivility.

This book offers a new way to think about democracy: a distinctly sociological perspective. Conventional accounts of democracy tend to focus on the institutions, rules, and systems of government. While these are important, the sociological perspective examines how these interact with social and cultural practices and beliefs. It studies the polity, not just the government. And while there are plenty of reasons to be worried, that sociological angle also offers reasons for optimism: for responding to my friend’s cynicism with a degree of hope. I attempt to follow the advice of the great French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu: to “steer between ‘never-been-seen-before’ and ‘the-way-it-always-has been’” (Bourdieu 1999), avoiding both the breathless sense that everything is topsy-turvy and the blasé view that nothing is really new. To people who throw up their hands in despair at the state of contemporary democracy, I hope to offer reasons for optimism. For those who view democracy as, if not ascendant, at least safe, I hope to show some of the perils for real representation we face. The unique synergy of mobility, technology, and money that characterizes the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries is enough to make a committed democrat wring his hands in despair. It should also be enough to spur optimism for new ways of practicing and experiencing democracy.

As widespread as cynicism toward democracy is – and as justified as it is for various reasons – I believe American democracy isn’t nearly so badly off as it seems, and democracy worldwide is also reasonably healthy. Furthermore, although an attentive, cynical citizenry may be good for keeping government in check, excessive cynicism about democracy has the potential to become a self-fulfilling prophecy: if citizens are generally disillusioned about their government, that government’s performance itself may suffer.

In the United States, voter participation has returned to mid-1960s levels after years of fretting about decreasing turnout. And the public pressure to vote is sufficient to encourage as many as 20 percent of Americans who didn’t vote to actually lie to survey interviewers, claiming that they did vote. Around the world, support among ordinary people for the principles of democracy is very high (Tessler and Gao 2005; Andersen 2012).

Mounting evidence shows that when we compare governmental policies with public opinion polls, most of the time governments do what the people want them to do. Government decisions generally align fairly well with public opinion as measured in polls (Brooks and Manza 2013; Manza and Cook 2002), although there remains a large bias in favor of the wealthy (Gilens 2012; Schlozman et al. 2012). While the low level of trust in government can make citizens cynical and disengaged (Hetherington 2005), it also serves to gather people into “attentive publics,” paying close attention to government, ready to speak up if they don’t like government activities (Arnold 1990).

The sociological approach I present here justifies some optimism. This book is unabashedly centered on American democracy, and the particular historical, cultural, and institutional dynamics of the United States. Some examples are pulled from elsewhere in the world, but the main thrust of the book is a sociological account of democracy in the United States, with only passing references to other countries’ experiences.

Thinking Sociologically About Democracy

The French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville visited the young United States in 1831, sent by the French government to investigate the American prison system. The work he produced, Democracy in America, became a classic. Democracy in America is most often remembered for its identification of America as “a nation of joiners” and for its celebration of the young nation’s citizens’ tendency to assemble voluntarily to solve problems:

Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all minds are constantly joining together in groups. In addition to commercial and industrial associations in which everyone takes part, there are associations of a thousand other kinds: some religious, some moral, some grave, some trivial, some quite general and others quite particular, some huge and others tiny. Americans associate to give fetes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to erect churches, to distribute books, and to send missionaries to the antipodes. This is how they create hospitals, prisons, and schools. If, finally, they wish to publicize a truth or foster a sentiment with the help of a great example, they associate. Wherever there is a new undertaking, at the head of which you would expect to see in France the government and in England some great lord, in the United States you are sure to find an association.

In America I came across types of associations which I confess I had no idea existed, and I frequently admired the boundless skill of Americans in setting large numbers of people a common goal and inducing them to strive toward that goal voluntarily. (Tocqueville 2004 [1835], 595)

Tocqueville’s analysis went well beyond joining. It emphasized the cultural roots of democracy in America. Americans were democratic, he claimed, because of the ways they tended to associate, their “habits of the heart” (331) and their rejection of old-fashioned hierarchies in favor of hierarchy based on accomplishments.

