AMERICA AT RISK: THREATS TO LIBERAL SELF-GOVERNMENT IN AN AGE OF UNCERTAINTY

by Robert Faulkner and Susan Shell (eds), with the assistance of Thomas E. Schneider. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2009. 288pp. Cloth: $35.00. ISBN: 9780472116683.

Reviewed by Michael Paris, The College of Staten Island (CUNY). Email: michaelpari [at] gmail.com.

pp.637-646

This book offers a collection of twelve essays on the current state of liberal democracy in the United States. Editors Robert Faulkner and Susan Shell, both political theorists at Boston College, state that the purpose of their volume is “to set forth and examine the most important dangers confronting America today.” Toward that end, they “sought out political analysts whom [they] had reason to think first-rate[,]” and asked “each to select a problem that he or she thought particularly serious.” Faulkner and Shell also note that we will not find in these pages the musings of any “visionary reformers, philosophic dreamers, angry revolutionaries, or gloomy reactionaries” (pp.1-2). While some readers might want to quibble with this assessment – I met one visionary reformer, albeit a right wing one, and at least two gloomy reactionaries – as a general matter this volume’s esteemed contributors do struggle mightily to steer judicious courses through our typically shrill and polarized political debates. In fact, the political orientations guiding these analyses range from conservative (sometimes of the Straussian persuasion) to moderately liberal (think Democratic Leadership Council).

The result of Faulkner and Shell’s efforts is a veritable intellectual feast. The essays are uniformly lively and highly engaging; sometimes they are wonderfully provocative. As someone who came to this collection from a political standpoint far to the left of its contributors, I can testify that it succeeds in achieving the editors’ stated goal of fostering “a conversation that speaks directly and productively, without the zeal of methodologies, schools, or narrow creeds, to the major challenges of the years ahead” (p.2).

Faulkner and Shell divide the book into four parts. In Part I, “the Wages of Empire,” Pierre Manent and Niall Ferguson offer contrasting views on American foreign policy and America’s place in the world. In Part II, “Creeds and Parties,” William Galston, James W. Ceaser, and Alan Wolfe each offer pieces taking up matters of contemporary political theory and the practical implications of current ideologies. In Part III, “A Divided People,” we find four essays on urgent topics of domestic politics: the condition and future of “the liberal family” (Susan Shell); growing economic inequality and its implications for liberal democracy (Kay Lehman Schlozman and Traci Burch); immigration politics and policy (Peter Skerry); and religion, secularism, and polarization (James Q. Wilson). In Part IV, “Dilemmas of Self-Government,” [*638] Peter Rodriguez discusses the implications of declining savings rates, Harvey C. Mansfield calls into question the value of the very idea of “rational self-control,” and Hugh Heclo sketches the key elements of a “new American political system” that, in his view, render American liberal democracy broken.

The dominant themes of the volume are the erosion of institutions and cultural norms that once better supported liberal democracy and the consequent enervation of active democratic citizenship. While the authors locate the origins of decline and risk in various places, their essays often focus on questions of character and its deformation, whether character refers to nations or national political cultures, to political leaders, or to ordinary citizens.

Part I: The Wages of Empire

In “The Transatlantic Predicament,” Pierre Manent offers an interpretation of the origins and implications of “the profound divergence about the world, and what we are supposed to do in the world, between Europeans and Americans” (p.15). For Manent, the Iraq War merely brought out into the open long-simmering trends. By 9/11, America had already developed a “militarized” perspective on the world (p.20-22). Manent quickly adds that he is no leftist railing against “militarism;” he is after something more elusive and potentially dangerous. The United States, he argues, “was largely forged through a succession of victorious wars waged for liberty and equality” [Vietnam notwithstanding] (p.22). He states: “Uniquely victorious, uniquely innocent, the Americans were uniquely aggrieved on September 11, 2001.” Manent invites us to pause over (and perhaps to tremble before) “the spreading self-definition of the United States as the only country that is simultaneously democratic and Christian” (p.23). Power, innocence, and vulnerability now give us wars for a “huge and unheard of reformation of the Muslim world” (p.24). And what of Europe? Manent’s commentary is equally withering. After the unspeakable horrors of the first half of the twentieth century, Europe withdrew from the world into the cocoon of “the European construction.” Tepid legalism and sentimental humanitarianism – politics conducted on the model of Doctors Without Borders, he says – has replaced meaningful politics and the capacity for action. The retraction of Europe from the world stage has “had a rather deleterious effect on American self-awareness” (p.20). Because neither America nor Europe properly understands itself, neither can understand the other.

