Demanding Democracy: American Radicals in Search of
a New Politics
Princeton UP, 2010
Discussions of democratic politics today, especially in the United States, often swing between cynicism and idealism. Either politics is corrupted by special interests, overly partisan, and removed from citizens’ ordinary lives or hope and change are in the air, bringing citizens together in a search for shared solutions to political problems. In Demanding Democracy, Marc Stears urges political theorists and ordinary citizens alike to avoid these extremes in favour of an approach to politics more concerned with the concrete means required to make progress toward democratic ideals. In making this point, Stears draws upon the struggles and successes of what he calls the “American radical democratic tradition”, which includes historical movements from the progressives of the early 1900s to the student activism of the 1960s. Stears’s analysis faces questions about the degree to which radical democracy is a coherent tradition or a desirable form of political action. At the same time, his emphasis on the interplay between the theory and practice of democratic improvement makes his book a welcome contribution to debates about democracy within and outside the academy.
One of Stears’s major themes is a problem that political theorist Bonnie Honig has called the “paradox of politics”. This paradox arises from the gap between plans for an ideal democratic order and the willingness of citizens to make progress toward the ideal. More specifically: the experience of inequity and exclusion in democratic life prompts people to devise plans for a more inclusive, participatory political order. Bringing about such a political order by democratic means relies, at least in part, on the involvement of citizens who exhibit, in their attitudes and actions, a strong commitment to participatory democracy. But why should we expect citizens living under non-ideal conditions to exhibit the very commitments to democratic participation and inclusiveness that reform efforts are intended to bring about? Given the absence of such a commitment, non-ideal means may, paradoxically, be necessary to move closer to an ideal democracy.
Addressing the “paradox of politics”, according to Stears, requires sustained reflection on the question of how people should behave in the present if they wish to support a more democratic future. It is not sufficient to posit ideals for democratic improvement and expect support for these ideals to materialise under current political conditions. How can citizens be persuaded to accept plans for a more equitable, inclusive democracy, and how should those who are committed to such ideals behave when many members of the public do not share their aspirations? A sensitive and thoughtful response to these questions, Stears indicates, must involve the relationship between the end of realising a better democracy and the means needed to achieve this end.
If widespread popular support for a democratic ideal is initially absent, democratic reformers cannot necessarily confine themselves to the calm, deliberative behaviour appropriate for citizens in ideal democracies; they may well have to turn, in the words of a phrase of John Dewey’s that Stears quotes a number of times, to “buoyant, crusading, and militant” action.
Stears illustrates his point by analysing the actions and arguments of what he calls the “American radical democratic tradition”. This tradition, according to Stears, ran through the progressive reform movement of the early 20th century, industrial labour activism in the 1930s, the civil rights movement, and the student movements of the New Left. Although these movements had different goals and employed different methods, Stears notes, they all believed that the existing political order needed radical change, and that this change might have to be produced through “discordant, dynamic, and unsettling” political action, rather than reasoned dialogue. While consistently eschewing calls for insurrection or revolution, “radical democrats” were nonetheless willing to consider and employ methods that are sometimes considered manipulative, factional, and even intimidating.
These movements thus combined a dose of optimism about the kind of democracy that could be achieved in the future with a good deal of realism about the means required to make progress—thereby avoiding both excessive idealism and cynicism about the future. Within these movements there was much internal argumentation, informed by practice, about the best ways to realise a more equitable democratic order given the non-ideal circumstances of contemporary life. The “radical democratic tradition” therefore presents us with examples of movements that took the “paradox of politics” seriously: they directed themselves to the question of how the citizenry of today can be mobilised to create the democracy of tomorrow.
One possible response to the “paradox of politics” that emerged from the radical democratic tradition—Stears suggests—is that there may be a difference between the virtues needed for political struggle and the virtues needed for the smooth operation of a stable democratic order. The courage, solidarity, and strong commitment exhibited in industrial strikes in the 1930s, civil rights marches, and campus confrontations in the 1960s may not be appropriate for the day-to-day politics of an improved democracy. This does not mean that the virtues of struggle should be avoided, but that radical democrats should be sensitive to the requirements of a peaceful future. Stears argues, for instance, that civil rights organisations such as the Congress for Racial Equality committed themselves to nonviolence not in order to discharge moral duties to present citizens, but in order to create a future political and moral order unmarred by bitter recriminations brought on by memories of violence. In addition, the examples of the radical democratic tradition illustrate the importance of leadership in changing the attitudes of a citizenry. Leaders able to articulate a democratic vision and pursue it doggedly, such as civil rights activists Bob Moses, Ella Baker, and Martin Luther King Jr, played a significant role in “helping to engender a new spirit of democracy.” For Stears, then, the radical democratic tradition can provide guidance to those seeking to renew American democracy in the present day—especially those who are dissatisfied with both idealised visions of deliberative democracy and overly pessimistic assessments of the possibility for democratic progress.
