Review: Chapter 16 of James Young’s “Reconsidering American Liberalism” – Democratic Populism Contrasted With Reconsidered Liberalism

The notion that the United States Constitution was instituted by the Founding Fathers as a means to thwart democratic government and participation throws the entire American political tradition and understanding on its head. This premise is exactly what Sheldon Wolin asserts and is discussed by James P. Young in chapter sixteen, Problems with Liberalism, in his book, Reconsidering American Liberalism. Throughout the book Young uses Louis Hartz’s thesis describing Lockean Liberalism and the subsequent Consensus Theory, [a theory that claims regardless of apparent differences, a majority of people agree on certain liberal political tendencies], as the dominant force in American politics. Young evolves the understanding and complexity of liberalism [and its relationship with republicanism] and it’s many forms throughout American history until chapter sixteen, where he introduces alternative and conflicting theories surrounding liberalism. The first sentence Young writes after introducing Sheldon Wolin states, “…[his] position in contemporary American thought is virtually unique, so much so that he is difficult to classify ideologically…”[i] Therefore this paper will seek to lay out the unique ideological framework of Sheldon Wolin’s critique of the American political system and understanding of liberalism, his form of democratic populism, discuss its implications, and provide and anaylyze Young’s response to it. Lastly, the final section of this document will consist of this writer’s brief personal reflection of the material presented by both Young and Wolin regarding liberalism and democratic populism.

Sheldon Wolin’s Critique

There is one quality of Sheldon Wolin’s theory that is different from the several other liberal frameworks presented throughout Young’s book – it is difficult to classify ideologically, yet it is direct and straight to the point. For example, in the conclusion of the book, Young writes (in regards to addressing distinctions between republicanism and liberalism of the Founding Fathers), “…those earlier men were revolutionaries and constitution writers. Many were acute thinkers – we would be lucky to have their equals today in places of power – but they were truly political theorists, whose efforts were not designed to satisfy scholars in graduate seminars.”[ii] While a lifetime seems to be insufficient to thoroughly study and analyze the Founding Fathers and their thoughts and theories, Sheldon Wolin relays his fundamental premise with more direct clarity asserting his, “…deepest concern is with democracy; his radicalism appears in his contention that there is no single institution in America today that is democratic in character.”[iii] While there may be qualms with the arguments he lays out in defense of his premise, the fundamental assertion is quite clear – democracy in America is non-existent. What Wolin means as democracy is not derived from the modern definitions of the word, but holds truer to the literal meaning of democracy – demos-, ‘the people’ [or common populace] and –kratia, which is a form of social organization, originating from the Greek word kratos meaning ‘strength.’[iv] In this case, “strength, or strong organization of the common people.”

The source that creates this lack of democracy, and the various institutions and places within society where democracy is thwarted, are clearly identified by Wolin when he writes,

“Every one of the country’s primary institutions – the business cooperation, the government bureaucracy, the trade union, the research and education industries, the mass propaganda and entertainment media, and the health and welfare system – is antidemocratic in spirit, design, and operation. Each is hierarchical in structure, authority oriented, opposed in principle to equal participation, unaccountable to the citizenry, elitist and managerial, and disposed to concentrate increasing power in the hands of the few and to reduce political life to administration.”[v]

Wolin’s rejection of the idea that the United States of America espouses democratic practices and institutions of all kinds is accompanied by other rejections, for example, of social contract theory and the notion that the United States Constitution therefore didn’t not establish American democratic practices and traditions. In brief, Wolin rejects contract theory on the grounds that it is built on two mythical assumptions: (a) that the contracting individuals are equal because they have no history and (b) that the contract represents a fresh start, “as in a footrace.” As Wolin describes, “the contract depends upon a collective amnesia,” and thus dismisses the idea of contract theory altogether as implausible. In addition to his rejection to contract theory, Wolin claims the Madisonian solution to the problem of authority is a version of the theory of pluralism, and was not a noble attempt to restrict the power of the state – so much as it was an effort to save the state from democratization.[vi]  As Young writes, “Wolin reminds us that the pluralist theory, which sees society as nothing but a congeries of groups, subverts the very idea of “the people” as a body political, an idea that further undercuts the legitimacy of a democratic political system.”[vii]

