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A Cacophony, or a Dialogue?
by Leah Bradshaw

Jean Elshtain initially delivered Democracy on Trial as the 1993 Massey Lectures on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's Ideas series. She stands in good company in the tradition of the Massey Lectures and Ideas, one of the outstanding contributions of the CBC. Her confreres include George Steiner, George Grant, and Charles Taylor, all insightful critics of contemporary culture.
I teach political philosophy to undergraduates, and I use this remarkable little book as the introductory text in my introductory course. The course is called "The Crisis in Liberalism", and though there is widespread agreement among scholars and citizens alike that we are indeed facing a crisis in liberal democracy, there are precious few accounts of it.
When I studied liberal democracy as an undergraduate, all the literature focused on a polarization between market-based liberalism (with its defence of individual egoism, capitalistic economics, and legality) and various shades of "social" democracy (with emphasis on solidarity, socialistic economic organization, and class analysis). Isaiah Berlin captured this polarization in his formulations of negative and positive liberty. Since then, the ideological configuration of the world has changed considerably, and with that change, our simplistic theoretical divisions between liberalism (and its variants) and socialism (and its variants) have been thrown into chaos. If we apply the tired old categories of negative and positive freedom to an analysis of contemporary democracies, we understand little of what is going on. Society is fracturing into a bewildering array of interests formed along racial, sexual, and cultural lines. Jean Elshtain tackles this new America with refreshing lucidity, and she concludes that unless we act quickly as citizens to steer a different course, democracy as we know it is doomed in the West.
Her depiction of the problems makes more sense if we grasp something of what she means by healthy democracy. Democracy requires principally two things, according to her: laws and constitutional procedures, and a commitment in the everyday actions and spirit of the people. Almost nothing is said in this book about the first criterion, the presence of law and order, for Elshtain does not think that the problem lies here. In fact, she senses that on the whole we are becoming an increasingly juridical culture, depending upon the decisions and enforcement of the law for solving practically every problem we encounter. The big problem lies with the far more ambiguous realm of citizen participation. Though the early theorists of liberal democracy did not turn their attention in any concentrated way on the civic attitudes of the people (Tocqueville in his Democracy in America is the exception), the centrality of civil society is critical to the vigour of democracy, according to Elshtain. By civil society, she means "the many forms of community and associations that dot the landscape of a democratic culture, from families to churches to neighbourhood associations to trade unions to self-help movements to volunteer assistance for the needy." Civil society is the realm in which individuals, with their own private tastes and opinions, fuse together in common purposes and empathy. The associations of civil society must be small enough that genuine empathy is possible, and they must cut across particular identities of individuals. That is, they must serve to unite disparate individuals. Families do this naturally; to sustain a family, you have to be willing to put up with a lot of individuals who hold different views from you. Churches and neighbourhood associations accomplish the same end. While there is undoubtedly a degree of common interest in these-shared faith or shared concern for public spaces-the variety of specific interests and tastes found in them is considerable.
Elshtain cites Tocqueville's warning that if we are not vigilant about protecting such associations, democracy is in grave danger of heading bullishly along the path of untrammelled egoism. If individuals become isolated and alienated from common bonds of citizenship, they will turn in fear toward the state to protect their interests in what they think is a hostile world. A society of atomized individuals who turn to the coercive apparatus of the state for the enforcement of egoistic interests is a society that has abandoned its democratic spirit.
What she does not say, but what is clear from her account, is that she opts decisively for a particular variant of liberal democracy: the republican one. The emphasis is on civic bonds, participation, and deliberation. The democracy she hopes for is a place where citizens are active, open to persuasion, ever ready to persuade others, and yet comfortable in their diversity. It is a place where people intuitively know the difference between private and public matters. What is public is what concerns us in common: education, civic pride, meaningful work, and so on. What is private is what belongs only to us in our particularistic identities: sexual preferences, cultural identities, racial belonging, etc. Some may want to argue that these are necessarily public matters, but Elshtain is emphatic that what is public is what we share, and in pluralistic democracy, we do not all share the same sexual, cultural, and racial identity.
There is another, rival conception of democracy, however, that has its roots in John Locke, the seventeenth-century originator of parliamentary democracy. This version celebrates the pursuit of privacy, and indeed encourages the egoism that troubled Tocqueville. Locke envisaged nations of entrepreneurs and property-holders, whose principal interest in government is the protection of private goods. There is none of Elshtain's spirited defence of civic culture in his democracy. Its shadow sits darkly on her portrayal of what's wrong with America, though she nowhere makes the connection. The egoism of property that Locke so admired as the way to a peaceful and prosperous society has mutated into an egoism of identity. It is the description of this mutation that is the best part of Elshtain's book.
