On D. Berton Emerson and Gregory Laski’s “Democracies in America”

IF IT WAS not already obvious, the unprecedented indictment of a former president by a federal grand jury on August 1, 2023, makes it abundantly clear that democracy is under serious threat. “The Defendant lost the 2020 presidential election,” reads the introduction to that indictment:

Despite having lost, the Defendant was determined to remain in power. So for more than two months following election day on November 3, 2020, the Defendant spread lies […] These claims were false, and the Defendant knew that they were false. But the Defendant repeated and widely disseminated them anyway—to make his knowingly false claims appear legitimate, create an intense national atmosphere of mistrust and anger, and erode public faith in the administration of the election.

In short, the indictment alleges a conspiracy to overturn the presidential election results by a sitting US president, an effort that was no less brazen for being unsuccessful—so far, anyway.

Democracies in America: Keywords for the Nineteenth Century and Today (2023), edited by D. Berton Emerson and Gregory Laski, aspires to be a resource for those who want to understand and potentially shore up democratic institutions that are currently in jeopardy. It remains to be seen whether the book can make much of a difference, much less succeed in its goal, given the extreme polarization of our current political climate. We are witnessing nothing less than a blatant attack on democracy, as evidenced by the dissemination of “alternative facts,” false claims about election fraud as a pretext for disenfranchising voters, state legislative efforts to enable tampering with election results, and a greater willingness to resort to political violence. To their credit, the editors acknowledge that this book arrives at a particularly fraught moment of “polarization, technological innovation, demographic change, and economic inequality.” If most Americans agree that the country is in crisis, however, they disagree on which side is to blame.

Even so, the editors are optimistic that Democracies in America may contribute “in a small way,” as they cautiously put it, to the important work of strengthening American democracy. They cite two major initiatives doing this kind of work: the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship, sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Educating for American Democracy project, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the United States Department of Education. These organizations provide practical ways to reinvigorate our political culture and institutions. For example, the Educating for American Democracy project has created curricula designed to revive civics education in K–12 classrooms and revitalize the study of American history and politics on college campuses. The overarching aim of these efforts is to cultivate a sense of common purpose among Americans. According to Emerson and Laski, Democracies in America is designed to facilitate a robust conversation about “what democracy means and might mean” by offering a set of concepts and terms to help enrich that conversation. In this sense, the book can expand on what the political scientist Danielle Allen, a contributor to this volume, has described as a “shared vocabulary” that “should bind us all as Americans.”

To that end, Democracies in America offers a primer of sorts, 25 chapters by various scholars, each devoted to an important “keyword” for understanding democracies. The concept of keywords derives, of course, from Raymond Williams, whose influential 1976 book of that title sought to clarify those concepts and terms that “we share with others, often imperfectly, when we wish to discuss many of the central processes of our common life.” Like Williams’s Keywords, Democracies in America is a volume of short essays on concepts and terms that the editors deem important for thinking about democracies.

“Acknowledging that the language of democracy is always provisional,” Emerson and Laski write in the introduction, “this volume offers a series of short, provocative meditations on twenty-five terms that can enrich the lexicon we employ to understand democracy in theory and practice.” They include terms that you would expect in a volume of keywords on democracy, such as “Citizenship,” “Constitution,” “Democracy versus Republic,” “Equality,” “Personal Liberty,” and “Representation,” while others may be less expected, such as “Anti-Black Violence,” “The Commons,” “Disenfranchisement,” “Public Opinion,” “The Town Hall Meeting,” and “Women’s Suffrage,” to name a few. Still other terms might be surprising, such as “Charisma,” “Comfort,” “Disgust,” “Doubt,” “Moderation,” and “Sham.” As this last group suggests, Emerson and Laski are not only interested in terms designating the conceptual, collective, and structural aspects of democracies; they are also interested in terms that help us to describe the affective and experiential aspects of democracies.

The result is a fairly extensive lexicon that will be very helpful for anyone who wants to understand democracy better, but I think this book will be especially useful for general readers, students, and teachers who think that by studying the past we can better understand the present. That’s because Democracies in America tries to bridge the gap between two historical moments when democracy was and is in grave danger: the long 19th century and the early 21st century. Emerson and Laski, both scholars of 19th-century American literature, define the long 19th century as the period in US history between 1789 and 1914—in other words, between the United States Constitution, when “the founding generation translated an imagined political system into a structural reality,” and “the dawn of the Progressive Era and First World War.” The long 19th century is an extraordinary period in the larger history of democracy, since it spans the promise of the Revolutionary era in North America, the contentious divisions leading up to the Civil War, the regressive backlash of postwar Reconstruction, and the early reform movements of the Progressive period. “In connecting this foundational past to our present,” the editors write, “Democracies in America invites readers to reflect on the meaning of […] related keywords to create a usable language […] to turn to and return to as a starting point for thinking about the many challenges that confront democratic citizens today.”

