Heeding the Times from Harry Antonides' Desk

Democracy on Trial

March 1, 1994 - Concord, Ontario:
House of Anansi Press Limited, 1993,148 pp., $11.95

Democracy on Trial is a refreshingly forthright defence of western democracy. But it also warns against the numerous destructive forces that endanger democracy's continued existence.

While frank about the seriousness of what ails democratic politics, the author does not resort to a doomsday style. On the contrary, this book, first presented as the 1993 Massey Lectures on CBC's radio program Ideas, is a clarion call to revive respect for democratic politics and confidence in its future prospects. Jean Bethke Elshtain, Centennial Professor of Political Science and Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University, is no newcomer to this debate. She has written and lectured widely on the current state of western society and has gained a reputation as a perceptive observer and teacher.

Those who worry about the mindless drift of our nation's politics will find this a helpful and encouraging book. Helpful, because Elshtain is not afraid to tackle the sacred cows of political correctness as she masterfully unravels the confusion that is now rife in the political domain. Encouraging, because she reminds readers of a seemingly simple, yet now often forgotten truth: we are not helpless victims but responsible human beings endowed with a uniqueness and dignity that is God-given.

Elshtain writes as an American, but her observations are equally relevant to all democracies. They are all, as she writes, in a state of "faltering, not flourishing." She decries "the loss of civil society—the common good. This loss has unleashed a number of disparate and contradictory forces that are liable to destroy democracy from within.

Democracy on Trial emphasizes that we are created for responsibility and freedom. We may not withdraw into the privacy of our lives, as if we could live in isolation. Neither should we resort to the opposite extreme of surrendering our responsibility to the state. The danger of privatizing or politicizing our lives is very real.

Freedom in service

Elshtain's definition of democracy includes the fusing of freedom and responsibility. She writes: "Democracy is the political form that permits and requires human freedom, not as an act of self-overcoming, nor pure reason, but in service to others in one's own time and place." (p. 89) With this succinct yet profound definition of freedom and democracy, she sets a course fundamentally at odds with much of what passes for modern democracy. She takes issue with cynics who hold politics and politicians in contempt, because they foster a culture of distrust and act as if they have no responsibility for the common good.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the attempt to politicicize all of life—all problems are political and therefore require a political solution. This view eliminates the essential distinction between the private and the public. Elshtain describes this as "the politics of displacement," and it is invariably driven by an anti-democratic impulse. She provides a fascinating analysis of the way this anti-democratic impulse is present in the thriving culture of victim-hood. The gay rights movement, for instance, is determined to use politics not just to protect the civil rights of gays and lesbians, but as a means to promote and obtain legal sanction for their lifestyle.

Elshtain is also concerned with the change in the meaning of rights, from a protective shield against an overweening state to the assumption that the state is the dispenser of claims and entitlements. This shift has profoundly changed the very nature of law and transformed politics into a form of social engineering, posing a serious threat to democracy.

Democracy on Trial presents a clear-eyed overview of the predicament of contemporary democratic politics. What makes it all the more valuable is that it reminds us of a neglected truth: life without a keen sense of political responsibility is incomplete; but politics as a totalistic endeavour (as a way of salvation), is life-destroying.

Elshtain reminds us that the conundrum of the one and the many (the private and the public) can only be resolved by lifting our eyes beyond the horizon of this world. She is hopeful that the struggle for freedom all over the world is an enduring struggle. She describes this as a freedom that flows "from the lexicon of liberty and political equality. But it certainly owes a great deal, as well, to the conviction that every person is unique and irreplaceable, a child of God. The Christian's biblically grounded belief in the equal worth of all souls in the eyes of God profoundly transformed received notions of political equality, putting the stress on human dignity by contrast to equal power to rule and to be ruled." (pp. 128-129)

This highly readable gem of a book deserves to be treasured by all who know that democracy is in dire trouble yet should not be written off as a lost cause.

This article originally appeared in Comment magazine, a journal founded by Harry Antonides. Find all of Harry’s pieces, and thousands more, at http://www.cardus.ca/comment