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The Democratic Imagination in America: Conversations with Our Past

The Democratic Imagination in America: Conversations with Our Past

by Russell L. Hanson

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Russell Hanson discovers in the history of democratic rhetoric in the United States a series of 'essential contests' over the meaning of democracy that have occurred in periods of political and socio-economic change. These contests were struggles for control of an extremely important political symbol and for the right to praise or condemn existing political practices


Russell Hanson discovers in the history of democratic rhetoric in the United States a series of 'essential contests' over the meaning of democracy that have occurred in periods of political and socio-economic change. These contests were struggles for control of an extremely important political symbol and for the right to praise or condemn existing political practices as democratic or undemocratic.

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Princeton University Press
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Princeton Legacy Library Series
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5.95(w) x 8.86(h) x 1.19(d)

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The Democratic Imagination in America

Conversations with Our Past

By Russell L. Hanson


Copyright © 1985 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-07690-4


The Rhetoric of Democracy


In order to determine whether or not liberal democracy is still a viable tradition in the United States, we need to know what the appropriate vital signs are, and where to look for them. Both needs may be satisfied if we construe liberal democracy as a rhetorical tradition, the progress or decline of which is reflected in political arguments about the meaning of liberal democracy. This will allow us to gain some perspective on the current crisis of democracy, which is but the most recent expression of this tradition, and on the likely outcome of this crisis.

To speak of liberal democracy as a rhetorical tradition may seem a bit odd. We are more inclined to think of it as a philosophical or perhaps ideological tradition on the one hand, or a specific set of institutional arrangements on the other. However, that way of construing it has the singular disadvantage of reducing liberal democracy to a set of ideas that seem to exist apart from or independently of the political institutions and practices they inform. Against this tendency MacIntyre (1981, 58) is surely right to argue that a unified history of ideas and practices is needed, since there are not two pasts, one populated by ideas, the other by institutions and actions. The fact that ideas about democracy are at least partially constitutive of what are called democratic practices means that a democratic tradition must be viewed as a unity of ideas and practices unfolding in relation to one another, and not as an abstract philosophical system moving through history. For that reason it seems especially appropriate to concentrate on rhetoric when analyzing the vitality of the liberal democratic tradition, since it is in rhetoric that the relationship between liberal democratic ideals and practices is most clearly revealed. Ideas about liberal democracy find practical expression in the course of arguments over the desirability of particular institutions and practices. Similarly, the beliefs that inform and constitute liberal democratic institutions are made explicit during the course of debates over their standing within particular political communities. Hence, the conceptual link between ideas about liberal democracy and the political practices implied by them is forged in political rhetoric.

A tradition of liberal democratic rhetoric exists insofar as the rhetoric of one generation of members in a historical political community is related in some way to the rhetoric of other generations. This rhetorical continuity across generations is not simply a matter of shared ideas or institutions, however. To define the unity of a rhetorical tradition in this way would only recapitulate the sort of historiography of which MacIntyre is rightly critical. Rather, we need to think of "tradition" in a way that allows the particularity and uniqueness of the rhetorical linkages between the theory and practice of each and every generation to be visible, while preserving an intelligible continuity between them. We need a "tradition" based on family resemblances, to use Wittgenstein's analogy, not ideological or institutional identities.

Once again MacIntyre is quite helpful in this regard, for he suggests that a tradition "is an historically extended, socially embodied argument, and an argument precisely in part about the goods which constitute that tradition" (1981, 207). That is, vital traditions embody continuities of conflict over the meaning of the central ideas in those traditions and the proper institutional and practical forms constituted by them. By implication, a rhetorical tradition of liberal democracy is an historically extended argument over the practical meaning of "liberal democracy." The generational continuity of which I spoke earlier is one of shared contestation over the meaning of liberal democracy. That continuity is therefore rhetorical in a double sense: it is expressed in rhetoric, and by means of rhetorical arguments for and against particular interpretations and instantiations of liberal democracy.

We can sometimes see this continuity in arguments and argumentative styles when we compare different moments in the history of a tradition. This is especially true when rhetoricians of one period self-consciously borrow the arguments of their political ancestors. Many political traditions originate in the experience of founding a polity, and so it is not unusual to see later generations return to that founding for inspiration and guidance during times of crisis. For that reason, particular arguments and claims are passed down from generation to generation and seem to exemplify the continuity of the tradition in which they exist.

