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Democratic Vistas

Democratic Vistas: Reflections on the Life of American Democracy

Copyright Date: 2004
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Democratic Vistas
    Book Description:

    In this thought-provoking collection, leading scholars explore democracy in the United States from a sweeping variety of perspectives. A dozen contributors consider the nature and prospects of democracy as it relates to the American experience-free markets, religion, family life, the Cold War, higher education, and more. These probing essays bring American democracy into fresh focus, complete with its idealism, its moral greatness, its disappointments, and its contradictions.

    Based on DeVane lectures delivered at Yale University, these writings examine large themes and ask important questions: Why do democratic societies, and the United States in particular, tolerate profound economic inequality? Has the United States ever been truly democratic? How has democratic aspiration influenced the development of practices as diverse as education, religious worship, and family life? With deep insights and lively discussion, the authors expand our understanding of what democracy has meant in the past, how it functions now, and what its course may be in the future.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13048-5
    Subjects: Law

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-15)

    The essays in this volume began as the Tercentennial DeVane Lectures at Yale University. These were public lectures, attended by students and other residents of New Haven. Their purpose was to consider the nature and prospects of American democracy. They took their title,Democratic Vistas,from a prose work by Walt Whitman, perhaps America’s greatest celebrator, and also a critic who wrote with the passion of one saddened by the failings of what he most loves.

    These essays explore democracyin America,because democracy, although it is today’s universal creed, is by its nature a particular thing. Self-rule has no...

  4. 1 The Democratic Soul
    (pp. 16-35)

    The first great work of political philosophy in the long tradition of Western thought has come down to us in its original Greek, almost perfectly preserved through twenty-five centuries of transmission. This by itself is a miracle of sorts, given the library of works, composed by authors writing in periods much closer to our own, that have disappeared completely or been corrupted beyond repair. And the feeling that there is something miraculous about the preservation of this text must deepen when one considers that it not only contains the first organized examination of many of the most basic questions of...

  5. 2 Lincoln and Whitman as Representative Americans
    (pp. 36-52)

    A way of life like American democracy has no predestined shape, and when we call historical persons representative, because they helped to make us what we are, we generally mean that in their time they were exceptional. Abraham Lincoln, a lawyer, state legislator in Illinois, and one-term congressman who became president, and Walter Whitman, a journeyman printer, newspaper editor, and journalist who became a great poet, were extraordinary in what they achieved. They were extraordinary too in the marks of personality that they left on their smallest gestures. Yet the thing about both men that strikes an unprejudiced eye on...

  6. 3 Public Emblem, Private Realm: Family and Polity in the United States
    (pp. 53-66)

    Prescriptions for upholding the political order in the United States often look to family life, assuming that certain family characteristics are needed for democratic citizenship. Observers may be far apart on the political spectrum yet still agree that citizens are made in families; family character therefore determines the capacities of the sovereign people as a whole. A couple of contemporary examples illustrate this point. The feminist political theorist Susan Okin, justifying her focus on the family in a book on democratic justice, explains that justice cannot be achieved without moral development in citizens, and that “it is within the family...

  7. 4 Can Religion Tolerate Democracy? (And Vice Versa?)
    (pp. 67-98)

    Not everything is science. Not everything is art. Not everything is politics. So much of life is faith. Against all predictions, against all odds, faith abides. Just about a hundred years ago, a prominent Pennsylvania pastor named George Ferris, preaching on the theory of evolution, insisted that scientific progress left Christian morality undisturbed:

    It may be that back in the mists somewhere the greatest of our grandfathers was just a shapeless jelly-like bit of digestive incoherence. For this reason must we lose our reverence for the moral grandeur of a Paul . . . ? It may be that our...

  8. 5 Taking Democracy to School
    (pp. 99-114)

    In our world, the notion that the prospects for democracy rest on the health of the education system has the status of a self-evident truth. A person my age won’t have known a time when the fate of democracy was not felt to be riding on developments in the schools. The year I started fifth grade, I listened every morning to radio news of the struggle to integrate the public schools of Little Rock, Arkansas—news that made the schoolhouse, unremarkable scene of my own daily life, the site of the war against systematic inequality in America. Later that year,...

