January 22, 2012


Alan Wolfe, Does American Democracy Still Work? (New Haven & London: Yale U. Press, 2006) ("Information matters. . . . Political scientists such as Martin Gillens and Larry Bartels have gone to great length to demonstrate that lack of information does result in people having views they would not have if they were fully informed. Voting is inevitably cheapened when people do not know for what or for whom they are voting. It may be reassuring to realize that 40 percent of Americans can be induced to offer an opinion on whether the Public Affairs Act of 1975 should be repealed, but it raises serious questions about the existence of an informed public when we learn that there is not, and never was, such a thing as the Public Affairs Act of 1975." Id. at 29. "International norms of social justice, unlike domestic ones, never achieved anything like consensus in the United States, even in the years in which they were formulated. In January 1949 the president of the American Bar Association denounced the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on the grounds that it would 'promote state socialism, if not communism, throughout the world.' That kind of language became a staple of the isolationists and anticommunist sentiment that gripped the United States in the decades after World War II. Standing in the way of an American commitment to international norms of social justice, was the force of American nationalism. As Anatol Lieven has argued, Americans and Europeans came away learning different lessons from the catastrophe known as World War II. Europeans understood their twentieth-century as proof of the dangers into which nationalism could lead and wanted to see created a world order that would allow for international cooperation. Americans, by contrast, adopted the very nationalism that Europe was abandoning. In the wake of the twentieth century's experiences with totalitarianism, the United States could no longer afford isolationism. But its involvement with the world borrowed from the isolationist tradition the conviction that the world outside America's borders was hostile and corrupt. The United States can and should involve itself with foreign countries, this form of nationalism acknowledged, but only if the process was under American control." "When it comes to foreign policy, populism is nationalism's first cousin. The enemies of the American nation, populists tirelessly assert, are the elitists of the East Coast establishment. Whether they are depicted as wealthy Wall Street lawyers or dedicated communists hardly matters; they are what the conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly call the 'super sophisticates,' the cultured, semiaristocratic, globalists who love Europe more than they admire the United States. From a populistic perspective, human rights, global social justice, and humanitarian aid are exactly the kinds of issues that preoccupy elites; ordinary people themselves know that the only sure way to defend the country is by spending considerable sums on weapons and showing a willingness to use them. Such views are not always accurate; Americans actually responded positively to President Jimmy Carter's efforts to emphasize human rights, and they have been particularly interested in the fate of Christians in non-Christian countries and noncommunists in communist ones. According to the reputable Chicago Council of Foreign Affairs polls, moreover, Americans support even such controversial human rights measures as the International Criminal Courts. Id. at 154-155. Does American Still Work is a lengthy essay, both synthesis and analysis, on the ills of early twentieth-century-American democracy. From the bookjacket: "The past few decades have brought a shift on 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. . . . 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] 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 posses and take political matters more seriously." Occupy America!).