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

It would be much better if democracy did not face the trials it is currently facing. But if there is any blessing in today’s disease, it lies in renewed efforts to understand what democracy is, how it can thrive and – to paraphrase the title of a deservedly famous recent book – how she dies.

An urgent moral and intellectual inquiry into the fragility of democracy has replaced a complacency that set in after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This triumphalism could easily blind comfortable citizens to the fact that their institutions were less democratic than they thought, less inclusive and less stable. The resurgence of authoritarian movements in what appeared to be solidly democratic nations and the deepening of repression in China have swept away all complacency.

One of the merits of “Two Cheers for Politics” by Jedediah Purdy it is that he does not take democracy for granted. He knows he needs new forms of defense, and he challenges political structures that we once thought worked very well.

The subtitle of this thoughtful philosophical walk, “Why Democracy is Flawed, Scary – and Our Best Hope”, reflects Purdy’s awareness that many who offer rote defenses of democratic systems are actually skeptical of their workings and often fear what would happen if majorities they distrust gain power by democratic means.

A community progressive and professor at Columbia Law School, Purdy combines scathing critiques of inequality with a warm tone of hope and a desire for some degree of trust through our barricades of suspicion.

What he calls for amounts to a new ecology of democracy. If we need clean air and clean water to preserve life, we need a certain degree of social solidarity, trust and true equality to save democracy.

“What does it mean to prioritize democracy? Purdy asks early. “It means asking whether our culture, our economy and our politics help us see ourselves as equals who can govern together. It means recognizing how culture, economics and politics can undermine both democratic equality and the civic trust people need to govern together.

Yes, in power 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 both the rulers and the ruled. It is not an easy thing to achieve.

In principle, at least, democracy allows us — collectively — to shape our own destiny. But we accept to live with the results of democratic elections even when our camp, our ideas and our interests are losing, knowing that we could prevail in the future.

It is good that an academic critic of our system presents mass elections as a plausible and fair way to govern us by regularly collecting our preferences. “Anything that moves towards universal suffrage,” he writes, “moves closer to democracy.”

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

His book thus invites comparison with British political theorist Bernard Crick’s 1962 classic, “In Defense of Politics.” Crick’s formulation – that politics is conservative, liberal and socialist at the same time – is entirely consistent with Purdy’s argument. Both authors offer a perspective of the democratic left that nonetheless respects certain conservative dispositions and aspirations.

According to Crick, the policy is conservative because it “preserves the minimum benefits of the established order”; liberal, “because it is made up of particular freedoms and demands tolerance”; and socialist, because “it provides the conditions for deliberate social change whereby groups can feel that they have an equitable interest in the prosperity and survival of the community”.

Equity and social change are particularly important to Purdy, and some of the book’s harshest criticisms are directed at libertarian hero Friedrich Hayek’s argument that state intervention in the market should be strictly circumscribed.

Hayek, Purdy argues, emphasizes the need to limit state power, but does so in a way that pays no attention to the dangers of concentrating economic power. Purdy writes that Hayek “proposed to redefine democracy as public consent to a set of rules that would shield ostensibly market-neutral procedures from state intervention.”

This, Purdy insists, is “a antipolitical program 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 highlights the ways in which Purdy is a Democrat through and through. His argument against class inequality is above all an argument in favor of the equal dignity of every citizen. His affection for democracy is rooted in the opportunity it offers citizens to deliberate as equals on how to create a better collective life.

Purdy’s law professor comes out in one of the book’s most interesting chapters, a scathing critique of the workings of our Constitution. He joins many others in drawing attention to the workings of the Senate and Electoral College in thwarting truly democratic outcomes by overrepresenting citizens of small rural states. But he reserves his strongest and most eloquent criticisms of the power of the Supreme Court to decide, often arbitrarily, what the Constitution says.

He criticizes originalism for permanently chaining us to decisions made centuries ago. But he is almost as critical of the “living constitutionalism” of the liberals. These 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 the judges, should be the arbiter of the actual will of the public.

Purdy’s response is that it should be much easier to change our Constitution, and he goes one step further by suggesting that our basic governance framework be subject to regular popular review. “A constitutional referendum every twenty-seven years,” he writes, “would mean that each generation of adults would live under a fundamental law that it would have affirmed in its sovereign role.”

It’s hard to imagine that ever happening, and I think Purdy is giving little thought to the New Deal settlement in constitutional law – currently being struck down by a right-wing court – which sought to protect individual rights while leaving to the elected branches a wide margin of maneuver to adopt social measures and economic legislation. Nevertheless, he is correct that we have lost our constitutional imagination (which has been reflected in the past, notably when democratizing amendments enacted after the Civil War led to what historian Eric Foner has called “the second foundation “). We largely backed out because the document’s amendment rules give a small number of sparsely populated states the power to block any revision.

Those who would reject Purdy’s radical proposal must still wrestle with the representation crisis our Constitution creates for democracy. Just looking at our presidential election system, a turnaround of about 32,000 votes in three states and one congressional district would have given the Electoral College victory to the candidate who lost the popular vote by more than 7 million ballots. This problem is not going away.

Purdy’s overall vision will no doubt seem utopian to some readers and too progressive to others. But in a time of cynicism bordering on nihilism, his faith in the ability of his fellow citizens to undertake the work of social reconstruction is refreshing. A democratic renewal, 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’s also something we make.

Utopianism has its problems. But resignation is much worse.

EJ Dionne Jr. writes a bi-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 Suffrage.”

Why democracy is flawed, scary ― and our best hope

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