To discuss this critique of liberalism further, Wolin argues that this pluralism in society “pits the need for group participation and representation against the need for technically sound solutions that can be administered by hierarchical, rigid bureaucracies.”[viii] Therefore, Young puts Wolin’s opposition to the Constitution and its liberal foundation into context by claiming the state to be the “Anti-Federalist nightmare come to pass.” He describes how the Constitution and the consecration of the Federalist Papers as the interpretation of the document resulted in a theoretical coup, and thus the implementation of a nationalist culture and political system that replaced or thwarted any attempt to establish an organic, and highly decentralized form of government. The Constitution established the workable foundation for the development of a large state to work in tandem with the economy, thus the Founding Fathers abandoned democracy in regards to its fundamental understanding. Therefore, individual rights were important to the Anti-Federalists “primarily to protect the localities from the potential for abuse by the new state that was looming up.”[ix]

The arguments put forward by Wolin indicate that the contemporary form of government is nothing more than a megastate, a governmental entity that maintains a large geopolitical and administrative influence, which has established a society and system where elections are shames; money buys political power; Americans are becoming increasingly demoralized and depoliticized; interest groups are out of control; the party system is, at times, insignificant; and a system where constitutional democracy is democracy without the demos– as an actor. Further, the  In addition, Wolin is highly sceptical of a society of elites who utilize rational and scientific methods to advance and organize government and society. In Wolin’s own words, he writes that American government has reached a “level of political deliberation somewhere between idiocy and prolonged adolescence.”[x] A substantial contribution to this current lack of demoracy and dire state of affairs as witnessed and outlined by Wolin is founded alongside the idea that the problems arising from modernity have created a democratic crisis. Young explains that Wolin sees, “…any attempt to use the state as an aid to solving the problems of modernity has only succeeding in making it part of the problem.” This is emphasized throughout Wolin’s critique citing the Great Society programs and the “War on Poverty,” and concluding that minorities are not better off, and that poverty decisively ‘won the war on itself’.[xi] Therefore what does Sheldon Wolin propose to replace the current system with? Will Wolin’s proposals be the solution to the current perceived problems of society and create what Wolin sees as true democratic government? Lastly, what are the implications and realizations of Wolin’s vision for a democratic form of government where it is the populace [demos-] that actually controls the means of societal administration?

Great Visions Permit Proportional Implications

The Vision –

James Young states that “the new politics [of Wolin] that is required will be revolutionary, though definitely nonviolent. The model for revolutionary politics is, surprisingly, in the theory of John Locke. For Locke, revolution was justified after ‘a long train of abuses.’ And he [Locke] was remarkably open to a democratic revolution that would generate new forms of power.”[xii] The major emphasis of Wolin’s revolutionary vision to replace the current governmental and administrative system is on ‘localities.’ In other words, the revitalization of local sources of power, “from the family to the workplace, to the towns and cities, to name only a few possibilities.”[xiii] Sheldon Wolin, who collaborated extensively on this democratic populist theory of local revitalization at Berkeley University in California, tended to focus “on small-scale political units, citizen participation, close popular control of government, and the priority of politics over economics.”[xiv] Wolin is demonstrated to have bitterly quoted Bertolt Brecht, a 20th century German poet and playwright,

“Wouldn’t it

be simpler in that case if the government

Dissolved the people and

Elected another?”