In “American Democracy: The Perils of Imperialism?” Niall Ferguson takes a rather different view. Ferguson, a genuine polymath, prolific author, and leading intellectual cheerleader for the Iraq War, argues that America is in fact a liberal global empire. However, the problem is not that America is an empire – and what sane person could disagree with the claim that it is an empire of at least some sort? – but that America is in denial about the fact that it is an empire. Therefore, America’s understandings, commitments, and strategies leave a lot to be desired. Specifically, denial about empire gives rise to four “deficits.” Ferguson addressed the first three in an earlier book (2004), and he adds a fourth here. First, there is a “financial deficit,” [*639] which stems from tax cuts, increased domestic expenditures, and dependence on foreign capital. Second, there is a “manpower deficit.” The U.S. recruits and deploys only a small percentage of the military and civilian personnel actually needed to remake other countries. Third, there is an “attention deficit.” We lack the ability to sustain “public support” for protracted conflicts. Fourth, there is now a “legitimacy deficit” because the United States is rather unpopular in the rest of the world. The real problem, Ferguson says, is not “the ‘hegemonic pretensions’ of the United States, but its chronic lack of imperial stamina” (p.50).

In responding to Ferguson’s essay, one does not know quite where to begin. In this essay at least, he argues mostly by assertion, and sometimes by flawed historical analogy. When he gives reasons, the logical gaps can be astounding. For example, to support his claim that, unlike the denizens of empires from the days of yore, we Americans have an attention deficit disorder, Ferguson notes that it took but eighteen months for U.S. public opinion to turn against the Iraq War (p.43). It could not possibly be the case that Americans were sluggishly waking up to the fact the whole crisis over Iraq was a colossal con job in the first place, could it? Likewise, he says, our “legitimacy deficit” flows not from the immorality of the Iraq War, but rather from the fact that “mistakes were made” in how it was sold and carried out. Our leaders in the executive branch should have been more honest about what they knew and did not know about WMDs and the al-Qaeda link (pp.46-47). But, obviously, if our leaders had not recklessly exaggerated many claims, then they might not have had the war that they (and Ferguson) so desperately wanted. Ferguson also claims that things would have gone much better in Iraq had we not sent the boy to do the man’s job, as it were. In fairness, we should note that Ferguson did urge sending in more troops before the war started.

Ferguson’s view does make us confront a large question that we do not normally want to face. “Empires,” he writes, “are like the poor: always with us” (p.44). If we don’t do it, he seems to be saying, somebody else will. And, since our motives are largely benign (I’m not sure how he knows this) and our track record at reconstruction is mixed, more muscularity is superior to na├»ve isolationism. The lingering question is whether there is a third, viable alternative between these two extremes.

Part II: Creeds and Parties

In “Defending Liberty: Liberal Democracy and the Limits of Public Power,” William A. Galston provides a useful template of considerations to guide thinking about how to draw lines between public and private liberty. Galston’s premises are that the public/private distinction is and must remain “at the heart of liberalism” and that “all rightful government is limited government” (p.58). However, in our age, there are increasing pressures for government to encroach on private liberty. Galston’s objectives seem to be to foster mindfulness about these pressures and to fortify the lines of defense. After briefly canvassing four “practical challenges” and three “theoretical objections” to limited democracy, Galston reviews five possibilities for defending it. These [*640] arguments are familiar. However, Galston offers a twist in his fundamental claim that the strongest defense of limited government might be found in the nature and benefits of political pluralism. Because “our obligations are plural and heterogeneous . . . ,” he writes, “many important elements of life evade the grasp of politics.” There is a presumption here in favor autonomous zones of authority (say, the realms of faith and family).