The men who inhabit the United States were never separated by privilege of any kind. They never knew the reciprocal relation of inferior and master, and since they neither fear nor hate one another, they never felt the need to call upon the sovereign to manage the details of their affairs. The destiny of the Americans is singular: they took from the aristocracy of England the idea of individual rights and the taste for local liberties, and they were able to preserve both because they had no aristocracy to fight. (799)

Tocqueville identified the foundation as well as the perils of political democracy in the cultural practices that characterized nineteenth-century American life. Alongside the tendencies to voluntarism and joining, he worried that the lack of moral regulation would lead toward internal strife and unfettered materialism (Kaledin 2011). Americans’ culture formed both the promise and the peril of political democracy.

In focusing on the cultural and social elements of democracy, Tocqueville pioneered the sociology of democracy. American political institutions have changed enormously since Tocqueville. But the cultural configuration of American society – the tension between the individual and the collective, the tendency to reject hierarchy and snobbery, the willingness to take voluntary action– has remained more or less intact through nearly two centuries. This book focuses on those sorts of questions: the cultural and social dynamics of democratic citizenship, particularly in the United States, and the ways political representation and electoral systems shape and are shaped by those dynamics.

In early democracies in Athens, in France, and in the early United States, rule by “the people” was understood to be collective: “the people” was not just the agglomeration of otherwise unrelated individuals, but what we might now call the public: a collective, culturally bound and socially related, that shares a common experience, orientation, or concern. Suppressed under regimes and in cultures where there was no literal or figurative space between the government, the economy, and people’s private lives, the public emerged when such opportunity opened (Habermas 1962).

The German term Öffentlichkeit, translated literally as “publicness,” describes the cultural precondition for democratic politics. People – not necessarily everyone, but some people – have to be able to think and talk in public terms. So important is the idea of a separate set of public concerns, distinct from concerns of family life, economic necessity, and governmental power, that Öffentlichkeit has sometimes been translated directly as “democracy,” as if publicness and democracy were the same thing (Jasanoff 2005, 74). It has been variously translated as “openness,” “publicness,” “publicity,” “public opinion,” and “public sphere” (Nowotny 2003). Its meaning is difficult to render in English, but at its core is the idea of an arena of human activity and concern devoted to collective life – the “civil sphere” (Alexander 2006) in which matters of common concern can be worked out and communicated. The sociology of democracy, therefore, is a sociology of Öffentlichkeit: a sociology of publics, their construction, and their effects: what the French political historian Pierre Rosanvallon refers to as “how an epoch, a country, or a social group may seek to construct responses to what, with greater or less precision, they perceive as a problem” (Rosanvallon 2006, 62).

A sociological study of democracy must consider what cultural environments and practices foster publicness and successful democratic citizenship, since democracy is best understood as a cluster of cultural elements around political practices. Indeed, as Tocqueville worried, apparently democratic political systems can encourage antidemocratic cultures and behaviors. I suggest (especially in chapter 5) that precisely this is happening currently: that the democratic system of press freedom – certainly a core democratic value – is combining with privatizing communications technologies and industrialized media to result in a less democratic public culture. The opposite can also be true: “lively political activity and experiences of citizenship may actually thrive under conditions in which, perhaps even because, the state is fragile and national identification limited” (Wedeen 2008, 99). Neither of these is a reason to abandon democratic structures and institutions, of course. But they do press us to expand the scope of our thinking to examine the cultural and social dynamics of democracy as separate from, though dependent on, its formal processes, structures, and institutions.

This idea undermines what political scientists call the “minimalist” definition of democracy: that leadership is selected in competitive elections in which the outcome is uncertain (Schumpeter 1950; see also Wedeen 2008, 105–13). The minimalist conception misses what is most important about democracy: the interplay between democratic culture and democratic structure. Archibugi goes a bit further, emphasizing that democracy “may be summed up as nonviolence, popular control, and political equality” (Archibugi 2008, 26). Instead, I suggest that we understand the construction, maintenance, and characteristics of publics – including, but not limited to, “the public,” the collectivity of the entire country – as sociological questions in which political structures like elections, legislation, and rules are important actors but far from the principal focus.

