Book review of Two Cheers for Politics: Why Democracy is Flawed, Frightening — and Our Best Hope by Jedediah Purdy

It would be far better if democracy did not face the trials it currently confronts. But if there is a blessing in today’s distemper, it lies in renewed efforts to understand what democracy is, how it can thrive and — to paraphrase the title of a justly famous recent book — how it dies.

Urgent moral and intellectual inquiry into democracy’s fragility has replaced a complacency that took hold after the Soviet Union’s collapse. That triumphalism could easily blind comfortable citizens to the ways in which their institutions were less democratic than they thought they were, less inclusive and less stable. The resurgence of authoritarian movements in what seemed to be solidly democratic nations and the deepening repression in China have wiped away any smugness.

One of the merits of Jedediah Purdy’s “Two Cheers for Politics is that he does not take democracy for granted. He knows it needs new forms of defense, and he challenges the political structures we once thought were working just fine.

The subtitle of this thoughtful philosophical ramble, “Why Democracy Is Flawed, Frightening — and Our Best Hope,” reflects Purdy’s awareness that many who offer rote defenses of democratic systems are in fact skeptical of how they work and often fear what would happen if majorities they mistrust won power through democratic means.

A communitarian progressive and a professor at Columbia Law School, Purdy combines hard-edged critiques of inequality with a warm tone of hope and a longing for a degree of trust across our barricades of suspicion.

What he’s calling for amounts to a new ecology of democracy. If we require clean air and clean water to preserve life, we need a degree of social solidarity, trust and genuine equality to save democracy.

“What does it mean to put democracy first?” Purdy asks early on. “It means asking whether our culture, our economy, and our politics help us to see one another as equals who can rule together. It means recognizing how culture, economy, and politics can undercut both democratic equality and the civic trust people need if they are to rule together.”

Yes, ruling together is the point. This means, as Purdy shows with a tour through political philosophy and political science from Hobbes and Rousseau to Robert Dahl and Samuel Huntington, that democratic citizens are simultaneously the rulers and the ruled. This is not an easy thing to pull off.

In principle, at least, democracy allows us — collectively — to shape our own fate. But we agree to live with the results of democratic elections even when our side, our ideas and our interests lose out, knowing we might prevail in the future.

It is good to have an academic critic of our system lift up mass elections as a plausible and fair way to govern ourselves by collecting our preferences on a regular basis. “Whatever moves toward universal voting,” he writes, “moves closer to democracy.”

And this, I think, explains why Purdy puts politics in his title and democracy in the subtitle: You can’t really believe in democracy unless you believe in politics.

His book thus invites comparison with the British political theorist Bernard Crick’s 1962 classic, “In Defense of Politics.” Crick’s formulation — that politics is at once conservative, liberal and socialist — is very much in keeping with Purdy’s argument. Both writers offer a perspective from the democratic left that nonetheless respects certain conservative dispositions and aspirations.

In Crick’s view, politics is conservative because it “preserves the minimum benefits of established order”; liberal, “because it is compounded of particular liberties and requires tolerance”; and socialist, because “it provides conditions for deliberate social change by which groups can feel they have an equitable stake in the prosperity and survival of the community.”

Equity and social change are especially important to Purdy, and some of the book’s sharpest criticisms are directed at libertarian hero Friedrich Hayek’s argument that state intervention in the marketplace should be sharply circumscribed.

Hayek, Purdy argues, highlights the need to curb the power of the state but does so in a way that pays no attention to the dangers of concentrated economic power. Purdy writes that Hayek “proposed to redefine democracy as public consent to a set of rules that would encase the market’s ostensibly neutral procedures from state intervention.”

This, Purdy insists, is “a specifically antipolitical agenda, one that used both the institutions of the state and the public philosophy of government to minimize the scope of legitimate argument about the distribution of wealth and power and the nature of value.”

His critique here points to the ways in which Purdy is a democrat all the way down. His argument against class inequality is above all a case for the equal dignity of every citizen. His affection for democracy is rooted in the chance it offers citizens to deliberate as equals on how to create a better collective life.

The law professor in Purdy comes out in one of the book’s most interesting chapters, a sharp critique of how our Constitution works. He joins many others in calling attention to the workings of the Senate and the electoral college in foiling genuinely democratic outcomes by overrepresenting the citizens of small and rural states. But he reserves his strongest and most telling criticisms for the power of the Supreme Court to decide, often arbitrarily, what the Constitution says.

He takes originalism to task for shackling us permanently to decisions made centuries ago. But he is nearly as critical of the “living constitutionalism” of liberals. The latter try to reflect current opinions and attitudes. But there is nothing democratic about giving so much power to judges. In a democracy, the people, not judges, should be the arbiters of the public’s current will.

Purdy’s answer is that it should be far easier to amend our Constitution, and he goes a step further, suggesting that our basic governing framework be put up for regular popular revision. “A constitutional referendum every twenty-seven years,” he writes, “would mean that every generation of adults would live under a fundamental law that it had affirmed in its sovereign role.”

It’s hard to imagine this ever happening, and I think Purdy gives short shrift to the New Deal settlement in constitutional law — now being overturned by a right-wing court — that sought to protect individual rights while allowing the elected branches broad leeway to enact social and economic legislation. Nonetheless, he’s right that we have lost our constitutional imagination (reflected in the past especially when the democratizing amendments enacted after the Civil War led to what the historian Eric Foner has called “the second founding”). We have largely given up because the rules for amending the document give a small number of low-population states the power to block any revision.

Those who would reject Purdy’s radical proposal still need to grapple with the crisis of representation that our Constitution creates for democracy. To look only at our presidential election system, a flip of about 32,000 votes in three states and one congressional district would have given victory in the electoral college to the candidate who lost the popular vote by more than 7 million ballots. That problem is not going away.

Purdy’s overall take will no doubt seem utopian to some readers and too progressive for others. But at a time of cynicism bordering on nihilism, his faith in the capacity of his fellow citizens to undertake the work of social reconstruction is refreshing. A democratic revival, he writes, “would be a reminder that history is not just something that happens to us or the cacophony of stories we tell about the mess we were born into; it is also something we make.”

Utopianism has its problems. But resignation is far worse.

E.J. Dionne Jr. writes a twice-weekly column for The Washington Post. He is a professor at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His latest book, with Miles Rapoport, is “100% Democracy: The Case for Universal Voting.”

Why Democracy Is Flawed, Frightening ― and Our Best Hope

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