However, this continuity is superficial; it is possible to speak of continuous traditions even in the absence of any such similarity in the content of different generations' rhetoric. That is because the underlying unity of tradition consists of a common discursive activity. It is a common action that binds generations to one another and identifies them as different moments in the same political tradition. The specific arguments that are the product of this activity may or may not show signs of continuity. They are incidental to the activity itself, and it is the activity that constitutes a tradition.

In the case of the liberal democratic tradition, this is a problem-solving activity. It centers on establishing a practical relationship between liberalism and democracy. As we have seen, this relationship is problematic; no natural or logical connection between the two exists. Otherwise there would be no need to argue about potential solutions and there would be no liberal democratic tradition, as that is understood here, since no power talk or argument about the meaning of liberal democracy would be necessary.

The accommodation of liberal and democratic principles must be achieved at a concrete level. Even though no general resolution exists, particular interpretations of liberal democracy, i.e. particular resolutions of the tension between liberalism and democracy, may be appropriate in particular communities at particular times. Indeed, the arguments over the meaning of liberal democracy that constitute the liberal democratic tradition are arguments conducted in communities as they seek to understand the practical meaning of liberal democracy as it applies to them and their situation.

The connection between the moments that compose a tradition is therefore a practical one. Each moment represents an argument over the meaning of liberal democracy appropriate to that moment. It is this common effort to establish the problematic meaning of liberal democracy that constitutes the family resemblance that runs through each and every generation in a political tradition.

Thus, what Collingwood (1939, 62) said of the history of political theory may also be said of historical traditions: They do not consist of different answers given at different times to one and the same question. Rather they represent efforts to solve a problem that is more or less constantly changing, as are the solutions to it. Rhetorical traditions such as liberal democracy are always being constituted and reconstituted in the process of political argumentation. They depend for their existence on more or less continuous disputation (which does not, of course, rule out the possibility that some disputes are historically more important than others). Any assessment of the present and future viability of liberal democracy must therefore inquire into the origins of rhetorical conflict over the meaning of liberal democracy in order to determine whether or not this tradition is or can be a "live" one.


Arguments over the proper relationship between liberal and democratic principles as they apply to particular circumstances are essentially debates about the meaning of liberal democracy for historically situated political communities. They are efforts by those communities to resolve something that is problematic, but which must be settled, at least provisionally, in order for politics to proceed.

These arguments over the meaning of liberal democracy may take place on more than one level. For instance, they may focus on whether or not certain policies or practices are consistent with liberal democracy. Such disputes usually proceed within fairly well-established and widely recognized rules of argumentation, and so their resolution is reasonably straightforward. The various arguments are made and weighed according to prevailing norms of argumentation, and a decision is reached that settles the issue.

Other arguments, however, may focus on the way in which arguments are conducted and resolved. These are just as much arguments over the meaning of liberal democracy as those previously mentioned, since liberal democratic power talk is as much distinguished by the ways in which arguments are settled as it is by specific arguments about the proper relationship between liberalism and democracy. Indeed, it may even be true that these argumentative practices are actually what distinguish liberal democracy from other forms of power talk, insofar as they constitute the specific identity of this way of talking about power in society.

The liberal democratic commitment to the "consent of the governed" is especially important in this connection, for it is this ideal that informs all liberal democratic discourse insofar as it is liberal democratic discourse. This commitment specifies the basic rule of all liberal democratic argumentation, namely, that legitimate decisions must be the result of a discussion in which participants reach an agreement that is freely given. Differences are therefore resolved by persuasive, rather than coercive, means, so that arguments are fairly concluded — from which it may be inferred that the governed have given their consent to the actions implied in the resolution of an issue.

In principle, the consent of the governed implies that a rule of unanimity prevails in political discourse. Arguments do not end until all parties have agreed to end them, and so have given their consent to a settlement. In practice, of course, procedures like majority rule, in various forms, are invoked to close debate before unanimous agreement has been secured. Such practices may be necessary, since actions may have to be made before unanimity prevails, especially in cases where unanimity is unlikely to be achieved. However, the legitimacy of these practices depends on the extent to which they resemble the rule of unanimity: majority rule is preferred to, say, minority rule, as a way of closing debate because it more closely approximates the rule of unanimity, especially if provisions for extraordinary or concurrent majorities are included.