At a round-table at Oxford on Stears’s book last February, a frequent question concerned Stears’s identification of a single, continuous, and unified American radical democratic tradition. In Demanding Democracy, he contends that the radical democratic tradition has been characterised by continuities in political strategy, such as the sit-down strike, in addition to a degree of institutional and personal interconnection. Members of the radical democratic tradition, according to Stears, shared a propensity to invoke concepts derived from classic American political traditions and to insist that political structures be altered in order to deliver on the promise implicit in American democracy. The question, however, is whether such a tradition is really a coherent concept, given that participants in such movements did not necessarily see themselves as contributors to a wider strain of activism.
Moreover, the fact that the political movements discussed in Demanding Democracy did not work toward shared concrete objectives leads Stears away from defining the radical democratic tradition in terms of the specific goals of its constituent movements. Instead, he characterizes the radical democratic tradition largely by reference to the fine balance between ends and means that their participants espoused. This, however, raises the question of why Stears focuses on movements that are ordinarily considered progressive. What about conservative movements in America—the emerging Tea Party movement or the Moral Majority of the 1980s—that express deep frustration about the existing political order, believe their views have been undemocratically excluded, and eschew calm, reasoned argument in favour of controversial rhetorical and protest techniques? Stears quotes C. Wright Mills’s comment that to be right, or conservative, “means celebrating society as it is”, while to be left, or radical, “means, or ought to mean, just the opposite.” But then many real-life conservative political activists might find themselves classified as conservative radicals. Indeed, there is an argument to be made that the sense of urgency and the commitment to divisive action that once animated progressive radicals in America has shifted to the right of American politics over the past three decades.
Are conservative movements, then, part of the radical democratic tradition? If not, why not? If so, then political theorists on the left may face with renewed vigour the question of whether radical politics is a desirable way to remedy injustice. It is often suggested that conservative movements in the United States appeal to popular passions instead of making their claims in a reasoned manner. For theorists on the left who are suspicious of this kind of conservative politics, it may not be clear that “buoyant, crusading, and militant” methods of achieving democratic change are preferable to reasoned deliberation. Stears’s response to the possibility of conservative radicalism might be to reject the supposed implication that radicals should eschew non-deliberative tactics and urge radicals not to shy away from using such means for their own purposes. The wider question, however—which individuals across the political spectrum must face—is whether protest movements should be urged to hold themselves to the standard of rational argumentation, so that their claims can be adjudicated instead of merely embraced or fought.
Stears’s rejoinder, it seems, would be to appeal to the exigencies of real-world attempts to change political configurations. Radical movements, regardless of their aims, are simply not going to achieve their goals if they play by rules that severely constrain their ability to capture the public’s imagination. Stears’s rejection of reasoned deliberation as the sole proper agent of radical change does not entail a rejection of serious argument. In fact, much of Stears’s book consists of an account of complex and nuanced arguments among radical democrats of various strains. The point for Stears seems to be that radical argument must be political and not merely theoretical; reasoned argument for change must operate in tandem with concrete attempts to effect change.
So should we be hopeful about the ability of radical democrats to bring about greater democratic inclusion through “buoyant, crusading, militant” action? This question, it seems, cannot be answered in the abstract; the potential of radical democracy needs to be judged in light of the consequences of this kind of action in practice. This is especially true given the difficulty, which Stears recognises, of specifying the precise vision for society that radical democrats of widely varying stripes have presented. Yet it seems possible to maintain openness to radical democracy even while accepting its potential risks; and indeed, many of the individuals and groups that Stears described did just that. Stears’s welcome emphasis on the complex interplay between the ends and means of democratic reform remains important for attempts to create a better democratic future.
Rachel Bayefsky is reading for an DPhil in Political Theory at New College, Oxford.