Addressing the question of whether the United States is best understood as a democracy or a republic, Allen insists that this is a false dichotomy, or what she calls “a non-question”: “The fact of the matter is that the American political system can be called a democratic republic, a republican democracy, or even a representative democracy.” The government that prevailed in the United States was contested from the start, and this is a far more important lesson from the founding:

The politics of the early United States were characterized by an argument over whether more democratic or more aristocratic approaches to politics should prevail. What mattered was how fully the principle of popular sovereignty was embraced. To suggest that a single term—whether “democracy” or “republic”—came to define the new political entity obscures the enduring argument over the question about popular sovereignty, and the history of specific compromises made to enable those who disagreed powerfully with one another to participate nonetheless as equal shareholders of the new set of public political institutions.

Allen traces the contours of this argument about democracy versus republic in the writings of Samuel Adams, John Adams, Thomas Paine, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, James Wilson, and others, particularly as evidenced in The Federalist Papers. At the heart of the debate was how much power political elites should retain in a democracy. Allen concludes that whatever term you prefer for the US political system, “[a]ll of these labels reveal a core feature of the system: the American founding built in perpetual contestation between masses and elites.” One version of this is surely the so-called culture wars today, wherein supposedly populist leaders fan the flames of mass grievance and resentment towards the nation’s cultural and political elites, even as they pursue policies that benefit wealthy elites considerably more than the middle or lower classes.

We pick up the theme of contestation in an essay on personal liberty, in which Kyle G. Volk argues that “[a] protracted struggle over liberty—its meaning, scope, and significance—animated American democracy during the long nineteenth century.” How far and to whom does liberty extend? This question points to numerous compromises that were made to appease slave states. Before the Civil War, even opponents of slavery generally agreed that enslaved persons had no personal liberty. The Fugitive Slave Clause of the US Constitution established that enslavers had a right to retrieve their property outside their own states. “Kidnapping and other abuses followed,” writes Volk, “as slave catchers could steal almost any Black person into slavery by accusing them of being a fugitive.” Ironically, it was a growing controversy over the rendition of fugitive slaves “that most broadened the reach of personal liberty in American life,” because antislavery Northerners in effect “weaponized personal liberty to combat the rendition of fugitive slaves.” In the infamous 1857 case of Dred Scott v. Sandford, the enslaved Scott sued for his freedom after his enslaver had transported him across state lines from a slave state, Missouri, to the free state of Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory. In a case that pitted personal liberty against property rights, the Supreme Court came down on the side of property rights, flatly declaring that “the right of property in a slave is distinctly and expressly affirmed in the Constitution.” Moreover, the US Constitution described each enslaved Black individual as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of determining the representational numbers of each state. As Elizabeth Maddock Dillon writes in her chapter on representation:

This appalling calculus enabled slave states to both deny humanity to slaves and to wield the force of their numbers to represent enslavers’ interests at the federal level. Since the nation’s inception, even the definition of “the people” and the actual people who are able to represent themselves through the electoral process have not been congruent.

Dillon is one of many contributors who uncover the fundamental flaws of American democracy in practice.

The book also brings readers up to date on the latest scholarship about Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era that followed. In the chapter on citizenship, Padraig Riley points out that the denial of citizenship in Dred Scott v. Sandford was overturned by the 14th Amendment, “which finally established a definition of citizenship in the US Constitution: All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.” According to Riley,

The Fourteenth Amendment transformed the American political order [by] placing national citizenship over state citizenship and promising federal power to protect the rights of citizens. But it obviously did not end conflict over citizenship; long after its passage, African Americans and other citizens by birth struggled to secure basic civil and political rights in the United States.

