Does American Democracy Still Work?

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Recent alarming changes in the nature of American democracy threaten such democratic values as respect for pluralism, the separation of powers, and the rights of opposition parties, warns Alan Wolfe. In this brilliant, non-partisan analysis he identifies the political conditions that endanger the quality of our democracy and calls for Americans to overcome their indifference.
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Editorial Reviews

Sanford Levinson
"Wolfe is the most interesting public intellectual in the country. His disturbing book provides rich food for thought about the future of our polity."—Sanford Levinson, University of Texas Law School
William Galston
"Alan Wolfe is an important scholar of American society as well as a major public intellectual. He is incapable of writing a dull or irrelevant book."—William Galston, Senior Fellow, Governance Studies Program, Brookings Institution
James T. Patterson
"Alan Wolfe has written a terse, highly critical book on the ways that American democracy works—and does not work. Above all, he urges that Americans become more politically engaged."—James T. Patterson, Brown University
Howard Gardner
"Alan Wolfe, always a keen analyst of the American scene, presents a compelling and often passionate account of how to restore genuine democracy in America."—Howard Gardner, author of Changing Minds
Rosa L. DeLauro
"Alan Wolfe, a committed democrat, with a small 'd,' has written a searing account of the state of American democracy. The growth of cultural populist politics and growing partisan polarization and unity has created an unaccountable government. He brings home the stakes in our elections; not just which party governs but whether we revive our liberal democracy."—U.S. Representative Rosa L. DeLauro
Thomas E. Mann
"A startling, devastating critique of contemporary American democracy from one of the country’s most measured and respected social and political thinkers.”—Thomas E. Mann, Brookings Institution
Martin Shefter
"Alan Wolfe argues that while the extent of American democracy has increased greatly, its quality has declined notably in recent decades. His book, Does American Democracy Still Work?, will be widely read, ardently debated, and highly influential."—Martin Shefter, Cornell University
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300126105
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 9/28/2007
  • Series: The Future of American Democracy Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Alan Wolfe is professor of political science and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, Boston College.

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Read an Excerpt

Does American Democracy Still Work?


Yale University Press

Copyright © 2006 Alan Wolfe
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-10859-0

Chapter One

The New Politics of Democracy

Struggles over American democracy were easier to understand in the nineteenth and twentieth century than they have become in the twenty-first. Then, privileged elites-would-be aristocrats in the North, slaveholders in the South, the wealthy everywhere-opposed democracy, and for the simplest of motivations: the more restricted the franchise, the greater the likelihood these elites would hold on to their unfairly gained advantages. For the same reason, if in reverse, groups marginalized by the priorities of their era-working people, women, racial minorities-wished democracy expanded to shift the benefits provided by government in their direction. In the old politics of democracy, the left spoke on behalf of the people, while the right tended to the business of the powerful. The differences between them were many, but they were mostly economic. Those who wanted to restrict the scope of politics, as E. E. Schattschneider pointed out in 1960, emphasized "individualism, free private enterprise, localism, privacy, and economy in government," while those intent on expanding it insisted on "equal protection of the laws, justice, liberty, freedom of movement, freedom of speechand association, and civil rights."

One can still find traces of the old politics of democracy in American life. Liberals frequently insist that America is not democratic enough: many convicted felons are denied the suffrage; difficulties in obtaining citizenship render numerous immigrants unable to vote on matters affecting their lives; too many Americans who have the right to vote fail to exercise it; voting machines, let alone supposedly nonpartisan state officials, do not always work, especially in minority communities; some states-including Georgia, which recently passed a law requiring a driver's license or its equivalent in order to vote-hark back to the days when voting was more of a privilege than a right; the U.S. Constitution guarantees disproportionate numbers of U.S. Senate seats to states with small populations; and the electoral college has chosen the popular-vote loser too many times for anyone's comfort. Clearly there is some justice in these claims; democratic institutions, for all their widespread appeal to contemporary Americans, rarely live up to the standard of one person, one vote.

In contrast to liberals, who traditionally have held to the conviction that more democracy is better democracy, the charge is sometimes launched by conservatives that America is too democratic for its own good; what is popular is not always what is right, they from time to time remind us, and a society that bases its most important decisions on what appeals to the lowest common denominator is likely to reach the wrong ones. For these traditionalists, democracy is inappropriate in any area of life, such as culture or religion, but it is especially wrong-headed in politics; in the extreme case, totalitarianism is not the opposite of democracy but the logical extension of populist instincts run wild. Conservative skeptics of democracy are unlikely to get much of a mass hearing for their claims; most media, including most forms of book publishing, appeal to the very popular taste that curmudgeons of this sort disdain. Still, no matter how democratic America's institutions have become, skepticism on the right end of the political spectrum has not completely disappeared.

