Civility Wars


Democracy on Trial, by Jean Bethke Elshtain, New York: Basic Books, 153 pages, $20.00

Some years ago, when a friend reached his 40th birthday, I sent him a T-shirt emblazoned with the legend "Aging McGovern Voters for Reagan." Were I closely acquainted with the author of this slender volume, I would be inclined to draw her attention to the fact that a woman who once prided herself on her hatred for Nixon is now sounding some themes reminiscent of Newt Gingrich. I wonder, however, whether she would be amused.

Jean Bethke Elshtain, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Ethics at the University of Chicago, is an academic left-liberal with impeccable feminist credentials. The five lectures that make up her latest publication were delivered at Massey College in 1993, broadcast on CBC Radio in Canada, and revised for publication during an extended sojourn at Harvard University. Although her book is written in a conversational tone and is accessible to anyone willing to plunk down $20, it is in fact directed at a particular audience—at academic left-liberals and their fellow travelers, especially at those inclined to think righteous thoughts when they hear the chant, "Race, Class, and Gender."

Elshtain is not a convert preaching to the converted. Nor does she make strenuous efforts to establish her bona fides with those to whom her remarks are addressed. Her lectures are, in fact, noteworthy for the near absence of cheap shots at those on the right. For the most part, she reserves her criticism for members of her own tribe. But Elshtain isn't a turncoat—a liberal turned neoconservative—at least not yet. She associates herself with Amitai Etzioni, Michael Walzer, William Galston, and others on the "communitarian" left, and there is every reason to suppose that she cheered William Jefferson Clinton's latest State of the Union address.

But like neoconservatives of a slightly older generation, she is a liberal who has clearly been mugged by reality. In her preface, she tells us that she has "joined the ranks of the nervous," and her book, graced with a title that, as one senior colleague observed, has "a very 1940s ring to it," is an attempt to explain why.

To begin with, Elshtain is a firm friend to the family. Her study is dedicated to the memory of her father; in its preface, she draws attention to the fact that she is herself now a grandmother. She worries that "the America" which her granddaughter "will discover a mere fifteen or twenty years from now" will not possess a political "culture worthy of endorsement and engagement." Above all else, she fears what I will call the postmodern mentality, which is marked by what she calls "the pernicious corrosion of resentment."

As she puts it, "The language of opposition now appears as a cascading series of manifestos that tell us we cannot live together; we cannot work together; we are not in this together; we are not Americans who have something in common, but racial, ethnic, gender, or sexually identified clans who demand to be 'recognized' only or exclusively as 'different.' Think about how odd this is on the face of it: I require that you recognize that we have nothing in common with one another. This demand is rapidly becoming a shared civic zaniness that threatens to implode our culture. We are in danger of losing democratic civil society. It is that simple and that dangerous, springing, as it does, not from a generous openness to sharp disagreement—democratic feistiness—but from a cynical and resentful closing off of others."

Pluralism she embraces: The "aim" of her book is, as she puts it, "to reach disagreement," and she is perfectly prepared to honor and even celebrate "our distinctions, as peoples of a particular heritage and individuals of particular gifts." What worries her is multiculturalism, which she defines as "the current construction of 'difference' as a form of group homogeneity that brooks no disagreement or distinction within and can maintain itself only as a redoubt against threatening 'enemies' from without."

One consequence of multiculturalism's hegemony is that the world of the university is now balkanized, and scholars "whose tacit Hippocratic oath commits them to thoroughness and fairness in inquiry" no longer "bother to hide" the fact that they think in quasi-inquisitorial terms of "apostasy" and heresy while searching "for guidance on the interdiction of a text."

If Elshtain had followed up on her eloquent introductory remarks by providing her readers with a sustained analysis of our postmodern predicament, this would have been an important book. Unfortunately, however, her lectures are disjointed and episodic, and her book is slender in more than one way. Where one looks for a coherent, focused argument, one finds instead an extended commentary on a pastiche of quotations drawn from the great and the good: from luminaries such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Vaclav Havel, Milan Kundera, Pope John Paul II, Hannah Arendt, and many a lesser light. What no doubt worked on stage and even on the radio is far less effective when presented on the printed page.

