Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content
Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought
Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought
James T. Kloppenberg
Oxford University Press, 2016
912 pp., 37.99

Buy Now

Bruce Kuklick

Quasi-Divine Democracy

Leveraging the transient into the eternal.

This book first surveys the trials and successes of democratic thought and politics from the Greco-Roman era to the medieval and early modern world. Next, at a much slower pace, it examines 17th-century England and its North American colonies, and the revolutions of the colonies and of France. Kloppenberg follows with an evaluation of democracy in early 19th-century Europe and the United States. Although the coverage is full, he focuses on the US and concludes with an exploration of the American Civil War and its aftermath.

Much of the volume (which includes more than 100 pages of end notes) densely summarizes mountainous scholarly literatures that themselves are rife with competing interpretations. Available online are an additional two to three hundred pages of apparatus about incompatible academic analyses. Yet the author suggests some striking over-arching causal arguments. Civil war—in England, in France, and in the United States—retarded impulses to democratic rule and devastated the hopes of democracy's proponents. The democratic revolution in 18th-century North America propelled that in France, and the failure of the French Revolution arrested democratic developments in Europe. The author accounts for the different outcomes in the new United States and radical France: the liberal religious feeling in America contrasted with a French sensibility divided between extreme secularists and rigid Roman Catholics. And the disastrous outcome in France transformed America and led to the rise of a racially compromised democracy in the United States from the 1820s to the 1850s.

Kloppenberg tells us that he rejects any enduring idea of democracy, and any "transhistorical standard" by which we could appraise thinkers or societies. In making his way through the thickets of erudition, he regularly asserts that he is simply charting the course of some problematic and ever transmuting inclinations. Kloppenberg would avoid anachronism, and warns about "imputing our own values" to predecessors. These wise methodological truisms are repeated throughout the text. Nevertheless, the author writes that at issue in the varying debates about democracy over the millennia are three (transhistorical) tension-laden principles; three (transhistorical) underlying premises; and two vaguer (transhistorical) "aspects" of culture concerning sacred and ethical loyalties. This intellectual structure of eight items provides "only a conceptual framework" for the history.

Parsing the author's odd elucidations of political terminology explains only a small part of his infuriating ability to say one thing and do the opposite for hundreds and hundreds of pages.

The employment of this elaborate conceptual framework still makes it seem as if a transcendent purpose is working its way through Western Civilization. Kloppenberg advises us that at various times the "thrust" and "potential" of democracy have been "deferred," and that events have "obscured … democratic potential." Democracy can "advance" or "not advance"; progress has been "postponed"; at least twice democracy has "stalled." At one point, only a "flickering hope" for its victory existed, and at another point it failed "to redeem its promise." War, as we have seen, is an "obstacle" that has "forestalled" democracy.

Claims about democracy can be "hyperbolic," but Kloppenberg chiefly distinguishes between good and bad variants of this kind of public authority. Here the foremost example, the "herrenvolk" democracy of the Jacksonians in the United States, is juxtaposed to the disavowal of such "volkish" notions by Abraham Lincoln. The president embraced all the principles, premises, and loyalties of Kloppenberg's conceptual framework; Lincoln's opponents, descending from Andrew Jackson, did not, although they "still consider/ed/ themselves democrats." Politicians like Stephen A. Douglas were devoted to one wellspring of democracy "without understanding that it rests on other principles." Thus, says Kloppenberg, Douglas "betrayed the core principles of American democracy properly understood."

In recurrently making judgements about who is correct and who is wrong, and so about who is authentically promoting democracy, the author favors Lincoln above all others. Not only was the president right about democracy. Lincoln also articulated a faith in an organic people's government that he dreamt might be realized in some timeless realm. At Gettysburg, Lincoln pledged himself to reaching for what might be temporally unobtainable. In fact, at the end of the book, Kloppenberg reports that the Civil War did disorder the indefinite march to the promised land for 150 years, and he worries about the ever unfinished future of democracy. The thesis of Toward Democracy concerns the providential process that takes the polis to the kingdom of god on earth—Toward Democracy.

The quasi-divine is patent and ever-present in this sprawling endeavor. Why does Kloppenberg, in his many rhetorical rejections of an essential democracy, repudiate the platonic emphases that give the book its title? They reflect his own commitments to a progressive democratic rule that evinces the aura, as he twice puts it, of "Judeo-Christianity." This formulation of 20th-century mainstream politicians and pundits best evidences how the author has leveraged the transient into the eternal. Kloppenberg cannot see the difference between past reality and his own politically correct and spiritually infused opinions of today.

I have puzzled, in my mixture of envy and dismay, at how Kloppenberg achieves his effect, both in the book and in his own head. Part of the solution to the puzzle lies in how he shoves words in directions that support his vision. I would call this a sleight-of-hand, except for the fact that the author himself does not seem to have grasped that some of his significant political usages are off the mark. Of course, the handling of democracy stands out.

In addition to Kloppenberg's acceptance of a complex eight-factor definition against which actual democracies are tested, the author more than once relates to the reader that no difference in meaning can be discerned between "democracy" and "republic." This supposition has special relevance to the late 18th century in the British colonies. Kloppenberg chastises other students for amalgamating the two notions, despite calling attention several times to dissimilarities in the patterns of employment of the two concepts. Obvious critical differences in meaning can be found. Kloppenberg resists this conclusion; he is determined to have a single story that goes from the Greeks to the contemporary world. A republic in the United States in the crucial period from 1789 to 1824 would destroy the integrity of that telos.

We find other peculiar configurations in his language. The inhabitants of the various coastal colonies are usually characterized as practicing "Christian" virtues, despite their fear and hatred for Catholics. The Euro-Americans were overwhelmingly Protestant sectarians who loathed the Church of Rome, and their doctrinalism self-consciously ruled out papists. Kloppenberg knows the theological views of the English settlers, but he wants us to see that really, in some way, they were generously and ecumenically Christian.

He persistently writes about the new nation and its nationalism, when the United States were a confederation in the decade before the Constitutional Convention. The United States indeed were plural until the Civil War, and people identified with their state or even locality. Nonetheless, even in the 1780s Kloppenberg has "the Americans" unified. With the events of 1787, for him, we get at once a national government and not the federal one that gave so much leeway to the individual states. He discusses over and over the Constitution's preamble, "We the People," to intimate where the locus of power was, but neglects entirely the connecting phrase "of the United States …"

Nevertheless, parsing the author's odd elucidations of political terminology explains only a small part of his infuriating ability to say one thing and do the opposite for hundreds and hundreds of pages. The man has the courage of his confusions.

In Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, Alice has an instructive conversation with a large talking egg before it falls to the ground and cracks up:

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master—that's all."

Bruce Kuklick is most recently the author of The Fighting Sullivans: How Hollywood and the Military Create Heroes, just published by the University Press of Kansas; he is Nichols Professor of American History, Emeritus, at the University of Pennsylvania.

Most ReadMost Shared