Synopses & Reviews
The past few decades have brought a shift in the nature of American democracyan alarming shift that threatens such liberal democratic values as respect for pluralism, acceptance of the separation of powers, and recognition of the rights of opposition parties. In this insightful book, political scientist Alan Wolfe identifies the current political conditions that endanger the quality of our democracy. He describes how politics has changed, and he calls for a democracy protection movement designed to preserve our political traditions not unlike the environmental protection movements efforts to safeguard the natural world.
Voters who know little about issues, leaders who bend rules with little fear of reprisal, and political parties that are losing the ability to mobilize citizens have all contributed to a worrisome new politics of democracy, Wolfe argues. He offers a brilliant analysis of how religion and morality have replaced political and economic self-interest as guiding principles, and how a dangerous populism promotes a radical form of elitism. Without laying blame on one party or ideology and without claiming that matters will improve with one party or the other in office, Wolfe instead suggests that Americans need to understand the danger their own indifference poses and take political matters more seriously.
"Wolfe is the most interesting public intellectual in the country. His disturbing book provides rich food for thought about the future of our polity."—Sanford Levinson, University of Texas Law School
"Alan Wolfe is an important scholar of American society as well as a major public intellectual. He is incapable of writing a dull or irrelevant book."—William Galston, Senior Fellow, Governance Studies Program, Brookings Institution
"Alan Wolfe has written a terse, highly critical book on the ways that American democracy works—and does not work. Above all, he urges that Americans become more politically engaged."—James T. Patterson, Brown University
"Alan Wolfe, always a keen analyst of the American scene, presents a compelling and often passionate account of how to restore genuine democracy in America."—Howard Gardner, author of Changing Minds
"Alan Wolfe, a committed democrat, with a small 'd,' has written a searing account of the state of American democracy. The growth of cultural populist politics and growing partisan polarization and unity has created an unaccountable government. He brings home the stakes in our elections; not just which party governs but whether we revive our liberal democracy."—U.S. Representative Rosa L. DeLauro
"A startling, devastating critique of contemporary American democracy from one of the countrys most measured and respected social and political thinkers.”—Thomas E. Mann, Brookings Institution
"Alan Wolfe argues that while the extent
of American democracy has increased greatly, its quality
has declined notably in recent decades. His book, Does American Democracy Still Work?
, will be widely read, ardently debated, and highly influential."—Martin Shefter, Cornell University
About the Author
A conversation with Alan Wolfe
Q: In the past you argued that there is no culture war in Americas heartland, and that polarization and ideological warfare are largely "inside-the-beltway" phenomena. In this new book, you explain how "inside-the-beltway" politics are now becoming dangerous to our public life. What factors have contributed to this disturbing transformation?
A: Americans think seriously about moral issues, tend to be moderate in their political views, and dislike sharp-edged political conflict. Yet their political system simplifies morality, exacerbates extremism, and relies on negative attacks. Americans are paying a serious price for a lack of attention to politics, a refusal to hold politicians accountable for what they do, and a widespread distrust of politicians that paradoxically encourages politicians to become ever more cynical.
Q: Is one party or the other responsible for the poor condition of democratic life in America?
A: No. Culture war polarization, issue simplification, partisan redistrictingall of these have bipartisan roots. Yet in recent years Republicans and conservatives have proven far more competent at using some of the less attractive features of American politics than Democrats and liberals. Liberal democracy has been seriously threatened by the administration of George W. Bush, but Mr. Bush is building upon procedures and processes that have been in existence for some time.
Q: What can be done?
A: I suggest that we need a democracy protection movement along the lines of the environmental protection movement. Like clean air and healthy forests, liberal democracy cannot be taken for granted. Americans need to improve their political literacy as well as their cultural literacy. Politicians should challenge, rather than flatter, conventional wisdom. Matters will not improve much if we just replace Republicans with Democrats. We need instead to drive the culture warriors out of business so that we can draw on the common energy of all rather than the partisan energies of the few.