People, Get (More) Serious

Book cover
Does American Democracy Still Work?by By Alan WolfeYale Univ. Press. 224p $22

Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, at Boston College, has written a sharp indictment of the Bush administration and the conservatives who support it. Wolfe’s overall interpretive point in Does American Democracy Still Work? is that conservatives, who, he says, traditionally have been suspicious of too great an influence of the populace on public policy, have newly discovered that a populist appeal, heretofore used by the left, can be harnessed for conservative causes, particularly in the culture wars. Conservatives in the new American democracy, argues Wolfe, now embrace majoritarianism.

A large percentage of citizens do not vote, Wolfe reminds us, and those who do know little about the issues. This worked all right in a period of consensus or middle-of-the-road politics, but in the new version of American democracy, ideological conservatives manipulate that ignorance through crafted speech. The political system no longer has much of a competitive element. Most congressional seats are safe, so that these manipulative politicians are not held accountable for their actions. These ideological conservatives, writes Wolfe, use anti-democratic means to control policy. They do not talk to the opposition, but simply exclude them. They introduce important provisions into bills after the bills have been passed. Special interests not only influence legislation, they write itand of course there is the K street project. Presidential signing statements further degrade the political process. The whole idea of the dictatorial unitary executive is particularly dangerous.


The political process needs some reasonably disinterested institutions, says Wolfe. Media could be one, but the media are now dominated by non-media owners and soft news or by the ideological conservatives. The wise men whom Lyndon B. Johnson brought in to consider the Vietnam War were such disinterested parties, but the conservatives have created ideologically committed pseudo-elites in think tanks like the Heritage Foundation. Court appointments are now dominated by ideology, and the Bush administration has no interest in objective social science.

Conservative politicians often talk the language of morality, writes Wolfe, but in fact promote social injustice. Tax cuts for the wealthy and a refusal to raise the minimum wage result in increased injustice. Nor have they shown any interest in international social justice.

As is clear from this summary of his book, Wolfe has nothing new to say. Haven’t we known for decades, for example, that many people do not vote and that most voters are relatively ignorant on the issues? The Bush administration is surely guilty as charged, but the indictment has been brought dozens of times before. One good-sized editorial by Elizabeth Drew or a couple by Frank Rich would do the job. Or if one wants more detail, how about David Strata’s Hostile Takeover or George Lakoff’s Whose Freedom?

As for Wolfe’s overall interpretation that the conservatives have newly discovered the uses of majoritarianism, it is simply wrong. Wolfe does not adequately distinguish between conservative followers of Edmund Burke who feared too much influence from the masses and, on the other hand, right-wing politicians who also call themselves conservatives. The right wing has used populist appeals all along. Even the original Populists had elements of conservatism: damning cities and promoting the virtues of rural life. Surely the whole phenomenon that goes by the name of McCarthyism was the conservative use of majoritarianism, as was the most vicious racism, from Tom Watson to George Wallace. Both used what can be called crafted speech.

Wolfe gets into trouble because he refers only to works of political scientists whose interest is limited to last week, or at most the last few years. He seems to know quite a bit about today, but almost nothing about yesterday. This leads, when he speaks of George Wallace, to his worst howler: that Americans called an end to politics on the civil rights issue and arrived at treating racial justice as a consensus moral imperative. Good grief, what can he mean? Has he forgotten the bitter, sometimes deadly battle within the Democratic Party? Has he forgotten Johnson saying that the 1964 civil rights act would give the Republican Party the South, and that Johnson was right?

It may be useful to have the dangers of the Bush policies pounded home again and again, but a new reading of the indictment ought to contain new insights, complexities or original nuance. Wolfe’s book does not.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Denis Johnson's final book of short stories reminds us of his literary reach and depth.
Gregory WolfeApril 19, 2018
In The Character of Virtue, Stanley Hauerwas offers life lessons to a grandson.
Christiana ZennerApril 18, 2018
Six decades after he emerged as a star, Bob Dylan still attracts the attention of scholars and fans alike.
James T. KeaneApril 13, 2018
America's 39th president reflects on the centrality of religious faith in the life of the nation and individuals.
Betsy ShirleyApril 11, 2018