Since the late 1980s, sociologists have developed and refined a conception of culture as a system of shared beliefs, practices, styles, skills, and habits that serve at once to motivate, constrain, and explain human action (Swidler 2001; Johnson-Hanks et al. 2011; Vaisey 2009). Culture in the mind – the shared ways people within a culture think about issues – helps explain how societies produce culture in the world: the physical, technological, and textual artifacts that shape human behavior and, over time, refine and change culture in the mind. Culture in the mind helps explain why groups of people make some decisions and not others, why they think of some opportunities as more attractive than others, and why these decisions tend to be shared among groups of people. Culture in the world helps explain how these groups develop, use, and experience artifacts in the world: everything from media messages to communication technologies and voting systems. Cultural sociology offers the best tools for understanding democracy not just as a political system but as a social, cultural, and historical accomplishment.

I will therefore examine three interlocking areas to understand how publics form, persist, and die, and where they get their features. These are citizenship practices, technologies, and institutions. Practices are the everyday behaviors and habits of life: talking, reading, paying attention, voting. Technologies are patterned tools for accomplishing things: developed by humans for performing tasks, they enable some actions and constrain others, and so have important social and organizational effects. We naturally think of high technologies like computers and mobile phones, but the fixed line telephone, the voting booth, and the public opinion poll are also technologies. Technologies don’t just determine what people do and don’t do; people interpret technologies differently and use them in different ways (Orlikowski 1992, 2000). Finally, institutions are the organized rules and structures that govern democratic life: the electoral system, the legislative system, and the law, for example. Like technologies, these constrain and enable citizenship actions in particular ways. Traditional political science treatments of democracy focus on institutions and behaviors to the exclusion of practices and technologies. This book shows how practices, technologies, and institutions work together to represent publics, and how that process also helps to form and shape those publics.

The Obama Citizenship Doctrine

Because I focus on the cultural aspects of democratic citizenship, ideas and rhetoric from leaders about why people should be involved and how they should make political decisions play a key role. Republicans and Democrats alike have, at times, put forward ideals of citizenship that tend to privatize and individualize: to make voting and participation into things people do for themselves and their own interests. At other times, both have put forward fundamentally public reasons for participation and engagement.

Building on his background in constitutional law, community organizing, and pragmatist social theory (Kloppenberg 2011), President Barack Obama has articulated more clearly a rhetoric and theory of the duties and rights of American citizenship than has any president since Kennedy. Consider, for example, the defiant speech that launched his career, at the 2004 Democratic convention nominating John F. Kerry for president:

The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states: red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq, and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America. In the end, that’s what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism, or do we participate in a politics of hope? (Obama 2004)

Nine years later, after having been elected twice as president himself, Obama repeated these themes of unity, duty, and rights in his State of the Union Speech:

We are citizens. It’s a word that doesn’t just describe our nationality or legal status. It describes the way we’re made. It describes what we believe. It captures the enduring idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations; that our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others; and that well into our third century as a nation, it remains the task of us all, as citizens of these United States, to be the authors of the next great chapter in our American story. (Obama 2013)

These are the cultural themes that have persisted in American political culture for generations (Morone 1998): the tension between the common good and individual rights and interests; the combination of liberty with duty. Obama’s intellectual style has been to call on that tension to enroll citizens in the culture of citizenship.

Seeking to build on this connection between unity and diversity, several times during his candidacy and early presidency he suggested that “we can disagree without being disagreeable.” This emphasis on trying to bridge differences and interact with civility – although not entirely successful – is part of the doctrine of citizenship Obama has sought to articulate.

Leaving aside the question of whether Obama’s policy proposals are desirable, his cultural logic emphasizes the cultural over the systemic elements of democracy. In asking Americans to think in terms of common citizenship, it is particularly attractive for the approach I take in this book because it evokes Americans’ cultural and social practices and styles, not the systems of government that express those styles.

Plan for the Book

The first chapter of the book sets democracy in international and historical context. Democracy has been “invented” in several different places and at different times, and it has meant different things through history. In the American context and around the world, “the people” has meant something very different at different historical moments. chapter 1 traces some of the big historical junctures that have produced the vision of democracy we work with today.