  9. 6 The Misuse of Numbers: Audits, Quantification, and the Obfuscation of Politics
    (pp. 115-137)

    Would you please join me in a brief fantasy? The year is 2020. Richard Levin has just retired after a long and brilliant career as president of Yale University and has declared this ‘‘2020: The Year of Perfect Vision.’’ Every last building is rebuilt and shining; the students are even more precocious, accomplished, and unionized than they are today; andU.S. News and World ReportandConsumer Reports(now merged) have ranked Yale University number one across the board—up there with the very best hotels, luxury automobiles, and lawnmowers. Well—nearly across the board. It seems that the quality...

  10. 7 Neither Capitalist nor American: The Democracy as Social Movement
    (pp. 138-153)

    TheDemocratic Vistasproject is a curious one: an undemocratic institution celebrating its tercentennial with a series of essays on democracy. After all, the dominant ethos at universities like Yale is neither a democratic one nor a market one (one is not allowed to buy and sell grades or degrees, or to hire people to write your papers and take your tests, and we regularly refuse to allow people to buy or invest in our goods if we think they are not “good” enough). Rather the Yale ethos is meritocratic: rule by those with merit, leadership by those with high...

  11. 8 Democracy and the Market
    (pp. 154-172)

    The robust condition of industry and commerce in the fledgling American democracy was not lost on its most perceptive visitor and ethnographer. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote: “The United States has only been emancipated for half a century from the state of colonial dependence in which it stood to Great Britain; the number of large fortunes there is small and capital is still scarce. Yet no people in the world have made such rapid progress in trade and manufactures as the Americans. . . . [T]hey have already changed the whole order of nature for their own advantage.”¹

    For Tocqueville, the...

  12. 9 Democracy and Distribution
    (pp. 173-204)

    We have become accustomed to the coexistence of democracy with substantial economic inequality, but this is surprising when considered in a larger historical and theoretical perspective. Nineteenth-century elites who resisted expansion of the franchise and socialists who endorsed the “parliamentary road to socialism” agreed that if majority rule were imposed on a massively unequal status quo, then most voters would favor taxing the rich and transferring the proceeds downward. This was formalized in political science as the “median-voter theorem,” which predicts majority support for downward redistribution, given startling inequality like that in the advanced capitalist democracies.

    In fact, no relationship...

  13. 10 Democracy and Foreign Policy
    (pp. 205-221)

    One of the most significant things historians of future centuries will remember about the one through which we’ve just lived is that the world, during the course of it, became predominantly democratic. In 1900 there were no democracies if we can define that term, as the human rights organization Freedom House does, to mean states in which universal suffrage produced competitive multiparty elections. Not even the United States or Great Britain qualified, since both at that time denied the vote to women and, in the case of the United States, to African Americans and other minorities as well. Half a...

  14. 11 Dinner with Democracy
    (pp. 222-235)

    On a Thursday evening in January, twenty-one people stood in line in an undergraduate cafeteria, collected their food on trays, and slowly gathered in an adjacent room. A few were affiliated with the university; most were not. Lawyers, political activists, a judge; neighborhood leaders, community organizers, a former mayor; business and religious leaders, a journalist, Yale undergraduates; men and women, of various ages, races, ethnicities, and backgrounds—all stood uncertainly around the room. They had been invited to participate in an extended discussion of democracy. Each week, they would join Yale students and other members of the public at lectures...

  15. 12 American Democracy and the Origins of the Biomedical Revolution
    (pp. 236-257)
    Joan A. Steitz

    In June 2000 headlines blazed with the announcement that scientists had finished assembling the sequence of the human genome. Craig Venter, head of Celera Genomics—a private company—and Francis Collins, head of the National Human Genome Research Institute, shook hands with President Bill Clinton and declared the book of life decoded. Despite some ugly aspects to their competition, their work had produced a rough draft of the sequence of close to 40,000 genes. Those of us in the know recognized that the job was far from done. With only 85 percent of the sequence of the 3 billion base...

  16. 13 Computers and Democracy
    (pp. 258-272)
    David Gelernter

    “Computers and democracy” is a big, vague, hot-air balloon of a topic. I’ll try to bring it down to earth; I’m not sure whether I’ll succeed. Americans’ attitudes toward democracy and computers are curiously similar: we depend on both, believe in both, pride ourselves on both, but we aren’t particularly interested in the details of either. The first role of any well-functioning democratic government or desktop computer is to annoy us as little as possible. Traditionally, in this country we have not admired people who are too eager to be part of government; we are not too crazy about computer...

  17. List of Contributors
    (pp. 273-274)
  18. Index
    (pp. 275-282)