In “A Clear and Present Danger: The Doctrine of Political Nonfoundationalism,” James W. Ceaser suggests that we are vulnerable to purposelessness and drift because of developments in political theory and their potential influence in public discourse. Ceaser’s essay draws on and extends his 2004 Tocqueville Lecture in American Politics (See Ceaser 2006, with comments by Jack Rakove, Nancy Rosenblum, and Rogers Smith). Oddly, this source for the more extended argument is not cited in AMERICA AT RISK. Interested readers might consult the larger lecture and ensuing debate.

For Ceaser, “the greatest threat to America today comes from a theoretical doctrine,” which he labels “political nonfoundationalism.” Nonfoundationalism draws its life from thinkers as disparate as Rorty, Rawls, Habermas, and Derrida. What these philosophers have in common is the desire “to erect a high wall of separation between foundations and politics” (pp.75-76). The nonfoundationalists deny the relevance of “foundational concepts” to the conduct of politics. Ceaser’s attack on nonfoundationalism is based on his argument for the existence and importance of a particular kind of idea (“foundational concepts”) in American political development. A foundational concept is “a first principle that explains or justifies a general political orientation.” Foundational concepts arise within political life itself and supply grounds “beyond which any further response is thought unnecessary” (p.79). Ceaser discerns three basic types of foundational concepts operative in American political development – those grounded, respectively, in Nature, History, or Faith (pp.79-84) – and argues that they have come to the fore during times of crisis.

The largest question Ceaser asks us to think about is whether a thriving liberal democracy can or cannot do without “fixed philosophical principles.” Ceaser thinks that we eschew foundations and foundational thinking at our peril. Why? On inspection, we find that Ceaser’s answer to this question is inextricably linked to his answer to another one: Who are we, really, as a people and a nation? In her response to Ceaser’s Tocqueville Lecture, Nancy Rosenblum asked Ceaser why he thought we could not now do quite nicely (thank you very much) without the search for and assertion of foundationally true principles. Why would not essentially contested “second-story concepts” (like liberty and equality) be enough to sustain us? (2006, p.119). Ceaser provided a spirited rejoinder to Rosenblum, but he did not answer this specific question (2006, pp.178-190). In this “clear and present danger” essay, he does so. For Ceaser, the American polity “is not entirely defined by its formal political model (“liberal democracy”), but is also made up of its animating spirit, which includes devotion to a version of natural rights [*641] and to biblical faith” (p.78). Nonfoundationalism will sap our moral energy. Without the pursuit of foundations, the “nation will be unable to extract from its members the added measure of devotion and resolve needed guarantee its survival” (p.93). Nonfoundationalism threatens who we really are.

In “The Dangers of Conservative Populism,” Alan Wolfe gives us some breezy yet astute political commentary on the end of the era of Nixon and Reagan. Once upon a time, liberals lost touch with the concerns and practical wisdom of broad swatches of the American public. Conservative ideas and policy proposals flourished. However, it turned out that conservatism in power was “conservatism without conscience.” The reason? The changes wrought by liberalism included the injection of many elements of unmediated, raw democracy. In order to win and keep power, conservatives became masters at populism. As dangers to democracy go, conservative populism far outstrips the defects of the liberalism it replaced (pp.98-99). Wolfe then takes us on a whirlwind critical tour of Bush 43’s foreign and domestic policies. Populism, Wolfe concludes, has always been a close cousin of authoritarianism, for it cuts out the mediating institutions and practices that foster deliberation and compromise (p.108). For a generation, conservatives have ruled. However, their capitulation to populism means that they leave little of lasting value behind them.

Part III: A Divided People?