Chapters 2 and 3 focus on the practices of representation in American democracy. chapter 2 deals with “micropolitics”: the decisions individual citizens make about participation in political and public life, and how these decisions are structured. chapter 3 takes the same question from the other end, looking at the systems of electoral and legislative representation and how they represent and shape the public.

Next, chapters 4 and 5 deal with specific technologies of representation. chapter 4 examines the practice of public opinion polling, whose ubiquitous use has shaped the ways Americans think about democracy, opinion, and participation. chapter 5 examines the media, both traditional mass media and contemporary “social” media. Both of these chapters ask how publics are formed around technologies and their practices, and how these publics can best be represented in a democratic fashion.

Finally, chapter 6 offers conclusions about how to think about democracy sociologically, and the benefits of this approach. It also presents some reasons to think twice about popular reforms to the electoral and legislative systems, and suggests one reform that is rarely considered but might be worth considering.

Overall, the book’s main point is that democracy – and its close cousin, representation – are first cultural, social concepts, then political ones. That has been the magic of the practices Americans and democrats worldwide have cherished for years.

1

     

History and Theory of Democracy

What do we think of when we hear the term “democracy”?

For now, Abraham Lincoln’s famous phrase at Gettysburg – “government of the people, by the people, for the people” (Lincoln 1865) – is as good a place as any to begin. The most important feature of democracy is that the people’s ideals and preferences should direct decisions taken by government. A democratic government’s decisions should reflect the people’s desires. Simple, right? A closer look reveals that this concept actually raises more questions than it answers.

This book offers an unusual angle on democracy: a sociological angle. It owes much to political science, the discipline devoted to understanding and documenting political ideas, institutions, and behavior. But the book’s overall case is this: democracy is best understood as the back-and-forth interactions among citizens and institutions of government, structured through rules, ideas, and technologies. Citizens learn to act within constraints set by governmental and other powerful institutions and to use resources that are particularly useful with those institutions. Institutions, for their part – particularly democratic institutions – adapt to and structure citizens’ opportunities and desires for action: their “democratic imaginations” (Perrin 2006). The sociological perspective is uniquely helpful for understanding how institutions in general adapt to and help create their environments (Aldrich 1999) and how culture and society in general structure the opportunities, constraints, and imaginations for individual and group action. Less- and non-democratic societies have fewer opportunities for citizens to form into publics, to voice opinions and ideas, and to monitor and learn from the decisions and outcomes of their governments.

Democracy, in other words, is not only, or even primarily, a political phenomenon. It is also a deeply social, institutional, cultural, and historical phenomenon. This sociological treatment of it highlights the ways social, institutional, cultural, and historical forces interact with political ones to produce modern political democracy. Tocqueville understood as much when he identified democracy in Americans’ “habits of the heart”: the unstated assumptions, habits, and manners that made their everyday interactions different from the aristocratic ones of France (Tocqueville 2004 [1835]; Torpey 2006).

Looking back after a quarter-century, 1989 was a very good year for democracy. That spring, the world watched as pro-democracy students faced down government tanks in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China. Later that year, the authoritarian regimes of the old Soviet bloc ushered in unprecedented changes in openness and freedom in response to increasing international pressure and popular uprisings. In November of that year perhaps the most visible symbol of the Cold War – the Berlin Wall – was opened, and East Germans were allowed to visit West Berlin and West Germany freely. Meanwhile, another of the twentieth century’s thorniest problems – the apartheid regime in South Africa and its occupation of neighboring Namibia – was changing swiftly. Democratic leader Nelson Mandela’s release from prison was negotiated, as was Namibia’s independence. Largely successful democratic transitions in both countries followed. At the other end of the African continent, North and South Yemen unified into a single country in 1990, ushering in a widely discussed transition to democracy (Wedeen 2008). In short, in 1989 it looked like the world was moving swiftly toward increasing democracy, and that these new democracies would embody a newly energetic, creative view of democratic practice (Blokker 2009). In many ways that was true. The world of 1990 looked dramatically different for democracy than it had in 1988, though many of the same thorny questions that had arisen before 1989 remained unsolved. The demise of the Soviet Union and its allies left the door open for chaos and antidemocratic forces, with tragic results in several cases. And democratic uprisings elsewhere had to wait much longer. In December 2010, a wave of uprisings across the Arab world brought major changes to governments in that area, and conflict between autocratic leaders and the populations continues.

