Pining for Democracy: A Few Readings


Norman Rockwell, 
draft version of Freedom of Speech (1943).

“In the United States… there is nothing the human will despairs of attaining through the free action of the combined power of individuals.”  

—Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol I (1835)

American democracy and the civic life that supports it is in decline. This is a theme that I used to devote a lot of time to. Several of my most popular posts from 2013 to 2015 are on the topic (see especially “Economies of Scale Killed the American Dream,” “Honor, Dignity, and Victimhood: Three Decades of American Political Culture,” and a few other posts like them), but I have not written much about it since then. Some of these earlier posts are less sophisticated or less empirically grounded than they would be if I wrote them today. However, my take on the topic today is consistent with what I wrote a few years ago: over the last six decades the scaffolding of American democracy has collapsed. Democracy as a way of life is dead.

I should distinguish this position from the current wave of hand-wringing occasioned by President Trump. Trump’s quarrels are with liberalism, not self-government. The two are not the same. It is quite possible to have a political regime that is both illiberal and democratic. But even that observation is not quite sufficient—this word “democratic” has many meanings, and not all are germane to this post. Most who worry about “the integrity of our democratic institutions” are concerned about the mechanics of the federal government. Are elections for federal office fair, regular, and not tampered with? Is the gap between the popular vote and the electoral vote too wide? Does the Supreme Court or the Presidency have too much power? Are executive officers still bound by the rule of law? Has the system been gamed to favor one side or the other? Questions like these are the festering sores behind American democratic discontent.

However important they may be, these concerns are not the subject of this post. Quadrennial contests over the imperial crown have very little to do with day-to-day democracy. Do not misunderstand: those contests are important, praiseworthy, and worth preserving. The reason why they are worth preserving, however, is little understood. The genius of representative elections is not that they encourage leaders to enact the popular will (the people’s representatives rarely enact such things), but because they are the centerpiece of a system that keeps political competition between the elites from escalating into terrible violence. Popular elections, national political parties, checks, balances, and liberal political norms are what keep the American elites from killing each other over their political differences. Coups, rebellions, civil wars, and violent purges are the norm in authoritarian systems. That American history records so few of these things is a great credit to her representative institutions.

But the democracy I am talking about happens several levels below the machinations of senators and presidents. To keep things conceptually clear, let’s call this sort of democracy self government. Self-government is communal. It comes with the confidence that you and the citizens around you are capable of crafting solutions to your shared problems. Self-government is less a particular set of institutions than a particular set of attitudes. If the institutions needed to solve a problem locally do not exist, the citizens of a self-governing community will create them. These institutions may be formal government bodies, like the meetings of New England selectmen or Midwestern school-boards,  or they may be associations of a more civic or religious nature. From the perspective of the average American throughout most of American history this was distinction without a difference: whether the school board was a private or public organ mattered far less than the amount of control ordinary people had over it. For people living in such a community, democracy was more than  showing up at the polls every two years. It was a constant preoccupation, the center of their social strivings, and the fruit of their hardest labors. For these men and women, self-government was a way of life.  

Self-government has its terrors. The mobs that drove my ancestors out of their homes at gun-point were animated by a spirit of self-government. So were the klansmen who terrorized black families. But if minorities like Mormons and blacks suffered at the hands of uncouth men eager to leverage self-government for violent ends, it was the skill these minorities had at self-governing that allowed them to overcome their woeful circumstance. It was day-to-day democracy that built Zion in the wilderness and led marches through the camps of Babylon.

My position is that self government is a good in and of itself. In this I am quite old fashioned. I actually believe, like generations of Americans before me, and generations of English commonwealth men before them, that self-government is a forge of character. It creates a better sort of man and woman than would otherwise be. Humans ought to be embedded in communities of purpose. They ought to be anxiously engaged in the affairs of their locale. They ought to not only feel but be responsible for the world in which they live. They ought, in short, to live as citizens, not as subjects.

There was once a country where ought was are. That country is no more.

That is a long introduction to what is essentially a reading list. Via e-mail, a reader who trudged through those old posts asked if I could recommend what books he should read to understand this topic. My hope is that the books I recommend below will satisfy him and other readers as curious as he. The declaration that the democratic way of life is a superior one does not occur in any of themthat is my own subjective judgement. Those who do not share my values will not sympathize with my laments. They still will find value in the books I recommend below, however, They are focused on empirical questions: what was social life like in America’s past? How did it change in our more recent past? Why did this change occur?

The first group of books I recommend all deal with how democratic institutions actually work. These include Matt Grossman’s Artists of the Possible: Governing Networks and American Policy Change since 1945, Christopher Achen and Larry Bartel’s, Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government, and Frank Bryan’s Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How it Works. All three of these books are written by political scientists and all three are data heavy. The first two, Artists of the Possible and Democracy for Realists focus on national political institutions and federal policy making. If you believe that representative democracy is a matter of popular mandates, the people’s will, and other fairy tale creations, these two books will be hard medicine. Taken together they paint a very different picture of American institutions from the democratic myths most of us were raised on: at the federal level actual change in policy almost never has any relationship to popular opinion while voting has almost nothing to do with policy preferences.

This contrasts sharply with the sort of democracy featured in Frank Bryan’s profile of Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine town meetings. These meetings are direct deliberative democracies: all business is raised, debated, and implemented by normal citizens of the township. The careful attention average citizens in these assemblies give to questions of policy is astounding. So is the amount of time they devote to convincing other citizens of their proposals. Bryan pairs his datataken from thousands of town meetings held over a decadewith excellent prose descriptions of what these meetings are like. Revealed is a portrait of self government in action from one of the few places that still has them.

