- Rescuing Democracy with Something Old
On the evening of October 22nd, at the reception to mark the opening of this year’s Association for Political Theory annual conference, a moment of silence was asked for to honor the legacy and acknowledge the passing of Sheldon S. Wolin. It was a much deserved gesture. Wolin had been mostly—though far from entirely!1—silent over the past couple decades, but that matters little when it comes to a teacher and thinker of his caliber.
Wolin’s defining work of scholarship—Politics and Vision,2 a comprehensive yet also radical re-reading of the whole Western political tradition—did as much (or more) to shape the whole nature of political thought and critique in the American academy as such luminaries as Leo Strauss, Hannah Arendt, or John Rawls.3 His long study of the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville—which culminated in Tocqueville: Between Two Worlds4—had a similar if more narrow impact, grandly enlisting the struggles that the aristocrat Tocqueville had in understanding modern democratic life into a diagnosis of an America that, in Wolin’s view, is increasingly lacking in exactly that. But for me—and, I suspect, for many other political scientists and theorists in the middle of our careers—Wolin’s greatest impact was as one who voiced a certain kind of democratic critique at the very moment of democratic capitalism’s ostensible zenith, that moment of American liberal triumphalism during the last days of the Cold War and through the 1990s.
As an undergraduate developing an interest in political theory and the history of ideas in the first part of that decade, I became aware of Wolin’s name before I had any sense of his historical importance to the discipline. [End Page 174] This awareness came through Bill Moyers’s wonderful series of interviews, collected in the volumes A World of Ideas.5 I missed those broadcasts on television but later read through them all—and while I can’t say that the Bill Moyers’s interview with Wolin fully captured my attention at the time, it did make me think—particularly passages like this:
You seem to be calling for a much more inclusive participation at the local level by citizens in all forms of political decision making at the very time—to take your own diagnosis—that the impetus of society is toward larger, more hierarchical, more distant, more remote, more powerful organizations. Aren’t those two fundamentally at odds with each other?
Absolutely. Absolutely. The movement has been away from a federal decentralized system to an increasingly, almost hopelessly overcentralized system, so that the whole emphasis has fallen in the one direction.
You sound like Ronald Reagan.
I know. I’ve been accused of that several times. But I think that—I think, again, that the difference is that I don’t think Reaganism stands for the real revitalization of power at any other level. I think Reaganism is a combination of a very strong push toward high technology, and it’s been very powerful in that direction. And it’s been a very strong push toward a strong state, as I’ve mentioned; aggressive foreign policy, strong defense, strong national—strong defense budget, and the rest of it. But it’s also been nostalgia. It’s been nostalgia in terms of nineteenth-century or even eighteenth-century values about home, church, family, and that sort of thing. [It is] that peculiar combination of a sort of progressivism, technologically and in terms of the political state, and a regressive view toward ethics, morality, piety, family, and the rest of it. And I think it’s that American proclivity toward wanting to really find yourself sanctified by some set of values that you know very well cannot come from what you’re actually into. In other words, defense, high tech, strong corporate systems can’t generate the kind of values that really make us comfortable, that really suggest the power that we have is good, and we deserve it.6
Long before my graduate school years (when I would study communitarianism, localism, socialism, and pretty...