What does it mean for the world to move toward democracy? And how was the stage set for these sweeping changes? To start to unravel these questions, we turn toward a history of some of the key ideas and practices of democracy, particularly in the United States but around the world as well. We’ll then use that history to understand the turning point in 1989, the differences between kinds of democracy, and how we can best evaluate democracies’ performance.

A Partial History of Democracy

This is not by any means a full or comprehensive history of American democracy; there are far better such histories already written (e.g., Wilentz 2005). Instead, it offers a relatively brief examination of strains of thought and practice at the roots of democracy as we currently understand it. It pays particular attention to the history of American democracy, but since American democracy is thoroughly connected with practices of democracy worldwide, I include other connections and approaches when those are helpful to our understanding.

The roots of democracy can be traced as far back as ancient Athens, the first stable democracy, which flourished around 500 BC. By our standards, Athenian democracy was very exclusive: many people subject to the laws of the city had no voice in making those laws. These included people who were excluded because of sex (women), status (slaves), and wealth (debtors). Those who were allowed to participate assembled into large bodies to discuss and vote on important matters. Athenian democracy was notable for the fact that it was relatively direct: participating citizens had a direct impact on the decisions that were made. By contrast, modern democracy tends to be representative: participating citizens elect representatives whose job is to make those decisions. Citizens may communicate with, criticize, monitor, and even recall those representatives, but with certain exceptions they are not able to take the decision making into their own hands.

The term “democracy” itself comes from Greek, and probably emerged in Athens. The second part of the word, “-cracy,” means power. The first part, “demo-,” refers to the demos, or the people: the same idea Lincoln evoked over 2,000 years later at Gettysburg. In democracy, then, power is vested in the people. But which people? What if they can’t agree? How is power vested in the people? What if a majority of the people infringes upon the legitimate needs and rights of a minority? What if the people make the wrong decision for the common good due to misunderstanding, malice, selfishness, or ignorance? As democrats1 wrestle with these questions, they bring innovative ideas to the table that refine the relationships between majorities and minorities, between rights, responsibilities, and publics. These innovations, in turn, form the practices and groups we think of as democracies and publics.

For centuries after the fall of Athens, democracy was not only out of favor but literally unthinkable throughout most of the world. It would be over 1,000 years before forms of modern democratic practices re-emerged in places like England and Venice in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. It was several hundred more years before the European Enlightenment and the development of industrial capitalism gave rise to a wave of democratic revolutions across the West. These revolutions – in particular the American Revolution of 1776 and the French of 1789 – signaled a new way of conceptualizing the rights, responsibilities, and characteristics of a citizen. These eighteenth-century developments literally changed the world and set us on the path to current democratic practices.

Throughout the European Middle Ages, the authority of monarchs (kings and queens) and the lesser nobles who paid fealty to them was largely unchallenged. To be sure, questions of which royalty would rule over a given territory were very much open; but the idea that sovereignty could be held by anyone other than a sovereign was virtually unthinkable. Most people were subjects of the sovereign, and the normal mode of life was to live under the economic and political protection of the sovereign and provide him (or, rarely, her) with the products of agricultural life – crops, raw materials, etc. – in return. That slowly began to change as trade and transportation made business and commerce more possible, and by the eighteenth century the citizen became the way people understood their role in society. The citizen belonged to a state or culture, but was much less dependent upon the sovereign than subjects had been before. Whereas before, kings and queens provided comprehensive protection in return for comprehensive loyalty, citizens began to view the demands of the feudal monarchies as excessive. It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that citizen-traders’ frustrations with the monarchy were responsible for the invention of the modern citizen and civil society, two key elements of modern democracy.

The concept of citizen contains both a sense of belonging to a polity and obligation to it, and at the same time a sense of the practices of citizenship: participation, obligations, and civic duty. The element of civic duty is older, based on the idea that “the best form of state is based on two supports … : good civic behaviour and a republican form of state” (Heater 2004, 4). In other words, good government depends both on having strong democratic institutions and on having citizens who act responsibly and democratically. By the nineteenth century, the burden had shifted and citizenship was held out more as an obligation governments owed to their citizens, but the importance of educating citizens to be responsible members of the polity has remained and grown in recent years (Heater 2004, 5, 130–1).