For all the talk of expanding democracy on one side and curtailing it on the other, however, the old politics of democracy no longer inspires much passion. Hindering the left's case is the fact that democracy has gone about as far as it can go; now that nearly all adults have the right to vote, it is no longer possible to alter significantly today's political balance of power by trying to bring tomorrow's new groups of players into the contest. Any proposed changes to make the Constitution more democratic, moreover, run up against the resistance of small states, which would lose power; even as committed an enthusiast of democracy as Robert A. Dahl concedes his "measured pessimism" when it comes to formal reforms that would make the United States a more democratic society. Denying those who wish to vote their right to do so is reason for indignation, but such incidents, even in today's highly polarized electoral climate, are more the exception than the rule. It can hardly be a coincidence that the left so often comes across as tired and defensive; it threw so much of its energy into gaining the right to vote that it does not know where to turn once the vote has been gained.

Conservatives, as it happens, no longer speak in the old language of democracy either. In sharp contrast to their previous skepticism toward the masses, conservatives today are engaged in a love fest of praise for ordinary people. For this, they can hardly be blamed; there are-and for some time have been-more conservatives than liberals in America, and even if it is also true that there are more moderates than both of them, the right-leaning political instincts of the American public constitute a brute fact that American liberals, perhaps for understandable reasons, have been reluctant to accept. American conservatives are not happy campers: looking out on the society in which they live, they see decadence all around them and, quick to identify themselves as victims, they claim, with greater and greater implausibility, that liberals still run the United States of America. But on the issue of democracy, the state of American public opinion offers them undeniable advantages; American political history and culture are rich in democratic rhetoric, and the side that appeals convincingly to ordinary people will always have an advantage compared with the side that appeals to elites, tradition, leadership, habit, deference, restraint, rules, judges, or wisdom. Why, if you are a contemporary conservative, bite the hand that feeds you? Expanding the scope of the electorate once seemed a threat to your interests; now it seems the perfect way to get what you want.

The United States, in short, has entered into a new politics of democracy. Two features make the new politics of democracy different from earlier struggles over the extension of the franchise or debates over the purposes and reach of government. The first is that the major divisions between left and right are not over economics but, as the frequently used term "culture war" implies, over moral and religious issues. The second is that the side that wins-most frequently in contemporary politics, the right side-is the one that best frames its appeals in the language of populism.

Neither moralism nor populism is new in American public life; if anything, both of them have been prominent features of American politics since the nineteenth century. The Civil War was, in large part, a bitter conflict over moral values framed, on both sides, by the language of religion. Late-nineteenth-century politics not only featured a Populist Party but was dominated by the three presidential campaigns of William Jennings Bryan, who defined the very meaning of populism. Yet moralism and populism, at least until very recently, rarely worked together. At the time of the Civil War, the majority of Americans did not have the right to vote (one reason the war was fought in the first place), placing severe limits on how populistic the crusades around it could be. And Bryan's populist presidential campaigns, which took the form of crusades, were primarily concerned with economic issues, such as the free coinage of silver and the tariff. Only with the arrival of the culture war in the 1970s-accompanied by such democratizing features of American life as the increasing sophistication of polling and the spread of cable television-did moralism and populism work together to transform the very character of American democracy.

Both features of the new politics of democracy were, at least at first, fueled by the energies of the political left. This was certainly true of the culture war. Roe v. Wade (1973) or the U.S. Senate's rejection of Robert Bork (1987) is often cited as the moment at which the culture war began; both events symbolized the willingness of the left to put moral issues front and center in American public attention. For numerous liberal political activists, the culture war was equivalent to a good business plan; they could raise money and energize supporters by proclaiming their steadfast devotion to a woman's right to choose or their equally steadfast opposition to a theocracy led by a Jerry Falwell or a Pat Robertson. To this day, a preference persists on the left for culture war politics; the moment a Republican president nominates a conservative judge-especially one such as Samuel Alito, who, during his confirmation hearings for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, refused to concede that Roe v. Wade was settled law-liberal groups swing into determined opposition.

In the longer run, however, the culture war turned out to be a gift to the right. Even though public opinion is frequently not as hostile to a woman's right to choose as those on the right convince themselves, conservatives are far more likely to win elections by emphasizing their religious faith and strong sense of right and wrong than they are by insisting on their relatively unpopular budgetary nostrums, such as increasing spending on Arctic oil drilling while reducing it for first responders. It was, after all, not only Democrats who brought up the subject of abortion during the hearings to confirm Samuel Alito; Republican Senators such as Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Sam Brownback of Kansas did so as well, and truth be told, in their opposition to Roe v. Wade they showed far more passion than did Democrats, whose support for a woman's right to choose, especially in comparison with the Bork hearings a decade and a half earlier, seemed not only less demagogic but more perfunctory.

