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 is currently facing. 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 justifiably famous recent book—how it dies.

An urgent moral and intellectual examination of the fragility of democracy has replaced a complacency that took hold after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This triumphalism could easily blind easygoing citizens to the fact that their institutions were less democratic than they thought, less inclusive, and less stable. The resurgence of authoritarian movements in seemingly solid democratic nations and deepening repression in China have removed any complacency.

One of the virtues of Jedediah Purdy’s “Two Cheers for Politics” is that he does not take democracy for granted. He knows that new forms of defense are needed, and he is challenging the political structures we once thought worked well.

The subtitle of this thoughtful philosophical foray into “Why Democracy Is Flawed, Scary – And Our Best Hope” reflects Purdy’s awareness that many who flatly defend democratic systems are in fact skeptical about how they work, often fearing what would happen if majorities they distrust were to come to power through democratic means.

As a communitarian progressive and Columbia Law School professor, Purdy combines hard-edged critiques of inequality with a warm tone of hope and yearning for some measure of trust across our barricades of suspicion.

What he is demanding amounts to a new ecology of democracy. If we need clean air and clean water to sustain life, then we need some level of social solidarity, trust and true equality to save democracy.

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

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yes, verdict together is the point. This means, as Purdy shows in a tour of political philosophy and political science from Hobbes and Rousseau to Robert Dahl and Samuel Huntington, that democratic citizens are both rulers and ruled. This is not easy to solve.

In principle, at least, democracy allows us – collectively – to shape our own destiny. But we agree to live with the results of democratic elections even if our side, our ideas and our interests lose, knowing that we may prevail in the future.

It is good when an academic critic of our system touts mass elections as a plausible and fair way to govern ourselves by collecting our preferences regularly. “Whatever moves towards universal elections,” he writes, “is moving closer to democracy.”

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

His book therefore invites comparison with the classic “In Defense of Politics” by the British political theorist Bernard Crick from 1962. Crick’s formulation – that politics is simultaneously conservative, liberal and socialist – agrees very well with Purdy’s argument. Both authors offer a perspective of the democratic left that nonetheless respects certain conservative attitudes and aspirations.

In Crick’s view, politics is conservative because it “preserves the minimal benefits of the established order”; liberal “because it is composed of certain freedoms and requires tolerance”; and socialist because “it creates conditions for conscious social change through which groups can feel that they have a fair share in the prosperity and survival of the community.”

Justice 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 limited.

Hayek, Purdy argues, emphasizes the need to curb state power but does so in a way that fails to consider the dangers of concentrated economic power. Purdy writes that Hayek “proposed to redefine democracy as public consent to a set of rules that would protect the supposedly neutral processes of the market from government interference.”

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This, Purdy points out, is “a specific antipolitical an agenda that used both the institutions of the state and the public philosophy of government to minimize the scope of legitimate arguments about the distribution of wealth and power and the nature of value.”

His criticism here points to the way in which Purdy is a Democrat through and through. His argument against class inequality is above all a plea for the equal dignity of all citizens. His affection for democracy is rooted in the opportunity it offers citizens to debate as equals how to create a better collective life.

The law professor at Purdy comes out in one of the book’s most interesting chapters, a scathing critique of how our Constitution works. He joins many others in drawing attention to the work of the Senate and Electoral College in thwarting truly democratic outcomes by over-representing the citizens of small and rural states. But he reserves his strongest and clearest criticism for the Supreme Court’s power to often arbitrarily decide what the Constitution says.

He commits originalism to binding us permanently to decisions made centuries ago. But he is almost as critical of the “living constitutionalism” of the liberals. The latter attempt to reflect current opinions and attitudes. But there is nothing democratic about giving judges that much power. In a democracy, the people, not judges, should be the arbiters of the current will of the public.

Purdy’s response is that it should be much easier to change our Constitution, and he goes a step further by proposing that our basic governance framework be subject to periodic popular review. “A constitutional referendum every 27 years,” he writes, “would mean that every generation of adults would live under a basic law that affirmed their sovereign role.”

It’s hard to imagine that ever happening, and I think Purdy is making short work of the New Deal agreement in constitutional law – which is now being overturned by a right-wing court – which aimed to protect the rights of individuals and at the same time to give the chosen branches a wide scope to take social action and business law. Nonetheless, he is right that we have lost our constitutional imagination (which was particularly reflected in the past, when the democratizing changes enacted after the Civil War resulted in what 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 small-populated states the power to block any revision.

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

Purdy’s overall attitude will no doubt appear utopian to some readers and overly forward-thinking to others. But in an age of cynicism bordering on nihilism, his belief in his fellow citizens’ ability to undertake the work of social reconstruction is refreshing. A democratic revival, he writes, “would remind us that history is not just something that happens to us, or the cacophony of stories we tell about the chaos into which we were born; it’s also something we do.”

Utopianism has its problems. But resignation is far worse.

EJ 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, scary – and our best hope

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