DEMOCRACY ON TRIAL by Jean Bethke Elshtain

DEMOCRACY ON TRIAL

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KIRKUS REVIEW

 Political philosopher Elshtain presents a lucid admonition that the frayed bonds of civility are leading to almost unbearable stress on America's democratic experiment. This extended essay was originally broadcast as part of the 1993 Massey Lectures on CBC radio. Elshtain (Ethics/Univ. of Chicago; Women and War, not reviewed) approaches her subject with thoughtful philosophical concern rather than with the technocratic disdain of Patrick Kennon's The Twilight of Democracy (pg TK). She sees gridlock and cynicism as symptoms of an ailing democracy. But she does not locate their source, as many do, in the Constitution's system of checks and balances or in the incestuous relationship that has developed among elected officials, the federal bureaucracy, and the private sector. Rather, she traces these ills to ``a spiral of delegitimation''--the loss of faith in institutions themselves--worsened by a public appetite for scandal and a society made litigious, suspicious, and selfish; she is alarmed by the signs of anomie spreading in America: ``the growth of corrosive forms of isolation, boredom, and despair.'' Where Alexis de Tocqueville found an antebellum America strengthened by a network of private associations, from churches to local groups, Elshtain dreads a contemporary ``politics of displacement'' that threatens to sunder necessary distinctions between public and private spheres. For instance, she fears that proposals aimed at protecting women from violence could corrode the rights of the accused; she also is wary of fostering a psychology of victimization in women themselves. Further stirring this witches' brew are ethnic, racial, and sexual groups that are prepared to end discussion with one another when public validation of their identity is not forthcoming. The result: an end to compromise, the binding element of democratic politics. One caveat regarding this discussion: Elshtain is regrettably short on solutions to our collective dilemma. But seldom have the sources of democracy and its discontents been described with such philosophical passion and insight.

Pub Date: Jan. 11th, 1995
ISBN: 0-465-01616-2
Page count: 176pp
Publisher: Basic
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 1994




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