The next set of books includes Theda Skopcal’s Diminished Democracy, Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, and Charles Murray’s Coming Apart. These books describe the slow death of self-government in American civic life. Like the last set, all three of these are data heavy. Skopcal’s book is the most important in the set and probably the most important of the entire list. A precis of her argument was published by Prospect Magazine two decades ago, and I encourage those who have never heard of her work to read it. In Diminished Democracy she traces the history of America’s largest civic organizations from their origin in the Gilded Age to their demise in the late 20th century. One of the themes she pursues is the changing nature of activism, which has transitioned from a model built around locally organized chapters of volunteers who sacrificed their time for the cause to a model of professional fund-raising that asks only for money. Putnam and Murray finish this story. It is not just civic institutions that are hollowing out: churches, gaming clubs, unions, and even friendships have shriveled over the last few decades. Both books describe what is happening with extreme detail. (To these books I would add one article: Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning’s “Micro-Aggression and Moral Cultures.” Though they do not frame it this way, their research sketches how American moral culture has shifted in response to the societal changes Skopcal, Putnam, and Murray discuss. See my post on the topic for that framing).

Next up is Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Daniel Walker Howe’s What God Hath Wrought, and Henry Watson’s Liberty and Power. My perspective on this question is strongly shaped by books like these, which paint a vivid picture of what it felt like to live the democratic way of life. This way of life had precedents in England and America’s revolutionary period, but it did not take its full cast in the American context until the 1820s. Howe’s book is both a social and political history. He mixes these two genres with incredible skill (I can only think of one other historian who has ever done it better). The only problem is that Howe’s book is very large. For those who struggle with thousand page tomes, Watson’s Liberty and Power might be a better bet. It covers many of the same themes as Howe, and though not quite as magical, it manages to do so in one fifth of the pages.

The first challenge to self-government came in the late 1800s. Changes in the economic structure of the global economy stripped many Americans of their economic independence and fatally undermined the sense of social equality that blossomed in the antebellum era. It is difficult to find one book that depicts these changes to my satisfaction. The closest I have read is Nell Irvin Painter’s Standing at Armageddon: a Grass-roots History of the Progressive Movement Michael Lotus and James Bennett’s take on this era in America 3.0 also accords quite closely with my view on the social changes that flowed from the era’s economic realities. Pair them with the historical chapters on 19th century and early 20th century civic movements in Diminished Democracy and Bowling Alone (which describe how enterprising Americans met this challenge) and you will have a good understanding of the issues involved.

Finally, I think it is worth reading a few books on the old style of self-government in its final moments of glory. The Civil Rights movement is a defining case study of the principles of day-to-day democracy. The most engaging overview of the period is Juan William’s Eyes on the Prize. Once you have a sense of the period’s chronology and main actors, move to Payne’s, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom or Aldon Morriss’ The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change. Both present the Civil Rights movement from the ground up, as the product of active self-government. The Civil Rights organizations came at the tail end of the democratic way of lifethe final victory before the trends Skopcal, et. al. record overwhelmed American society. Because of its social justice orientation the Civil Rights movement also serves as useful comparative study when placed next to the diminished protest movements of our own day.

 There are other books I could addLasch’s Revolt of the Elites, Udall’s Forgotten Founders: History of the Old West, Wood’s Creation of the American Republicbut this is supposed to be an introductory list. For that purpose the fourteen books listed here is already too many.

Here is an abbreviated list for those who don’t have the time to plow through fourteen titles:

1. Skopcal’s, Diminished Democracy.
2. Tocqueville’s, Democracy in America.
3. Payne’s I’ve Got the Light or Morriss’ The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement.
4. Howe’s What God Hath Wrought or Watson’s Liberty and Power. 
5. Bryan’s Real Democracy.

Other readers should feel free to post their own recommendations in the comments below!

Leave a Comment


So how much of your analysis do you think could be applied to other Western countries? Even though the conservation isn't so toxic elsewhere, I feel like if scratch the surface, you will find the same malaise. Consider Canada (even though it has no tradition of New England town halls): decades of local and municipal mergers in the name of efficiency has produced mega-cities and cities and stretch into the countryside. Even if it is more 'efficient', it does produce more distant 'local' government.

There has also been the slow decline of the legislature versus the executive. While this more 'institutional' in your analysis, it seems to me that the roots are in the factors you identify, the slow death of local self-government. With that slow decline, national political life becomes more centralized, towards national party headquarters who start to campaign. Note that this process has occurred in all Western countries.

Sam– Thanks for the recc!

Christopher– The book Sam recc's above makes the claim it is a pan-Western thing. I am less sure. The tradition of local self-government goes back 400 year sin America, and arguably centuries earlier in England. It does not seem to describe early modern France so well.

I am not familiar enough with early modern Germany, Italy, etc. to make intelligent comments on how they have fared over the centuries.

However, key to my argument is that this is more than a "government" thing. Civic society is also in decline in all the same places and at all the same levels. I do not know if the same process we see in America has replicated itself in Canada or Western Europe. Most of my focus in on America or on Asia, and I shan't pretend to know what I don't!

Good list. One book I would suggest you read, which was cited in America 3.0, Robert H. Weibe, Self-Rule: A Cultural History of American Democracy (1995). It covers the themes you discuss in this post.