Does American Democracy Still Work?

Does American Democracy Still Work?

Copyright Date: 2006
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Does American Democracy Still Work?
    Book Description:

    The past few decades have brought a shift in the nature of American democracy-an alarming shift that threatens such liberal democratic values as respect for pluralism, acceptance of the separation of powers, and recognition of the rights of opposition parties. In this insightful book, political scientist Alan Wolfe identifies the current political conditions that endanger the quality of our democracy. He describes how politics has changed, and he calls for a democracy protection movement designed to preserve our political traditions not unlike the environmental protection movement's efforts to safeguard the natural world.Voters who know little about issues, leaders who bend rules with little fear of reprisal, and political parties that are losing the ability to mobilize citizens have all contributed to a worrisome new politics of democracy, Wolfe argues. He offers a brilliant analysis of how religion and morality have replaced political and economic self-interest as guiding principles, and how a dangerous populism promotes a radical form of elitism. Without laying blame on one party or ideology and without claiming that matters will improve with one party or the other in office, Wolfe instead suggests that Americans need to understand the danger their own indifference poses and take political matters more seriously.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-12743-0
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. I The New Politics of Democracy
    (pp. 1-23)

    Struggles over American democracy were easier to understand in the nineteenth and twentieth century than they have become in the twenty-first. Then, privileged elites—would-be aristocrats in the North, slaveholders in the South, the wealthy everywhere—opposed democracy, and for the simplest of motivations: the more restricted the franchise, the greater the likelihood these elites would hold on to their unfairly gained advantages. For the same reason, if in reverse, groups marginalized by the priorities of their era—working people, women, racial minorities—wished democracy expanded to shift the benefits provided by government in their direction. In the old politics...

  5. II Democracy Without Information
    (pp. 24-49)

    Voters are responsible. During political campaigns they process relevant information to make reasonable decisions among the choices presented to them. The views they hold are internally consistent, meaningful, stable over time, and capable of responding to new situations. No wonder, then, that politicians, who risk ignoring public opinion at their own peril, can be held accountable for their performance in office.

    These conclusions about how democracy works in the contemporary United States have been reached by an all-star cast of political scientists, including such scholars as V. O. Key, Benjamin Page, Robert Y. Shapiro, Samuel Popkin, and Morris P. Fiorina.¹...

  6. III Democracy Without Accountability
    (pp. 50-74)

    Maybe we expect too much from democracy. The economist Joseph Schumpeter, one of the great modern thinkers to address the question, certainly thought so.¹ Eighteenth-century optimists believed that there was such a thing as the common good, that people could determine it for themselves, and that they would then elect representatives to carry out their will. This “classical theory of democracy,” as Schumpeter argued in 1942, was more a quasi-religious expression of hope than an actual description of how democracies worked. There is no such thing as the common good, he delighted in pointing out. And even if there were,...

  7. IV Democracy Without Institutions
    (pp. 75-105)

    No definition of democracy has better stood the test of time than Abraham Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” However inspiring an ideal, however, Lincoln’s characterization has always been inaccurate as fact. Throughout most of U.S. history, people did not organize the government and the government did not respond to people. Between the one and the other stood institutions: political parties, the press, business organizations and trade associations, labor unions, churches, lobbyists, reform associations, fraternal and social groups—in short, the entire panoply of voluntary associations that has drawn the attention of acute observers from...

  8. V Democracy Without Disinterest
    (pp. 106-136)

    Democratic societies require political parties and interest groups because such institutions allow for the expression of interest; through them, individuals and groups that know what they want and are determined to realize what best serves their own needs can make their demands heard. As important as institutions that allow for the expression of self-interest may be for democratic performance, they also, if they are to avoid a Hobbesian war of all against all, need to be accompanied by institutions that embody a spirit of disinterest. Sports fans understand that highly competitive games taking place without referees would degenerate into chaos....

  9. VI Democracy Without Justice
    (pp. 137-165)

    Elected with the strong backing of the religious right, conservative politicians in the United States frequently talk in the language of morality. Stances that defend the culture of life, uphold chastity, discourage homosexuality, protect children, and promote marital fidelity attract them. They identify international conflicts as struggles between good and evil. By substituting questions of character for matters of policy, they invite voters to judge them on the basis of their virtue. They are comfortable bringing religion into politics and politics into religion. Because of their success, moral issues dominate American politics. Anyone who believes that democratic political systems cannot...

  10. VII The Rise of Conservative Democracy
    (pp. 166-190)

    Political science, alas, is not a science along the lines of biology or physics; the number of propositions it has uncovered which are accepted across the board as true is astonishingly small. Still, American political scientists have given considerable attention to questions of how and how often Americans vote, whether they hold their leaders accountable, how cynical they are toward parties and interest groups, what their leaders do with the power vested in them, and how those leaders try to build support for the policies they propose. The overwhelming evidence they have produced suggests that when it comes to matters...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 191-203)
  12. Index
    (pp. 204-216)