This quote and its proposition is clearly the kind of system and rational elitism that Wolin fears the most, and despises the greatest. His task is to lay out a framework that concentrates political and administrative power into localities whether they be with the family, a community, town, or city, instead of all administrative units and duties being the primary function of a centralized and distant megastate. Young states on page 299 that Wolin acknowledges these types of political systems having once existed before the Civil War as United States citizens migrated westward. The settlers utilized systems that met the immediate and pressing needs of their community. This activity, however, began to diminish after the American Civil War, as the state and its economic “base grew larger and more bureaucratized, creating, in spite of shame struggles, an ever tighter union between state and economy.” Therefore, because of this realization and due to the lack of a truly democratic form of government, Wolin argues the United States has ceased to rely on religious, moral, or ethical terms to understand and evaluate the legitimacy and performance of the American political system.

The Implications –

The attempt to realize this ‘democratic crisis’ and implement Wolin’s new system of government and local administration would, in turn, establish a periodic crisis in American collective identity, which he ironically asserts is so characteristic of our current system.[xv] When it came to the understanding of the current megastate being inadequate to solve the problems of modernity, one assumes that Wolin’s local approach would be an alternative and satisfying one to alleviate this realization. Young writes, however, that Wolin admits ‘localism’ has inherent limits, and is “politically incomplete.” Young writes, “there are problems in society that are general rather than parochial. At times it is necessary to seek out the evanescent homogeneity of a broader political [kratos]. What this seems to imply is, willy-nilly, an appeal to inherently antidemocratic forces of the state. Thus Wolin reaches the grim conclusion that democracy is ‘doomed to succeed only temporarily’; he is sure that no one really believes that ‘the people’ actually rule in any of the industrialized democracies of the world today.”[xvi]

Young’s Response and Critique of Wolin’s “Local” Approach

James Young partially concedes to some aspects of Wolin’s arguments that the current system under the megastate suffers from elections that are sometimes shames; sees money buy political power, which makes Americans increasingly demoralized and depoliticized; permits interest groups to be out of control; as well as continue a party system that is, at times, insignificant, however Young does not let Wolin off scot-free. In regards to Wolin’s beliefs on social contract theory, Young writes, “I have no wish to deny that the Constitution was designed with a certain antidemocratic intent, which is subject to serious criticism. But aside from the fact that Wolin’s is an exceptionally strict standard, his position overlooks the fact that the demos- may do things that violate the necessary requirements of democracy by any conceivable criterion.”[xvii] Young also is not entirely convinced with Wolin’s assertion that the current megastate is incapable of adequately addressing and solving the problems arisen from modernity. Young writes, “indeed it is not clear that the state, as seems so commonly believed, automatically bungles whatever it attempts.”[xviii] Young responds to these charges of the current state and the perceived problems of modernity, citing how the war on poverty was greatly affected by the simultaneous war in Vietnam [in regards to cost and total resource allocation]; and  asking who would really wish to have the government abandon the numerous effective safety regulations regarding prescription drug manufacturing and marketing, among other important industries and trade items.[xix] Also, Young adequately lays out that Wolin and some of those who have critiqued the proposal, such as George Kateb, claim that Wolin has a “tendency to criticize rights when they have led to bad results. Thus he appears ready to suppress antidemocratic speech by the Ku Klux Klan and, by extension, may be expected to endorse anti-hate speech laws.”[xx] This is a serious contradiction in regards to demanding more actual democracy, while simultaneously proposing antidemocratic proposals to situations that may be difficult to digest or manage.

Young acknowledges that despite the radical proposals put forward by Wolin, this democratic revolutionary thinker understands that the megastate is not going to disappear. Young writes on page 302, “Wolin’s disaffection from contemporary politics is so great that his conclusions read like a cry of despair, a lament for the loss of something of unutterable beauty.” Young concedes that Wolin is correct in asserting that the costs associated “with the large state are huge. The security it provides is frequently minimal at best; it offers little to anyone imbued with the ideal of truly democratic participation.”[xxi] The author concludes his response by identifying what he perceives to be Wolin’s dilemma in American politics, writing that movements for democratization result in the growth of government, and then the cycle is endlessly repeated. He includes an aphorism by Henry Kariel, an American political scientist and author, “Just as small-scale, humanly comprehensible groupings are essential, so are large scale, humanly incomprehensible ones.”

