TOWARD DEMOCRACY by James T. Kloppenberg


The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought
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An original discussion of how the idea of democracy took root and has been transformed in the West.

It’s a Greek thing, of course. However, writes Kloppenberg (History/Harvard Univ.; Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition, 2010, etc.), in the hands of Westerners—mostly Protestants, at least at first—the idea of democracy as a dangerous doctrine of the mob was reshaped into an ideal. As the author writes without apology, much of this transformation occurred in the former British colonies that became the United States, where, at least from a British nobleman’s point of view, mob rule did take hold. Kloppenberg locates some of the sources of this remaking of democracy in Enlightenment readings of the Bible and antiquity, and he considers its religious origins to be underappreciated in the historical literature. He further identifies three contested principles in debates about democracy: popular sovereignty, autonomy, and equality. As he observes, the ability of people to govern themselves without an entrenched class of overseers has long been a matter of controversy, though the argument has a chicken-and-egg quality to it. In any event, Thomas Jefferson dismissed it neatly by saying that taking sovereignty away was not the issue but rather improving the people’s capacity to make sound judgments. Surveying the subsequent political landscape, Kloppenberg allows that the debate has found plenty of room to continue to rage. Elsewhere, he writes of the idea that the people have not just the right, but also the duty to resist “tyrants who flout divine law,” as well as the idea that the source of authority truly lies in the consent of the governed and “the conscience of individual citizens.” A bonus for fans: Kloppenberg finds fresh things to say about both John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville—no small feat.

Though long, Kloppenberg’s account is not exhaustive, and there is plenty of room for interpretation and annotation. A book to read, profitably, alongside Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies.

Pub Date: June 2nd, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-19-505461-3
Page count: 964pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 2016


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