Assessing American Liberal Democracy

Three scholars offer perspectives on the shortcomings and successes of a complex United States institution

THOSE trying to come to grips with the performance of complex institutions - in these three books, scholars assessing American liberal democracy - face a daunting task in finding the proper perspective. How does one deal with the fact that every such institution has problems?

Many seem to think it's enough to explore the problems forthrightly. But even the most successful institutions are riddled with inadequacies. The decision to "deal forthrightly" with their problems can only result, then, in accounts that largely ignore these institutions' most substantial feature - their relative success.

American liberal democracy comprises ideas and institutions that have been extraordinarily successful. They have, for example, lasted a very long time, because they have retained the support of the people living under them. They have extended individual rights and guarantees to a degree rarely equaled elsewhere. And around the world today, institutions similar to, if not modeled on them, are ascendant as never before.

Nonetheless, American liberal democracy does, in fact, face many large problems, and not even its greatest admirer thinks its record is flawless.

Finding the proper perspective on all this involves steering a course between two equally enervating - and intellectually inadequate - alternatives: a celebration of the achievements, which stands complacent before the shortcomings; and a preoccupation with the failures, which forfeits the energy and confidence relative success should impart.

Earlier in United States history, commentators were often inclined to err in the former direction. No more. Anything that hints of celebration is out of fashion. But the "problems perspective," though ascendant, may err at least as badly when confronting relatively vigorous and attaining institutions, such as those of liberal democratic governance in the United States.

James S. Fishkin, who teaches political theory at the University of Texas, argues in Democracy and Deliberation: New Directions for Democratic Reform (Yale University Press, 133 pp., $17.95) that the American system now lacks a sufficient capacity for thoughtful and informed scrutiny in its presidential candidate selection process.

In the interest of greater political equality, the United States has, over the last quarter century, largely removed political party leadership from any active role in nominee selection.

Rather than being chosen through party deliberation, presidential candidates are now self-starters who run a gauntlet of primaries. They try to "define themselves" through snippets and sound bites directly to a mass electorate, which really didn't know much about many of them before the start of the feverish, television-dominated campaign.

This system lacks a champion. Quite literally, no one thinks it is ideal.

But every conceivable alternative has shortcomings too. Fishkin's absorption with the present system's weaknesses inclines him, unconsciously, to change at any price.

Surprisingly, he proposes as a solution to our unreflective, media-centered presidential selection process the convening of a "National Caucus." A randomly selected sample of American voters would be assembled under the auspices of a television network and, with cameras trained on them continuously, would "deliberate" for a few days about the needed nominee.

The country as a whole would supposedly learn something from this. In fact, it would likely only accelerate present tendencies toward a shallow, manipulative, TV-centered process.

Thomas L. Pangle, who teaches political science at the University of Toronto, seeks in The Ennobling of Democracy: The Challenge of the Postmodern Age (John Hopkins University Press, 227 pp., $25.95) to revivify the intellectual base of liberal democracy, which he sees eroding in the United States and Western Europe even as its ideas are increasingly ascendant globally.

"We in the West," Pangle writes, "find ourselves in possession of fantastically powerful technological and economic resources; these resources fuel a society that is deeply unsure of its moral purpose and foundations; as an accompaniment or consequence, this society has come to be increasingly penetrated and shaped by a new, highly problematic and skeptical (not to say nihilistic) cultural dispensation known as 'postmodernism.' "

The latter "dispensation," which Pangle criticizes with keen insight, is an antiliberal, antidemocratic, antirationalist philosophic stance that winds its way from Nietzsche to Heidegger, and now to such thinkers as Jean-Francois Lyotard and movements such as deconstructionism.

I agree strongly that academics who oppose these currents need to do more to combat them in the university and to speak more forcefully and clearly for the achievements of liberal democracy. But to suggest, as Pangle does, that what is still a fringe intellectual movement carries a serious challenge to the foundations of the American system seems to me to lack proper perspective.

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., the historian who teaches at the City University of New York Graduate Center, is more successful in finding the right balance in The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society (W. W. Norton, 160 pp., $14.95).

He is deeply troubled by a series of movements and efforts that would reverse America's historic progression from pluribus to unum. Schlesinger writes that, in recent years, "ethnic ideologues" have opposed "the old American ideal of assimilation," called on the country "to think in terms not of individual but of group identity," and have "done their best to turn a college generation against Europe and the Western tradition."

Still, even as he eloquently exposes the deficiencies of movements such as those on behalf of bilingualism and "multiculturalism," Schlesinger stresses the enormous strength and staying power of the United States as a nation made one by a widely shared commitment to the ideals of liberal democracy.

He concludes that "the campaign against the idea of common ideals and a single society will fail. Gunnar Myrdal was surely right; for all the damage it has done, the upsurge of ethnicity is a superficial enthusiasm stirred by romantic ideologues and unscrupulous hucksters.... A historian's guess is that the resources of the [American] Creed have not been exhausted."

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