The passion of Senators Coburn and Brownback reflects a political reality in which Republicans have taken the lead in talking about stem cells, God, and the culture of life, while Democrats want politics to focus on such policy-wonkish issues as the minimum wage or global warming. Especially on Fox News, the television station most closely guided by conservative talking points, liberals are routinely portrayed as out to destroy Christmas, keep God out of the schools and off the coins, and wield the club of political correctness to deny conservatives their rights to free speech. Even foreign policy issues are treated by Republicans in culture war terms; instead of speaking as a realist in the aftermath of September 11, President Bush presented global conflict as a struggle between good and evil. And as befits a foreign policy steeped in moral language, he relied extensively on the emotion of fear to justify programs, such as unauthorized wiretapping or extensive executive power, that might otherwise be viewed as violations of civil liberty or attacks on the principle of separation of powers.

Such culture war appeals do not always work to the benefit of Republicans and conservatives. Despite the right's effort to rally the country around the cause of Terri Schiavo, a brain-dead Florida woman, few Americans seemed interested in transforming her tragic situation into a political football. No moral crusading, moreover, whether involving the right to life in domestic politics or the evils of terrorism in foreign policy, helped Mr. Bush as his popularity waned in his second term. Still, even if increasingly ineffective, culture war issues are unlikely to disappear so long as Republicans rely on their conservative Christian base to win elections, a reliance that shows no sign of receding.

The second distinguishing characteristic of the new politics of democracy, the reliance on the rhetoric and techniques of populism, also originally appealed to the left before being adopted by the right. Certainly few presidents have been as sensitive to the realities of polling, and the need to fashion policies to accord with what polling reveals about public opinion, than Bill Clinton. And he is by no means alone; future Democratic candidates will surely seek ways to frame issues by trying to make them more acceptable to the public; indeed, "framing" has become a buzzword attached to liberals as they seek to recover some of the political popularity they have lost. In this they have at least one advantage: Republicans and conservatives frequently manifest an undemocratic side by maintaining strong ties to corporate interests, by asserting that there exists a "unitary executive" with the authority to ignore legislation duly passed by Congress, and by insisting to an unusual degree upon secrecy in government. Americans are not exactly thrilled by the elitist side of Republican policies, and when that party responds to big business with unstinting largesse, it enables Democrats to claim, at least in economic terms, the populistic language that Republicans ignore.

Yet one of the most marked features of recent American politics is the extent to which populist language and tactics have worked to benefit the right. Reversing two hundred years of political rhetoric, liberals are denounced by conservatives as members of a privileged class, aristocratic in their tastes, contemptuous of the choices of ordinary people, determined to protect their effete lifestyles at all costs, and committed to obtaining their unpopular (and unworkable) objectives through the most undemocratic means available, while conservatives-or so the story continues-speak to the heartfelt convictions of ordinary people for a return to traditional morality, strong and stable families, and God-fearing American patriotism. In the new politics of democracy, even Straussian political philosophers, long known as unabashed elitists, call for democracy in far away places such as Iraq. So widespread is this populist reflex that it has been adopted by the most undemocratic institution in the modern world; John L. Allen, a keen observer of the Vatican, has written of the degree to which then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, "sees himself not as an inquisitor but as a tribune, protecting ordinary Catholics from intellectual abuse by self-appointed elites."

No wonder that George W. Bush, for all his talk of ignoring polls, was as relentless in following public opinion, and in allowing himself to be guided by it, as Bill Clinton. Republicans may be elitist when it comes to rewarding their privileged constituencies or protecting the powers of the president, but when the focus is on emotional and moral issues, whether the subject involves crime, religion, or national security, they are as populistic in their language as any nineteenth-century advocate for free silver. Republicans were able to gain control over all three branches of government in the early years of the twenty-first century for a reason; they became the more popular party because they became the more populistic party. For conservatives these days, democratic sentiment has become the ultimate trump card for a political ideology that originated as a check on democratic sentiment.


Excerpted from Does American Democracy Still Work? by ALAN WOLFE Copyright © 2006 by Alan Wolfe. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 The new politics of democracy 1
2 Democracy without information 24
3 Democracy without accountability 50
4 Democracy without institutions 75
5 Democracy without disinterest 106
6 Democracy without justice 137
7 The rise of conservative democracy 166
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