Democracy's Dual Dangers - The Chronicle Review - The Chronicle of Higher Education
Yet there is nothing new about this outburst of disgust with the workings of democracy. Nor is it distinctively American. Europeans (with the possible exception of Germans) are just as disenchanted with their elected politicians. Lamenting the failings of democracy is a permanent feature of democratic life, one that persists through governmental crises and successes alike.
There is no decade from the past century when it is not possible to find an extended debate among commentators and intellectuals in the democratic West about the inadequacies of democratic politics. This is not true of only those decades when Western democracy was clearly on the ropes, like the 1930s, when it was menaced by fascism, or the 1970s, when it was threatened by inflation and oil shock. It's also true of the prosperous and relatively stable decades as well. In the 1920s, Walter Lippmann led the charge, arguing that democratic publics were far too ill-informed and inattentive to manage their own affairs. In the 1950s, academics worried about the banality and exhaustion of democratic life. Daniel Bell took a positive stance with his claims about the end of ideology, but for the most part democracy was treated as a cumbersome, careless system of government, in permanent danger of being outwitted by the Soviets.
Even the 1980s, which we now look back on as a time of emergent democratic triumphalism, were dominated by prophecies of doom. Consider the two best-selling academic books from the end of that decade. One, Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind (1987), argued that the endemic triviality of mass democracy would destroy the minds of the young, leaving them unable to distinguish good from bad. (Bloom blamed, among other people, Mick Jagger.) The second, Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1988), foretold American decline as the demands of sustaining a global empire would overwhelm the capacity of the American people to put up with them.