Democracy   /   Spring 2000   /    From the Editor

Democracy’s Uncertain Future

Painting by Jeremy Wyatt Linzee (detail); courtesy of the artist.

It is easy to forget how unlikely democracy is in America. The cultural setting of the late eighteenth century was shaped by both an Enlightenment world view and a traditional, providentialist one. Though finding expression in complex ways, the evolving synthesis between the two formed a powerful normative framework for the ordering of public life for an expanding and increasingly diverse population.

From the vantage point of the early twenty-first century, we can now see how unusual and fortuitous this synthesis was. We can see this mainly because the cultural setting in which democratic life plays out today is so vastly different. The last half of the twentieth century has brought about a profound cultural transformation in which traditional moral understandings and institutional arrangements have been rather strained, to say the least. The cultural synthesis of two centuries ago has largely unraveled.

The nature of these changes are complex and their implications are wide-ranging. Neither are they very well understood.

Consider one small but important part of the present situation: how Americans relate to their government and those who govern. A few years back, the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture conducted a survey on the matter of American political culture and unearthed an interesting contradiction in American public opinion. On the one hand, Americans continue to maintain a certain high-mindedness about the political system they live within. Americans, on the whole, still share a sense of the nation’s noble legacy, its great achievements, and its yet unfulfilled promise. To be sure, there is considerable disagreement within the American public as to how we should understand this ideal and how we should pass this ideal on.

Nevertheless, a basic idealism about America and a commitment to work toward the realization of this ideal in public and political life undeniably exist. Even if it is somewhat romantic in character, Americans’ idealism remains strong.

On the other hand, American public opinion is marked by a deep pessimism about the future, a trenchant disaffection from the large scale political institutions that order collective life, and a barely restrained cynicism toward a national political leadership that symbolizes those failed institutions.

For example, the overwhelming majority of Americans see their nation as embodying and expanding the legacy of freedom but also believe that the federal government is run by incompetent people, that it wastes a lot of tax money, that the tax system is mostly unfair, and that the government is not capable of solving a problem it chooses to solve. So too, the majority of Americans confer extraordinarily high status upon their elected representatives but also believe that most politicians are more interested in winning elections than in doing what is right, that our national leaders are more concerned with managing their images than with solving our nation’s problems, and that the distinction between democratic discourse and stock Hollywood drama has disappeared.

Again and again, high-mindedness and cynicism co-exist; idealism and exasperation abide side by side. 

The source of this contradiction is not a simple matter of a failure of the political system to perform better. Rather, the problem seems to have certain structural antecedents. It is in large part a function of the size of political institutions and the mystifying bureaucratic complexity of law and public policy; the natural foibles and failures of their leaders, whose private lives are exposed by the unrelenting scrutiny of the national media; the lack of any authentic connection Americans feel to the institutions that govern them from Washington; the lack of any coherent public philosophy that might make sense of the social changes taking place in our society; and the limited capacity of the government to do anything about them.

Given the fact that the state is not likely to get smaller any time soon and its functions are not likely to become less alienating, the question is, how long can the cultural contradictions of American political life be sustained without cynicism overtaking hope—yielding to even deeper civic indifference on the one hand or incursions of anarchy on the other?

There are those who say that the system is self-sustaining; that the procedures, laws, regulations, and mechanisms of power can sustain the democratic experiment through these contradictions however intense they may become. They almost suggest that democracy can continue without the rational consent of the people and a publicly held philosophy—even if provisional—that grounds a commitment to liberty and justice. Perhaps so; it remains to be seen. But is it naive to imagine that the weakening of the normative ideals surrounding civic life will have little or no effect upon the operational consent people give to the state over the long term?

The tensions of political legitimation in public opinion are not the only tensions we see in contemporary American democracy. Social theorists and political philosophers have been writing for some time about the fragmentation of civic culture; the erosion of the moral foundations for citizenship; the political significance of new class divisions; the corrosive effects of the market on political representation; the expansive power of the courts; the erosion of normative ideals such as “justice,” “freedom,” and the “common good” into empty clichés; and the loss of legitimacy for key public institutions.

In this issue of The Hedgehog Review, our contributors continue this discussion by examining more closely the nature of the challenges to American democracy at the beginning of the twenty-first century and to inquire into its long-term viability. Is this Enlightenment-era institution sustainable in an increasingly “post-enlightenment” culture? If so, what might be the terms by which it could be made viable for the long-term?

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