A recurring theme across multiple chapters is that the US government failed to safeguard basic civil rights and personal liberty for Black Americans and other citizens. This includes Native Americans, of course, as Alaina E. Roberts makes clear in a lucid chapter on settlement, in which she defines settler colonialism as the “forcible resettlement of Native people and their replacement by white settlers who then moved onto their lands, […] a process that occurred from the time of contact through the twentieth century.” In a chapter on anti-Black violence, Ariel Elizabeth Seay-Howard writes about how racial violence was visited upon freed Black people throughout the Reconstruction era and beyond, with lynching being “a prevalent form of violence used to terrorize African Americans.” Lynching is often thought of as a form of mob violence, and hence extrajudicial, but as Margaret A. Burnham provocatively asks in her book By Hands Now Known: Jim Crow’s Legal Executioners (2022), “If the law cannot protect a person from lynching, then isn’t lynching the law?” Burnham marshals considerable evidence of how local sheriffs, lawyers, and judges simply did not do their jobs in bringing perpetrators of racial violence to justice. To the extent that they were complicit in racial violence, it becomes state-sponsored violence, and in many cases, these public officials were themselves perpetrators of racial violence. Derrick R. Spires bluntly asserts, in his chapter in Democracies in America, that “representative democratic institutions across the nineteenth century often supported anti-democratic, racist measures,” which he pointedly labels sham democracy. At the end of the chapter, Spires cites the influential Black leader Frederick Douglass from a speech at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. “There is no negro problem,” Douglass insisted. “The problem is whether the American people have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough, to live up to their own constitution.”

While all the contributors to Democracies in America acknowledge the ways in which American democracy has fallen short of its lofty ideals, a few are slightly less pessimistic about the future. Not optimistic, mind you—just slightly less pessimistic. In a chapter on scale, James E. Sanders widens our purview of democracy to include democratic movements in the Caribbean, Latin America, and elsewhere. By adopting a more comparative, global perspective, we can discern “how democracy has not advanced in a linear, even fashion, but instead developed rapidly in waves of democratization, often followed by reverse waves that roll back democratic gains.” Other chapters address the practical institutions of democracy, such as the commons or the town hall meeting, while others discuss how emotions such as belief or comfort inform our ideas about democracy. As Michelle Sizemore observes, political philosophy tends to overestimate the role of reason in formulating political opinions, judgments, decisions, and so on. Today, political theorists are turning to the study of popular affects as an alternative way to understand the contingent, embodied nature of democracies. In a chapter on disgust, Jason Frank shows how politicians mobilize negative emotions like resentment to foster in-group “cohesion through shared visceral aversion.” If democracy is fundamentally about extending equality and civil rights to those who have historically been excluded, marginalized, or worse, and if we truly want to recover “a fuller appreciation of democracy’s forgotten radicalism,” as Frank puts it, then we need to confront the countervailing role that disgust and hatred have long played in politics. There is no way to eliminate feelings from democratic politics, but we can try to channel them in more positive directions, and we can try to disavow ugly feelings like disgust. “[A]ll affects do not convey the same effects,” as Sizemore reminds us.

Readers of Democracies in America will come away with an understanding that the local and the personal also matter immensely to democracy. In her chapter on neighbors, Nancy Rosenblum writes about what she calls “the democracy of everyday life,” which centers around the home. “After we take account of organized politics, work, membership groups, social circles, friends, and family, there is this remainder,” and this is where neighbors come in: “We should recognize the democracy of everyday life as a deep substrate of democracy in America.” Rosenblum is not being sentimental about neighbors. Lynching is one example of neighbors committing violence against their own neighbors, yet even so, Rosenblum says, “some neighbors warn, protect, comfort, rescue, and offer hope for ordinary reciprocity among decent folk.” She insists that being a good neighbor is not the same thing as being a good citizen, for reciprocity among neighbors “turns on the real possibility of disregarding precisely the social inequalities, ethnic and sectarian differences, conflicting interests and ideological commitments that citizens bring to public life.” At the same time, being a good neighbor is no substitute for political democracy; we must be both citizens and neighbors. Rosenblum finds in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854) a view that neighbors are the “saving remnant” of democracy. “That was Thoreau’s provocative conclusion,” writes Rosenblum; “treating one another with respect as neighbors is available to us [even] when our government and we as citizens have fallen into evil or just fallen off the rails.”

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Mark Eaton is a professor of English at Azusa Pacific University and an associate research professor of American literature at Claremont Graduate University. He is the author of Religion and American Literature Since 1950 (2020) and also the co-editor of Historical Fiction Now, which will be published in November 2023.