Personal Reflections and Responses

There are a three items the writer of this paper wishes to briefly reflect upon regarding the democratic populist proposal, and Young’s subsequent responses to the various aspects of Wolin’s general critique and vision.  First, Wolin’s argument that the Madisonian solution to authority, destroys the essence of “the people,” and therefore thwarts a true American democracy is misleading. The liberal understanding that minorities or factional groups within the common populace will emerge is typically the result of families, communities, towns or cities gathering together to administer their local activities. For example, Koch Industries is an American faction as a result of a locality, i.e. the family, seeking to administer its own business and political interests. Therefore, what is to say that Wolin’s notion of allowing families, towns, or cities directly administer their political activities such as education, healthcare, etc will not factionalize the common populace as he argues the Madisonian solution does? This would then most likely result in a decentralized and by that logic [regionalized] system of direct administration. Therefore the second item focuses on the question – would localized [or regionalized] administrations be able to adequately and responsibly create a comprehensible and harmonious functioning society that embodies and produces a national aim or security? After all, the Italy of the 15th and 16th centuries should be a valuable historical lesson to the consequences of a collective and similar group of cultures seeking to maintain strict local administrative and political control of distinctly drawn regions.

Third, I found the manner in which Young classified Wolin as a Conservative and Radical perhaps misleading in some areas.  For example on page 295, Young writes, “His approach is simultaneously conservative and radical – conservative in his concern to preserve the past and honor the complexity of politics and the human condition and in his distrust of contemporary social science, not to mention the entire modern technological project. It is radical in the classic sense of going to the root while at the same time rejecting ideological frameworks that merely reflect the politics and ideas of the contemporary status quo.” While the radical assertion seems to be spot on in regards to Wolin’s fundamental approach, there seems to be nothing remotely close to conservative about the democratic populist approach. For example, if we are to understand the underlying philosophies of Young’s Lockean and Laissez-Faire liberalism, then many of the conservatives in the American political tradition tend to be fundamentally liberal. Young writes on page 236, “much conservative thought is also clearly not traditional in anything like the European sense,” therefore to claim Wolin’s proposal as conservative simply because he has “concern to preserve the past” proves little in that regards.

In conclusion, however, the proposal, theories, and arguments presented by Wolin certainly are unique and deserve a place within Young’s book, Reconsidering American Liberalism. The United States Constitution and the individual men who founded it will always be under careful scrutiny by posterity, but as Young points out, Wolin applies a distinctly harsh standard upon the nature of the Constitution and upon the theories and assumption the Founding Fathers, such as theories Madison utilized while helping to craft it. While finding a solution that makes American society more democratic in regards to the actual understanding of the word seems plausible and ideal, it is not only difficult, but would create a whole new series of problems that currently do not exist under the state. Therefore while Wolin should be recognized for his truly novel and courageous attempts at reconciling America’s past, Constitution, and political and economic system in relation to democracy, there are still many inconsistencies and questions to be addressed from his proposal that are left unanswered.


[i] Young, James P. Reconsidering American Liberalism: The Troubled Odyssey of the Liberal Idea. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1996. Print. Page 295

[ii] Ibid. Page 328

[iii] Ibid. Page 296

[iv] “Democracy.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster. Web. 15 Apr. 2012. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/democracy&gt;.

[v] Young, James P. Reconsidering American Liberalism: The Troubled Odyssey of the Liberal Idea. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1996. Print. Page 296

[vi] Ibid. Page 297

[vii] Ibid. Page 297-8

[viii] Ibid. Page 298

[ix] Ibid. Page 298

[x] Ibid. Page 299

[xi] Ibid. Page 301

[xii] Ibid. Page 302

[xiii] Ibid. Page 302

[xiv] Ibid. Page 299

[xv] Ibid. Page 301

[xvi] Ibid. Page 302

[xvii] Ibid. Page 303

[xviii] Ibid. Page 304

[xix] Ibid. Page 304

[xx] Ibid. Page 304

[xxi] Ibid. Page 305

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