The two middle chapters of Democracy on Trial are titled "The Politics of Displacement" and "The Politics of Difference", and they deal with a common theme: the fragmenting of common citizenship and civil society into rigid identities along sexual, racial, and cultural lines. Elshtain tries to make sense of the recent wars over feminism, homosexuality, and race politics. We have moved from a political discourse based on equality-how we can all participate meaningfully as citizens on equal terms-to a political discourse grounded in difference-how my identity (feminist, gay, black) can gain public affirmation precisely for its distinctness. The public realm has become a cacophony of voices competing for ascendancy, and they seem to be deaf to one another.
Critics of Elshtain might venture that democratic politics in America is lively and contentious, that previously silenced voices are being heard for the first time, that gays, women, and other marginalized groups have finally emerged into the public realm. Elshtain would counter by saying that these voices are not political in any democratic sense, for they do not strive to reach a common bond with those from whom they differ. What they want is state protection of their specific identities. This is the politics of displacement because private and exclusive identities are being displaced from their proper home in the private realm, and transplanted to the public domain. There are two real dangers attendant on this shift.
The first is the statism that Tocqueville warned about. When individuals, or groups aligned along monolithic identities, begin to co-opt the state for the protection of private interests, the powers of the state are magnified. We have the odd spectacle, for example, of certain feminist groups demanding that the state become more intrusive in the family so as to monitor abusive men. Elshtain is certainly opposed to violence of any kind, but she asks important questions. Does the destruction of the autonomy of the family, occasioned by extending coercive power to the state, serve the freedom of anyone, even those who are victimized by violence in the home? What does this do to the erosion of rights, which in the classical democratic meaning, provide immunities against state power? Instead of the autonomous and self-directed citizen, encouraged to become more in charge of her life, we have the fostering of the perpetual victim "routinely portrayed as deformed and mutilated, helpless and demeaned."
A second danger concerns deepening resentment and hostility among "difference" camps. Here, Elshtain provides a brilliant analysis of the role of shame in maintaining human dignity. As she concedes, it is very difficult in the contemporary climate to be taken seriously when one is trying to defend the virtue of shame. We are a culture that longs to cast off all shame, that longs to bare our deepest secrets to the world. She does not analyse why this need is so pervasive, but she writes convincingly about why shameless identity breeds a climate of hatred. What she terms "identity absolutism" lends itself to "expressivist politics, the celebration of feelings or private authenticity as an alternative to public reason and political judgment." I may demand that I be recognized in my gay-ness, or my female-ness, or my black-ness, but in so doing, I am asking for public sanction of an identity that is beyond reason, and is connected to my intimate sense of myself. Others can embrace me, or they can be repelled by me, but these are the only options. The more I insist on the recognition of my expressive self, the more the world becomes polarized for me between those who are for me and those who are against me. In short, identity absolutism fuels racism, sexism, and homophobia. Its consequences are exactly the opposite of what its purveyors intend, and this is because by monopolizing the public realm with totalistic demands, there is no room for compromise. As a citizen in the old sense, I can be indifferent to your sexual preferences, your race, your gender. As a citizen in the new politics of displacement, you force me to take a stand. In such a climate, common bonds are not possible. Shame, then, or concealment of intimate senses of the self, is not about hypocrisy, according to Elshtain. It is about protecting the possibility for diversity in private, and commonality in public.
Identity politics (or the politics of displacement and difference) is ultimately reduced to a power struggle where various identities compete for the coercion of state power to back up their constituencies, and each identity must cast aspersions on the others. William Connolly describes the picture well: "The maintenance of one identity (or field of identities) involves the conversion of some differences into otherness, into evil-or one of its numerous surrogates. Identity requires difference to be, and it often converts difference into otherness to secure its self-certainty." The more we embrace identity politics, the more antagonism we will see. Women see men as the enemy, black Americans see white Americans as the enemy, heterosexuals see homosexuals as evil, and so on.
Elshtain's antidote to the politics of displacement and difference is a recovery of civil society and the bonds that unite, rather than divide, citizens. "There is, there must be, a way for people who differ in important, not trivial, respects, to come together to do practical politics. The distinction between public and private life here marked grows from a recognition that while people's self-interests or personal travail may lead them to public action, the best principles of action in public are not reducible to a merely private matter." For her, politics ought to be transformative. Emerging from the murky world of the private, into the transparency of the public realm, where all that we say is on display and open to criticism, we are cast in a public identity as citizens that is qualitatively different from our private roles. This is the Greek vision of homo politicus that Hannah Arendt celebrated (she is cited several times in Democracy on Trial). As citizens, we ought to be more than we are as private individuals. The political realm is not an instrument for the fulfilment of private desires; it is a place for self-actualization as a citizen.