The thrust of Elshtain's remarks is generally sensible. Early on, in the first lecture, she cites E.J. Dionne's Why Americans Hate Politics and draws attention to the incoherence marking both liberal and conservative thinking with regard to markets and morals. Liberals, she notes, try "to tame the logic of the market in economic life" and then "celebrate a nearly untrammeled laissez-faire in cultural and sexual life"; their conservative opponents think it possible to introduce "constraints and controls in the cultural and sexual sphere but embrace a nearly unconstrained market." She then draws attention to academic studies of the manner in which preferential hiring programs have stoked racial resentment, and she notes the tendency for federal programs to create "a 'client-compliance culture' that is much at odds with the possibilities for adult citizenship." Again and again, she emphasizes what is obvious to most Americans but incomprehensible to those within the academic counterculture: that there is a close correlation between poverty and juvenile delinquency on the one hand and being the offspring of unmarried parents who failed to complete high school and had a first child before reaching the age of 20 on the other.

In the same lecture, Elshtain quite rightly traces many of our difficulties to the substitution of a notion of rights as entitlements for the older, liberal understanding of rights as immunities. And in attacking "the logic of statism," she sensibly observes that "government cannot substitute for concrete moral obligations."

She sounds an elegiac note when she considers "the loneliness of the aged, the apathy of the young, the withering away of churches and communal organizations, the disentangling of family ties, and the loss of family rituals and rhythms." Although she stops short of simply blaming statism for these phenomena, she warns that "a bureaucratic, top-heavy state that numbers among its tasks defining populations by their 'needs' and targeting them for various policies based on assumptions about such needs, really cannot help moving in the direction of a 'social engineering' that exists in tension with democratic freedom, civic sociality, and individual liberty."

In similar fashion, Elshtain attacks the Violence Against Women Act, which incorporates "gender motivation" into the law and "presumes to see in rape—a crime of violence—the paradigmatic, indeed normative, expression of male dominance." It is, she observes, a "distressing spectacle" to find "an assault on civil liberties, coupled with a perfervid ideology of victimization." Four paragraphs thereafter, she launches an attack on court intervention in "wedge issues," such as the question of abortion, arguing that "the juridical model of politics" freezes out "citizen debate" and deepens "a politics of resentment." And she concludes her lecture with a call for "a new social covenant," the meaning of which, in subsequent lectures, she fails to spell out.

Elshtain's failure in this regard is a shame—for while it is difficult to find the thread that holds the individual pieces of her first lecture together, there is a logic evident in some of what she says. In the manner of the Anti-Federalists and Alexis de Tocqueville, she regards centralization as suspect, and she wants to reinvigorate families, churches, schools, and local governments. But she does not do a very good job of relating these concerns to her critique of the postmodern mentality. And when commenting on the recent debate concerning "the ability of the police to make unannounced sweeps of housing projects where danger is a pervasive presence," she displays a measure of the left-liberal myopia that elsewhere she quite effectively attacks.

This would have been an appropriate place for indicating the sort of reforms that a reinvigoration of local responsibility might entail. In this connection, Elshtain might have explored a proposal recently advanced by Robert Cottrol of the Rutgers School of Law at Camden that the heads of households within such projects be armed and drilled as a militia, that they be deputized as a posse comitatus, and that they be given considerable responsibility for cleaning up their own neighborhoods.

Instead, she criticizes the lawyers and editorial writers who worry about the civil liberties of those who live in the projects, and she launches an assault on the opponents of gun control. It never seems to cross her mind that, within the Whig political culture from which the American regime takes its origins, there is a connection between adult citizenship and the bearing of arms and that, in our larger cities, the housing projects are dangerous precisely because the people who live there are passive adherents to "a 'client-compliance culture,'" are disorganized, and have been denied the means of self-defense. Would it not be appropriate for "a new social covenant" to include within its provisions the presumption that individuals within a given locality should bear some considerable responsibility for their own security?

The second of Elshtain's five lectures is the most interesting and coherent of the lot. In it, she argues that the feminist insistence that "the personal is political" contributes mightily to the corruption of both public and private life, to the extension of "the therapeutic powers of the state," and to the emergence of a quasi-totalitarian ethos within the society at large. In this connection, she quotes to good effect Milan Kundera's contention that there is a "magic border" between "intimate life and public life…that can't be crossed with impunity," since anyone "who was the same in both public and intimate life would be a monster…without spontaneity in his private life and without responsibility in his public life. For example, privately to you I can say of a friend who's done something stupid, that he's an idiot, that his ears ought to be cut off, that he should be hung upside down and a mouse stuffed in his mouth. But if the same statement was broadcast over the radio spoken in a serious tone—and we all prefer to make such jokes in a serious tone—it would be indefensible."

