The Meaning of Cities   /   Summer 2017   /    Book Reviews

Democracy and the Passions

Jeffrey Guhin

The County Election (detail), 1882, engraving by John Sartain (1808–1897) after George Caleb Bingham (1811–1879); courtesy Reynolda House Museum of American Art, affiliated with Wake Forest University.

In his 1998 book The Virtues of Liberalism, historian James Kloppenberg argued that “beneath our democratic procedures…lie deeper commitments to substantive values that justify and sustain our laws and institutions, and to virtues that are immanent in the principles—if too often betrayed in the practice—of liberalism.” In his new book, Toward Democracy, Kloppenberg returns to this subject with a sweeping account that begins with Montaigne’s castle in France and ends three centuries later during the American Civil War.

This time, however, Kloppenberg is striking a more somber note. “Democracy,” he writes in his introduction, “depends on cultural resources that the struggle to achieve democracy can erode.” Yet that is not all, because “the successful creation of self-government unleashes forces that can endanger the sensibilities it requires.” Democracy requires deliberation, pluralism, and reciprocity so that popular sovereignty, autonomy, and equality can flourish. This is “the tragic irony of democracy”: a recurrent tendency to release passions unrelated to virtue, recreating hierarchies and dependencies even as our lives become ever more ostensibly equal.

Even virtues that we continue to celebrate become something different over time. Consider the lesson of the famous marshmallow experiments. Led by psychologist Walter Mischel, then at Stanford, the studies used marshmallows to test whether children could defer gratification; those who resisted eating the marshmallow would be given a reward. Mischel found that delaying gratification as a child correlates positively with later life outcomes such as healthier weight, higher IQ, and a better ability to cope with setbacks.

The kind of restraint tested by Mischel was once thought of as a social rather than individual good. In different ways, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, and Norbert Elias all argued that such self-restraint was the origin of civilization itself: We have to control our passions in order to be able to participate meaningfully in a society; indeed, society itself won’t work unless we do. Mischel’s research rephrased this in terms of interests: If you only do what you want to do right now, you won’t be able to do what you really want to do later on. That’s a kind of restraint, but a very different kind from the ones early theorists of democracy described.

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