In “The Future of the Liberal Family,” Susan Shell sees a danger in declining birth rates in Europe and the U.S. In this regard, the U.S. differs a bit from Europe; it maintains roughly a replacement birth rate overall. However, the U.S. also has “a relatively high rate of poverty, fatherlessness, and infant mortality. . . [compared to] other liberal societies” (pp.117-118). We are failing to invest sufficiently in the well being and moral development of the next generation. For Shell, one important force behind these troubling trends is “new legal definitions of marriage and the family that assign childbearing and child-rearing an increasingly marginal status” (p.119). Shell then turns to a fascinating account of the nature and place of marriage and the family in social contract theory (Locke, Rousseau, and Kant). The sketch mirrors later cultural changes in ideas about marriage. By the time we get to Kant, marriage is “a contract between two formally identified and equal adults.” From this exaltation of autonomy and choice, it is not a long step to marriage “as a contract among adults for their own mutual satisfaction, and without any essential relation to procreation” (p.130). Shell is no reactionary. She would grant gay and lesbian couples full rights of inclusion, including adoption rights, with the exception of the honorific title of marriage, and she rejects conservative efforts to turn back the clock with their heavy-handed approaches on marriage (See also Shell 2004). Her concern is with the articulation between family forms and practices and the liberal constitutional order. Liberal societies have always depended on families to inculcate norms and habits essential to democracy. For some reason (and I don’t mean to be snide here, but the reason escapes me), Shell believes that the presence of men and the definitional [*642] connection between marriage and “generation” are essential to the family’s performance of this role. Her preferred solutions to the problem she highlights involve gently “pushing back” against the new cultural and moral latitude. Many readers will no doubt disagree. For my part, I wondered what we know and what we might learn from empirical investigations of the questions Shell raises.

In “Political Voice in an Age of Inequality,” Kay Lehman Schlozman and Traci Burch explore the political implications of growing economic inequality in the United States. After describing increases in economic inequality since the mid-1970s, Schlozman and Burch note the standard findings from their field. Political participation varies directly and consistently with measures of class. Some say nonparticipation does not matter much because responses to survey questions show that participators and nonparticipators have the same range of partisan and policy preferences. However, some evidence comparing disadvantaged to advantaged participators also shows that class does influence what people say and do, once they are involved. The authors go on to ask whether growing economic inequality has resulted in commensurate increases in unequal political participation. Although, surprisingly, some evidence indicates that a bad situation has not gotten worse, it is still very much the case that Schattschneider’s argument basically holds: “the heavenly chorus still sings with a strong upper-class accent” (pp.157; and 156-166). This is not a crisis threatening the republic, but merely a very serious problem demanding our attention.

I would not be surprised if Schlozman and Burch’s piece made its way onto many syllabi in American politics. It is the kind of essay teachers crave – one that lucidly and elegantly covers vast bodies of work and competing arguments, and offers its own empirically grounded conclusions.

In “The Real Immigration Crisis,” Peter Skerry argues that the immigration issue cries out for strong, principled leadership but, alas, none is to be found. The failure of our leaders on both the right and the left is nowhere more apparent than in the incessant focus on illegal immigration, as opposed to problems of immigration generally. “Were it possible to stop illegal immigration tomorrow,” Skerry writes, “most of the concerns expressed by so many Americans would remain unaddressed” (p.184). For Skerry, a good starting place for leaders would be to take those economic and cultural concerns seriously. Skerry then practices what he preaches by evaluating, in turn, popular discontents and inadequate elite responses to them. In the end, he hints faintly at support for a moderate and measured restrictionism.