America is not pre-1989 Czechoslovakia, Elshtain is quick to remark. In it, there is nothing precisely equivalent to the sort of "terror" that Kundera had in mind. Our officials do not tape remarks made over the kitchen table for subsequent broadcast on the radio. But the current hysteria concerning battered women points in a similar direction: "Mandated counseling, even behavioral conditioning of violent or 'potentially violent' men, coupled with compulsory punishment and no appeal, are common parts of the panoply of interim proposals that have been made."

In these proposals, Elshtain finds echoes of the social-hygiene movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in which attempts were made to police and restrict feminine sexuality to "certain standards of class and ethnicity," and black men were accused of "reckless eyeballing" while Italians were suspect as "seducers" and Chinese were regarded as potential "white slavers."

In the same spirit, Elshtain points to the dangers inherent in the sort of "identity politics" practiced by the gay liberation movement in which "one's private identity becomes who and what one is in public, and public life is about confirming that identity." This is, she points out, a recipe for civil war, for "those who disagree with my 'politics,' then, are the enemies of my identity." That "the word of choice" in the polemics launched by those demanding public confirmation should be "enraged" is only logical—for what is at stake when politics is understood as "an eruption of radical feelings" is nothing less than everything.

It is consistent with "the politics of democratic civility and equity," Elshtain argues, for society to accord "all citizens, including gays,…a right, as individuals, to be protected from intrusion or harassment and to be free from discrimination in such areas as employment and housing." It is not consistent with that form of politics for a gay or for anyone else to demand "full public sanction of his or her activities, values, beliefs, or habits."

The quest for public validation causes such an individual to put "his life on display" and it gives rise to an "expressivist politics" in which he opens "himself up to publicity in ways that others are bound to find quite uncivil" since "the boundary of shame" is breached. There is, as she puts it, a real distinction between "flaunting one's most intimate self" and "arguing for a position, winning approval, or inviting dissent as a citizen." Public deliberation presupposes civility, and that in turn depends on the maintenance of an atmosphere of restraint defined by shame, privacy, and concealment.

In her subsequent lectures, Elshtain examines multiculturalism with an eye to radical egalitarianism and to the defects of our affirmative-action policies. She surveys earlier discussions of democracy in Pericles, Plato, Aristotle, and Hobbes, and on the left and right in more recent times. She explores what she calls "democracy's enduring promise." But she does not rise again to the level that she attains in her second lecture, and it is not difficult to see why.

Missing from Elshtain's argument is clarity concerning the ends and purposes of politics and government. Her vague references to the need for "a new social covenant" cut off discussion right where it should begin. Elshtain rejects the illiberal politics of premodern times because it was predicated on a failure to distinguish what is properly public from what should remain private—it presupposed that it is the task of government to shape character and identity.

But she is also unsatisfied with the old liberal understanding that restricts politics to the protection of life, liberty, and property. Nowhere in her lectures does one find anything like the sentence in Thomas Jefferson's First Inaugural Address praising as "the sum of good government…a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned." Nowhere does one read anything even remotely comparable to the passage that Jefferson inserted in his draft of the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, arguing that "confidence is everywhere the parent of despotism," that "free government is founded in jealousy, and not in confidence," and that "it is jealousy and not confidence which prescribes limited constitutions, to bind down those whom we are obliged to trust with power." Indeed, nowhere—in a book chiefly concerned with the state of American democracy—is Jefferson even mentioned.

In the place customarily accorded the author of the Declaration of Independence stands Martin Heidegger's student Hannah Arendt. Elshtain makes much of the contrast that Arendt drew, in her book On Revolution (1963), between the French and the American Revolutions, and she follows Arendt in asserting that the former was concerned with "generic, unlimited 'rights of man'" while the latter was launched in pursuit of "the rights of freedom and citizenship" and was sustained by the conviction "that power comes into being when 'people…get together and bind themselves through promises, covenants, and mutual pledges'" and that "'only such power, which rests on reciprocity and mutuality,'" can be "'real power and legitimate.'"