Even this example shows, however, that the argumentative practices that constitute liberal democratic discourse, and identify it as liberal democratic discourse, may become a matter of dispute, and properly so. Commitments to principles like the "consent of the governed" require interpretation in order to have practical application in specific situations, and for that reason arguments over the meaning of the "consent of the governed" often arise and are perhaps unavoidable. Hence, disagreements over the justifiability of majority rule, and on the need for special majorities on certain issues that are considered fundamental in some way, are to be expected.

Disputes over the practices that govern argumentation seldom arise on their own. They usually grow out of lower-order disagreements over the compatibility of certain policies or actions with liberal democracy. These disputes often begin amidst a consensus on the rules of the game, but, where the issues are highly significant and the stakes of the game are substantial, they may escalate to arguments over the rules for deciding the issues themselves. The chapters that follow provide numerous examples of this phenomenon of argumentative contagion, in which "small" disputes over the meaning of liberal democracy become full-fledged debates about the meaning of liberal democracy, in which the constitutive principles of argumentation are at issue.

Such generalized arguments are especially important in the historical development of traditions like liberal democracy, because their outcomes often change the course of argumentation in fundamental ways. By changing the way in which arguments are decided, these disputes profoundly influence the types of arguments that may be presented and, most importantly, the types of arguments that may be successfully presented. Indeed, that is why the practices that govern arguments themselves become the object of disputation. The fundamental identity of liberal democratic power talk is at stake, and the struggle to control or define that identity by stipulating the meaning of liberal democracy is what animates these debates.

For that reason, these disputes may be called "essential contests," and I now turn to a discussion of their key features.


Because liberal democracy is a rhetorical tradition, its vitality depends on the persistence of disputes and arguments over the meaning of liberal democracy for particular communities at particular times in their history. Within that tradition, it would seem that liberal democracy is an "essentially contested concept," a phrase introduced by W. B. Gallie (1955–1956) to describe concepts the proper use and meaning of which are the subject of considerable disagreement. According to Gallie, an essentially contested concept like democracy is used quite differently by various groups of people to describe particular political practices. Moreover, each group, while recognizing the existence of competing usages, insists that its particular way of using democracy is the correct use of the term. And each group offers what it takes to be convincing arguments, evidence, or other forms of justification in defense of this claim (ibid., 168).

What sets essential contests apart from other linguistic squabbles, however, is the fact that each group's arguments on behalf of its usage of democracy have merit. Indeed, it may even be said that the various groups' arguments have more or less equal merit, and that no group's usage of democracy is self-evidently superior to any other group's usage. This is because no general principle for evaluating the usages of an essentially contested concept exists. Essentially contested concepts have a uniquely "open" texture that invites conflicting usages and claims. They are distinguished from other concepts by the fact that they involve the partisan application of multiple criteria, the relative importance of which is unsettled and open to dispute, in the appraisal or evaluation of complex achievements. Since various groups may attach different significance to the criteria involved, it is possible, even likely, that they will arrive at different conclusions regarding the praiseworthiness of a given accomplishment.

Gallie insists that such contests are sustained by rational arguments, even though they do not admit of rational resolution. They do not, in other words, reflect mistaken or confused uses by some participants in the contest. If they did, the dispute presumably could be resolved by showing what the "real" or "true" meaning of democracy is. However, such efforts would only expand the contest, according to Gallie, for there is no universally agreed-upon usage of democracy, nor can there be one.

Neither do the various uses in an essential contest over the meaning of democracy reflect incommensurable interpretations, according to Gallie, for that would imply that such disputes were not even sustained by rational arguments. In the absence of any common ground the contestants would not really be arguing about the same thing at all, and the "dispute" would in fact consist of a misunderstanding rather than an essential contest, as described by Gallie.

John Gray (1977) suggests that essentially contested concepts are themselves symptomatic of more encompassing differences of opinion in society. According to Gray, "essentially contested concepts find their characteristic uses within conceptual frameworks which have endorsement functions in respect of definite forms of social life" (ibid., 332). Hence, the use of essentially contested concepts typically "involves assent to definite uses of a whole range of contextually related concepts of a no less contestable character" (ibid., 332). Since this combination of usages generally coheres around worldviews connected with specific forms of life, Gray conjectures that "essentially contested concepts occur characteristically in social contexts which are recognizably those of an ideological dispute" (ibid., 333).


Excerpted from The Democratic Imagination in America by Russell L. Hanson. Copyright © 1985 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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