These developments went far beyond the economic realm; they took place in the realm of culture as well. Literary and cultural worlds – previously reserved largely for nobles – were available more to the bourgeoisie, the ascendant class of people who depended on trade for their livelihood and cherished autonomy from the nobles. The lively intellectual atmosphere of eighteenth-century salons encouraged the discussion of matters of substance across lines of status and wealth: in Jürgen Habermas’ memorable phrase, “a public sphere constituted by private people putting reason to use” (Habermas 1962, xviii). This, in turn, “produced not merely a change in the composition of the public but amounted to the very generation of the ‘public’ as such” (Habermas 1962, 39).

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, when the Continental Congress met at Philadelphia they understood how new and remarkable the republic they were designing would be. But they probably had no idea just how enormous the forces they unleashed were. They were doing no less than putting into place a new way of imagining the relationship between a government and its people. In fact, the demands for democracy at that time were quite moderate by our standards. The representatives to the Continental Congress – like those who eventually made up the Constitutional Convention – were very much elites themselves: European, white, male landowners, many of them slaveholders, and many of whom knew each other through the elite institutions they frequented (Schudson 1998, 42–3). Furthermore, their complaints were rooted as much in economic liberty as they were in democratic representation. The colonists who carried out the famous Boston Tea Party of 1773, for example, were angry over the British monarchy’s assertion of its right to tax them (even though that system would have lowered the overall price of tea; Lepore 2010, 76–7). The protests over the monarchy’s right to tax the colonies without providing them a voice in Parliament – taxation without representation – helped cement the idea that the citizenry was separate from the monarchy and could have ideas, preferences, and interests at odds with those of the monarchy.

In the wake of the successful American Revolution, the high-minded debates between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists worked through many of the thorny issues that became central to the design and practice of democracy. These were heady, high-stakes times. Although the so-called “Founding Fathers” were far from representative in the way we think of representation now, they shared a commitment to self-government and to the idea that the people could and should govern themselves. “The remarkable debate about sovereignty and liberty that took place between 1761, when James Otis argued the writs of assistance case, and 1791, when the Bill of Rights was ratified, contains an ocean of ideas,” writes historian Jill Lepore. “You can fish almost anything out of it” (Lepore 2010: 64). These ideas were not divorced from day-to-day concerns. Rather, the American constitutional designers debated the structures of government – elections, legislative bodies and rules, judiciary forms, rights – as ways of implementing ideas about self-government.

These debates took place through the publication of papers by the Founders – generally called the Federalist Papers and the Anti-Federalist Papers – in newspapers, pamphlets, and other available venues of the time. The papers are far from unanimous. They contain the intellectual back-and-forth of a remarkable group of people seeking to work out the contours of a new form of government, and there is great disagreement within them about the ways to balance it. They are far more than discussions about government structures; they are theories about the relationship of private, public, and governmental life, and how these three spheres are best balanced over time and across space.

It’s important to remember that, in the eighteenth century, the very concept of democracy was highly controversial. Edmund Burke, a British philosopher, observed the French Revolution’s insistence on popular sovereignty with great horror, arguing that durable virtues such as loyalty and morality should not be subject to the whims of the unsophisticated populace (Burke 1790 [1993]). However, the success of the French and American Revolutions put these views on the defensive. Indeed, the Federalists in the American debate, who were deeply influenced by Burke and his conservative allies, did not dispute the basic right of the people to govern themselves: the cornerstone of democracy. That ship, as they say, had sailed. The question was how self-government was to be set up, and with what rights, privileges, and protections.