How practical is Elshtain's hope for the future of democracy? This is a tough question. Charles Taylor, whose analysis of the currents of contemporary democracy is very close to hers, has a quite different prognosis. He thinks that liberal democracy must move constructively to accommodate the new identity politics. I happen to share her conviction that this is a mistake, but Taylor's description of identity politics is powerful in its logic of inevitability. He argues that modern politics in general is based on the acknowledgement of dignity, rather than the recognition of honour. To bestow honour on someone is to recognize a distinction, a superiority, in some arena. But to acknowledge dignity is to suspend all judgement about relative worth. Taylor connects the desire for dignity in the modern era to the democratization of society, on the one hand, and its premise of equal worth, and to the profoundly psychological quest for meaning, also a peculiarity of the modern era. From the early modern notions that moral sense is an intuitive way of communing with higher purpose (God, or some other transcendent idea of the good), we have moved to a culture that authenticates inwardness, period, no matter what content it extols. For Taylor (in The Politics of Recognition), "Being true to myself means being true to my originality, something only I can articulate and discover." This is what he calls a monological identity, and it is formed in isolation from others; indeed, its very exclusiveness means that it is incommunicable to others. Transfer this monological quest for an original and authentic sense of dignity onto the cultural plane, and we have a picture of a lot of hermetically sealed and mute identities that demand recognition, but refuse on principle to give any coherent account of why they ought to be heard. Faced with this reality, Taylor concludes that we must move within liberal democracy to accommodate it. For him, this means neither imposing homogenizing standards of worth or excellence on these claims, nor accepting a kind of Nietzschean relativism where every claim is automatically upheld. He says there must be something "midway between" these two alternatives.
Taylor's quest, it seems to me, is the big challenge to Elshtain. The two of them agree that liberal democracies are characterized by a politics of recognition. He, with his Hegelian bent, seems to think that the sense that "we are formed by recognition" is now deeply embedded, and must be given political articulation. He also seems to think that the struggle for public recognition of identity is a move from the monological to the dialogical. "My discovering my own identity doesn't mean that I work it out in isolation, but that I negotiate it through dialogue, partly overt, partly internal, with others. That is why the development of an ideal of inwardly generated identity gives a new importance to recognition. My own identity crucially depends on my dialogical relations with others." Elshtain, to use Taylor's terms, sees this move as the entrenchment of monological identities competing for the public purse, and in the process destroying any possibility for civic health.
As I interpret the difference between Elshtain and Taylor, the former sees the political domain in liberal democracy as a freely constituted one, preserved by an act of political will that articulates shared republican virtue. Taylor sees the same realm as one largely formed by historical forces that reshape and redefine liberal democracy. She wants resistance to the politics of identity and difference; he wants a critical openness to these relatively new phenomena. Politicians would do well to understand clearly these two options and stand decisively on one side or another. This is particularly true in our own country, where the future of the union rests upon these high stakes.
I cannot leave this discussion of what I have already declared to be a remarkable book, without complaining about something: Elshtain's interpretation of Plato. In the final section, she speaks of democracy's many struggles against its adversaries, and she counts Plato among these. She talks of Plato's "cure" for democracy, a regime that he found chaotic and destructive. The cure supposedly is the ideal city outlined in Book V of the Republic, in which Plato contemplates an authoritarian political order, with mandated gender equality in the ruling class, communal property and childrearing, and the rule of philosopher kings. I count myself among those who regard this as a kind of thought experiment, not a blueprint for political reform. I do not think Plato was an enemy of democracy, any more than he was an enemy of any other kind of political order. However, he is an insightful analyst of the specific tendencies of democracy. He chronicles the decline of democracy, from its original formulation, in which many ways of life are possible under a common regime, to a degenerate state in which every person becomes a regime unto himself. Plato's depiction of a failing democracy is eerily like Elshtain/Taylor's description of the politics of difference/displacement/authenticity.
Plato offers no corrective for declining democracy, it is true. But Elshtain does. By locating herself in a long seamless tradition of democrats, and failing to see herself as part of a far more contemporary, and specifically republican, club of democrats, her activist purposes are clouded. Democracy on Trial, in the final analysis, excels at description more than prescription. As a spectator's account, it is an admirable work of political philosophy.

Leah Bradshaw is a professor of politics at Brock University in Saint Catharines, Ontario.


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