In “Religion and Polarization,” James Q. Wilson addresses the increasing significance of religious identification, and the increasing polarization between “people of any faith” and zealous secularists. Wilson’s wide-ranging and erudite piece is a revised version of his 2005 Tanner Lecture on Human Values. His basic point is that “America is a religious nation, but not one in which religion threatens politics, restricts [*643] human freedom, or seeks theocratic rule.” Many secularists, then, “have misjudged the relation between religion and American democracy” (pp.193-194). Proceeding both historically and comparatively, Wilson makes a strong case for this proposition. Comparatively, the puzzle is why religion has persisted and thrived in American while it has declined markedly in Europe. Interestingly, Wilson explains this divergence as a function of the separation of church and state at the national level in the United States. The United States was a de facto Protestant nation, of course, but it was not officially so, and this made all the difference. [Perhaps believers in the religion-based case for strict separationism might want to add Wilson’s essay to their playbook?]. But the important claim here, one that Wilson says is “easy to overlook,” is that the influence of religion has been largely democratic. This is so because American democracy shaped religion as much as religion shaped democracy (p.208). Moreover, religion has salutary effects on individuals and families. The faithful are more likely to live in two-parent families, achieve upward economic mobility, resist alcoholism, drug abuse, crime, and suicide, overcome health problems, and give to charity. Wilson acknowledges that secularists will find parts of his argument hard to swallow. He is right about that. However, most would also learn much from his interpretation and agree with his concluding plea for more humility and self-restraint all around.

Part IV: Dilemmas of Self-Government

In “The End of Savings,” Peter Rodriguez comments on our economic situation as of about 2006. He focuses on the recent and stunning decline in savings rates among households and government. From the mid-1980s on, household savings rates fell steadily, reaching below zero in 2005 (p.222). By 2006, the national debt had reach $8 trillion. A lack of savings, Rodriguez notes, is only a problem if it produces declining investment and growth rates. However, over these years, “investments have remained steadily high, funded by imported savings” (p.225). Rodriguez then canvasses the reasons why this situation may or may not be a problem, or perhaps even a grave threat to the nation. He concludes that the answer depends on how fast households and governments could return to saving in the event that relatively cheap sources of foreign capital were to evaporate. If not a crisis, our lack of savings is at the very least cause for great concern.

In “Rational Control, or Life Without Virtue,” Harvey C. Mansfield urges us to see “rational control” itself as a danger. Consider, he says, the way we are treated when an institution opts for the installation of automatic flush toilets. For our own good, we are deprived of the opportunity to be or to become virtuous – here, by flushing routinely, or perhaps by even learning to “flush with flair.” This is a small example of “rational control.” Rational control is entailed in the idea of modernity itself. It “requires subjecting our entire lives, holding nothing back . . . , to an examination by our reason as to whether we can live more effectively” (pp.238-239). Mansfield finds the origins of instrumental reason in Machiavelli. Its cause is liberty – which means [*644] “liberation” from internal control and custom – and progress. What Mansfield is suggesting here, as Faulkner and Shell put it in their introduction, is an insidious and always indirectly accomplished moral enervation; it is a new form of Tocqueville’s soft despotism. Manfield also suggests that liberal intolerance for traditional views or habits or customs, particularly when it comes to gender and sexuality, necessarily flows from the march of rational control. Such liberal intolerance no doubt exists, but is it necessarily connected to Mansfield’s “rational control”? In any event, I did not understand why Mansfield singled out liberal intolerance with respect to conservative views of gender and sexuality for particular attention.

In “The Corruption of Democratic Leadership,” Hugh Heclo explores the nature and implications of “the new American political system.” Against the grain of the Beardian persuasion, Heclo begins by taking seriously the framers’ claims about how their institutional design would promote rational deliberation and ordered liberty. In the complicated dialogic exchanges between citizens and representatives, all could “learn about and act on their common problems.” A breakdown in this “republican leadership transaction” would “mean representatives and the people hearing only what they want – rather than what they need – to hear.” Such a failure would lead “a self-governing people literally to lose touch with reality” (p.253). Heclo is quick to acknowledge that there never was a golden age. Still, he stands by his claim that our system’s new features amount to a whole new way of doing politics. It is now “a machine for the professional management of political power” (p.255). He then lists and briefly discusses seven new developments. As a result, citizens become spectators at spectacles – “a lumpen citizenry.” Many respond rationally with ironic detachment or simmering rage. Heclo sees reasons for hope in the existence of actors who work diligently at “trying to get beyond the gamesmanship [to] address the yearning for a more honest, honorable politics” (p.263). However, it is likely that only a grave crisis will produce the needed changes.

