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Democratic Faith (New Forum Books)
Democratic Faith (New Forum Books)
Patrick Deneen
Princeton University Press, 2005
392 pp., $78.50

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Reviewed by Eric Miller


Democracy Agonistes

Good reading for the week of Super Tuesday.

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Little more than two centuries on, we find ourselves bound up in a "system of government that we now call democracy" but that is in reality "rife with apathy, cynicism, corruption, inattention, and dominated by massive yet nearly unperceivable powers that belie claims of popular control." In this moment the democratic faithful, having put their faith in a system and structure that can't possibly bear its weight, tilt between the poles of millenarian hope and apocalyptic despair, as "the people," stiff–necked as ever, can't seem to fulfill their promise—democracy's promise. What's a democrat to do?

The whole point of faith is to enlighten, but "democratic faith" diminishes sight. Tested where all faiths are tested, in history's unsparing crucible, it has proven unable to grasp our disabled condition and so is powerless to provide the succor we need. Deneen traces these failings to its roots in "Pelagian dualism, Gnostic optimism, and humanistic messianism," and in the book's last section seeks to present not the final damnation of democracy but a way to salvage it.

He calls it, simply enough, "democratic realism." It's a realism that denies the hope for perfectibility the democratic faithful, in their quest to transcend this world, are so tempted by. It's a realism that begins with the premise—resonant with the one Alasdair MacIntyre powerfully advances in Rationally Dependent Animals—that to be human is to be weak, to be dependent, and to suffer. On this view, we turn to democracy not because of the grand social prospects such governance holds but because it is the form of government "imperfect humans" require, people "who must, by dint of their equal insufficiency and the permanency of need, inhabit, and govern together, cities of men."

In propounding this stance Deneen undertakes a close, critical reading of texts and figures in the "realist" lineage, ranging from ancient Greece to contemporary America and including surprises like Plato as well as stalwarts like Tocqueville. The presence of the late American social critic Christopher Lasch as one of his heroes should serve notice that Deneen, unlike many of today's political conservatives, is using a classically Christian anthropology to call into question—rather than bless—the political economy of late capitalism. Lasch's fiercely insistent claim that corporate capitalism and democracy are at odds held firm throughout his life. In line with Jefferson, Chesterton, Roepke, and others whose experience of the modern world turned them into decentralists, Lasch judged massive concentrations of power, whether political or economic, to be at odds with, as Deneen nicely puts it, "the local ecology in which democratic life flourishes": the small economies, thick kinship ties, meaningful work, and common submission that help to form "independent yet engaged citizens," folk dedicated to creating and preserving what Lasch simply called "a decent society."

We are far today from this achievement, a fact that leads Deneen to end the book with a call to democrats of all orientations to a season of humble introspection. With our departure from older faiths, our way of living in this world has gone unchecked by the humility of mind and purpose that traditional religions seek to nurture. Unchastened by encounter with that which transcends us, we have ended up being overtaken by our own brand of religious hubris, woefully ill–equipped to forge the kinds of communities that are possible—and that, indeed, our condition demands. What we all need, Deneen implies, is not the absence of faith but a better faith, one that clarifies vision, forges better ties, forces a different reading of our past, and takes us down, down, into the depths of who we, as Americans, as Westerners, and as human beings are.

And so you find yourself winding down a long staircase that takes you into the very heart of this, our strange and restless modern world. The deeper you go, the more clearly you see that power is not at its center after all, but rather a persisting yearning for faith, for an elusive common faith: it is this that has been calling this people, your people, into being, age–in, age–out.

Finally you step off of the last stair, and someone's already there, awaiting your arrival. It is St. Augustine, gentle priest of our wayward city. He rises to offer directions to another city. But before you move on he leans toward you. "Now abide faith, hope, and love," he whispers.

You know what comes next.

Eric Miller is associate professor of history at Geneva College.

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