The people allowed to self-govern were, of course, much fewer than our contemporary ideals of democracy dictate. The most important restriction the Constitution endorsed was allowing the continued practice of slavery, a monumental injustice and one that severely limited the reach of democratic representation. If people were allowed to own other people, how could those who were owned by others be understood to hold power (the -cracy in democracy)? The historic “three-fifths compromise,” in which American slaves were counted in states’ populations as three-fifths of their actual number, only compounded the problem by officially separating the people to be represented from the people actually allowed to participate in that representation. The decision to endorse slavery in the early Republic was an extension of what seemed “obvious” to scholars and democrats at the time: “The assumption of nonwhite intellectual inferiority was widespread” (Mills 1997: 60), although perhaps not universal. The need for compromise itself was an indication that questions like this were in dispute. Still, even those colonies that had outlawed slavery did not allow free African Americans to vote, suggesting that opposition to slavery did not necessarily imply a thorough commitment to equality or true democracy as we understand it now.

The compromise over slavery was only the most glaring of several exclusions that, from a twenty-first-century viewpoint, are obviously problematic. Women were not allowed to vote, a rule that would not be rescinded until the early twentieth century. Voting was restricted to property-owners, the belief of the Founders being that such men were the only ones sufficiently committed to and wisest about the common good of the society. So while the American Founders imagined a republic governed by the consent of the people – and, in so imagining, opened the door for an explosion of growth in democratic representation – their design was limited even as it provided the vocabulary and opportunity for extraordinary future democratic development. The limits, from our twenty-first-century vantage point, are clear. What made the design revolutionary was its future promise: the Founders evoked the idea of “the people” without explicitly defining it or putting clear boundaries on the concept. They thereby gave a gift to generations of future democrats who worked to expand, mold, and manipulate the idea of “the people.” Tocqueville predicted the expansion of voting rights long before it became the universal assumption, although he doubted the wisdom of it:

The more broadly voting rights are extended, the more one feels the need to extend them still further, for with each new concession, the forces of democracy increase, and its demands grow with its newfound power. The ambition of those who remain below the qualification level is spurred in proportion to the number who stand above it. At last the exception becomes the rule; concessions follow one upon the other, and there is no stopping until universal suffrage is achieved. (Tocqueville 2004 [1835], 64)

As sociologist Michael Schudson demonstrates, the Founders didn’t really trust the people – even those who were allowed the vote – to be actively engaged in public matters: “they … disapproved of general public discussion [even] among the propertied white males. They were far from sharing a pluralist vision, still attached as they were to the notions of consensus, property, virtue, and deference that came naturally to them” (Schudson 1998: 55). But through the vigorous, innovative thinking of the Federalist–Anti-Federalist debates and the US Constitution and Bill of Rights, they set in motion a historical process developing ideas and forms of “the people” that led eventually to the expansive notion of popular sovereignty that blossomed at the end of the twentieth century.

The Founders’ limitations on democracy took place in a social, cultural, and political environment very different from the one we live in, even as their work helped foster and develop our current environment. In addition to their exclusive view of “the people,” the design they came up with entrusts that collectivity as the best source of decisions as what we might now call epistemic democracy (Cohen 1986). The essence of this idea is that the reason to consult the people is that the people as a collectivity are most likely to come up with the objectively best decision. The Founders assumed that there was always a correct decision in the interests of the public or the common good. The problem they were trying to solve was how best to figure out what that correct decision was. Democratic representation was the best way to reveal the authentic, objective best decision for a government to take; monarchy and other non-democratic systems were less likely to reveal the common good because they didn’t leverage the collective wisdom of the people. Democracy, in this conception, is the best means to realize the right end, not a matter of citizens’ right to participate in their own fate (participatory democracy), to discuss and convince others about public matters (deliberative democracy), or to defend their interests against the interests of opponents (agonistic democracy). Democracy was important because of the end it yielded, not because of the means it enabled.

In the generations since, democracy has come to be seen as the only truly legitimate way to govern a country. The people, we are now prone to believe, have an inherent right to govern themselves, and decisions made democratically are legitimate even if they are incorrect. Thus we have moved from an epistemic to a combination of participatory, deliberative, and agonistic approaches to democracy: democratic representation is charged with balancing the interests of different groups within society, insuring that each of these groups is represented in governmental decisions, and encouraging widespread participation in political discussions and decision making. We will return to these ideas of representation and democracy later in the chapter.

Reconstruction and Social Change