Two Final Thoughts

(1) These essays apparently went to press in late 2006 just before the meteoric rise of Mr. Obama. It is therefore not surprising that not one them mentions our current president’s name. With the benefit of hindsight, we can note how Obama’s campaign testifies to the insightfulness of the contributors to this volume. I am sure that some of the contributors voted for Obama, and that some did not. Still, in its rhetoric at least, Obama’s campaign was directly responsive to the felt needs and problems probed in AMERICA AT RISK. The linkages are quite interesting. For example: rhetoric respecting the yearning of citizens for a more honest and honorable politics and “to be told what they need to hear and not just what they want to hear” (Heclo’s and Wolfe’s respective essays); a commitment to repairing the breach with Europe (Manent’s essay); the emphasis on individual and family responsibility, including controversial disquisitions on “fatherhood” (Shell’s essay); the constant allusions to Declaration and Constitution, as in the speech on race, and the constant quotation and [*645] reworking of Lincoln’s words (Ceaser’s essay); the commitment to civility and productive dialogue between secular and faith communities (Wilson’s and Galston’s respective essays). What the rise of Obama will mean for culture and institutions over the longer term is, I suppose, anyone’s guess.

(2) Any collection from a roughly like-minded group of intellectuals will inevitably leave a great deal of importance out of the picture. The editors acknowledge that many particular concerns, “such as race and [poverty], are not adequately or directly addressed” (p.2). However, it is worth mentioning one very large and varied territory of inquiry that would seem to be ruled out of bounds, a priori, as it were. The territory I have mind generally goes under the banner of “political economy.” The relevant questions here involve possible linkages between structural and structurally-interwoven international and domestic economic developments since the mid-1970s (especially as these involve the nature and organization of work), on one hand, and the questions of “character” addressed in AMERICA AT RISK, on the other. For example, consider these lines from the Preface of Richard Sennett’s meditation on this very topic:

Character particularly focuses upon the long-term aspects of our emotional experience. Character is expressed by loyalty and mutual commitment, or through the pursuit of long-term goals, or by the practice of delayed gratification for the sake of a future end. Out of the confusion of sentiments in which we all dwell at any particular moment, we seek to save and sustain some; these sustainable sentiments will serve our characters. Character concerns the personal traits which we value in ourselves and for which we seek to be valued by others.

How do we decide what is of lasting value in ourselves in a society which is impatient, which focuses on the immediate moment? How can long-term goals be pursued in an economy devoted to the short term? How can mutual loyalties and commitments be sustained in institutions which are constantly breaking apart or continually being redesigned? These are the questions about character posed by the new, flexible capitalism (1998, p.10).

The bedrock philosophical commitments of the contributors to AMERICA AT RISK likely preclude them from going through this gate into the realm of political economy. They likely believe, not implausibly, that it amounts to a dangerous dead end. Others, like Sennett, would disagree. If the questions about political economy cannot be asked, they would say, then we will never investigate what it might mean for communities to grasp and control these economic developments through politics.

REFERENCES:
Ceaser, James W. 2006. NATURE AND HISTORY IN AMERICAN POLITICAL DEVELOPMENT [with commentary by Jack N. Rakove, Nancy L. Rosenblum, and Rogers M. Smith]. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ferguson, Niall. 2004. COLOSSUS: THE PRICE OF AMERICAN EMPIRE. New York: Penguin Group.

Sennett, Richard. 1998. THE CORROSION OF CHARACTER: THE PERSONAL CONSEQUENCES OF WORK IN THE NEW CAPITALISM. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. [*646]

Shell, Susan. 2004. “The Liberal Case Against Same Sex Marriage.” THE PUBLIC INTEREST, Summer 2004 [Available at: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0377/is_156/ai_n6143562/]


© Copyright 2009 by the author, Michael Paris.