Such a historical claim cannot be defended. To entertain it, one must act as Arendt did: One must resolutely ignore the second paragraph of the American Declaration of Independence, one must deny the crucial role played during and long after the American Revolution by the notion of the natural rights of man, and one must avert one's gaze from the influence exercised by Thomas Jefferson and the American example in shaping the French national assembly's Declaration of the Rights of Man.

Much can be learned from a comparison between the two revolutions. The differences are quite significant and go far toward explaining the subsequent history of the countries in which they took place. But they do not turn on the issue identified by Arendt, and Elshtain's error in this particular is indicative of the confusion underlying her inability to articulate what her "new social covenant" involves.

"Political power does not explode out of the barrel of a gun or flow from the dripping blade of a guillotine," Elshtain informs us. "Rather, it comes into being when men and women, acting in common as citizens, get together and find a way to express their collective hopes and possibilities." For Elshtain, the crucial example is the American civil rights movement of the 1960s. Its politics cannot, she insists, be confined to the political issues it explicitly addressed. To understand what took place, one must focus on the achievement of "freedom as collective liberation from bondage" and on what one historian calls the "necessary transformation of the self experienced by those actively engaged in direct action." Elshtain is persuaded that it would be a blunder to "see such solidaristic freedom and self-transformation as merely peripheral to 'the explicit goals of liquidation of racial discrimination and black disenfranchisement,'" for to do so would be "to lose the ethical power and historic complexity of the civil rights struggle."

Here lies the source of Elshtain's confusion. Those who organized and joined the civil rights movement justified their resort to civil disobedience by appealing to the principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. Of "solidaristic freedom and self-transformation," in these appeals, they breathed not a word—and for good reason. The respect for one another's rights is what grounds civility and makes it possible for us "to reach disagreement" without slaughtering one another. The search through politics for "solidaristic freedom and self-transformation" is plainly incompatible with this: It directly leads to the "identity politics" that Elshtain abhors. The quest for "self-transformation" and for "freedom as collective liberation from bondage" is, in fact, perfectly consistent with "the current construction of 'difference' as a form of group homogeneity that brooks no disagreement or distinction within and can maintain itself only as a redoubt against threatening 'enemies' from without."

At the heart of the new tribalism so visible within today's academy and beyond is the same warmed-over existentialism that Elshtain's mentor Hannah Arendt purveyed in her books. Jacques Derrida and Jean-François Lyotard may be the proximate sources of the postmodern mentality, but the fountainhead for their thinking—and for Arendt's as well—is the Martin Heidegger who sought to practice the politics of "solidaristic freedom and self-transformation" by embracing the National Socialist cause.

In 1933, Heidegger's compatriots, "acting in common as citizens," had gotten together and found "a way to express their collective hopes and possibilities." In Arendt's demand that power rest on "reciprocity and mutuality," there is no ground for denying that what Heidegger and his fellow Germans did was "legitimate."

Jean Bethke Elshtain needs to rethink her argument from the bottom up. To discover the foundations for the civility that is, as she quite rightly asserts, crucial to the process of public deliberation within a liberal democratic society, one need only study the American Founding Fathers. Nowhere do they deny that politics can be ennobling. Their very activity presupposed as much. Nor need one doubt that the Revolution required of Americans a measure of solidarity and that the revolutionary experience was for many transformative. Yet nowhere did our Founders advocate revolution or even "direct action" as such.

Instead, they espoused limited government. For instance, in stipulating that taking a religious oath would not be a prerequisite for holding federal office, they signalled their commitment to the view that "self-transformation" and the pursuit of "freedom as collective liberation from bondage" are best conducted outside the political sphere—in churches, in families, and in private associations.

It was, as they saw it, not enough that Americans, "acting in common as citizens," should come together and "find a way to express their collective hopes and possibilities." There had to be principles, lasting principles, stipulating which "collective hopes and possibilities" can properly be pursued in the political arena and which must be relegated to the private sphere.

The vagueness and incoherence that beset Elshtain's book and the communitarian movement as a whole arise from an unwillingness on the part of some of left-liberalism's most acute and unsparing critics to accept and endorse the fundamental principles underpinning the limits and restraints that they recognize as essential to civility within a liberal democracy such as our own.

Paul A. Rahe is Jay P. Walker Professor of American History at the University of Tulsa. His book Republics Ancient and Modern: Classical Republicanism and the American Revolution (1992) was reissued last summer by the University of North Carolina Press in a three-volume paperback edition.