Ideology and American Democracy

In the doctrinaire… we see men clinging to opinions that are purely the issue of arbitrary facts, ages after the facts themselves have ceased to exist, confounding cause with effect. – James Fenimore Cooper

The French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville authored the most famous work on the subject of American democracy, yet we can look to one of our fellow countrymen for analysis that is just as perceptive. The novelist James Fenimore Cooper published the tract An American Democrat (1838) which tackled many of the same themes as de Tocqueville in a more concise manner.

What raises Cooper above the common herd of early American political writers is that he avoided callow optimism and cant. Having grown disillusioned with egalitarian Jacksonian democracy he did not, however, succumb to pessimism. Cooper remained a “democrat,” though he carefully qualified that term: “It is a very different thing to be a democrat, and to be a member of what is called a democratic party.” As he says in the introduction to his book, he “prefers a democracy to any other system, on account of its comparative advantages, and not on account of it perfection.”

In other words, he was not an ideologue. Cooper referred to himself as a “democratic republican,” to distinguish himself from the aristocratic republicans of the oligarchic city-states of Renaissance Italy. Cooper acknowledged that in the broadest sense the ancient notion of respublica (“the public thing”) was applicable to any of the three Aristotelian categories of government—monarchic, aristocratic and democratic. Insofar as he was a “democrat” it was because he opposed political organization based on unfair privilege. Cooper was not a populist. He favored a cultural aristocracy, so long as it was free of elitism. He was also perceptive enough to see that political bias could not be defined purely in terms of class. It was possible for the privileged and wealthy individual to be a radical populist—a recurring phenomenon from the French Revolution to our day—and for a political democrat of humble means to be a “natural aristocrat” in his philosophical discernment and good breeding.

For Cooper such values as liberty and equality were always relative terms:

They who fancy it possible to frame the institution of a country, on the pure principles of abstract justice, as these principles exist in theories, know little of human nature, or of the restraints that are necessary to society.

All that democracy means, is equal participation in rights as is practicable; and to pretend that social equality is a condition of popular institutions, is to assume that the latter are destructive of civilization, for, as nothing is more self-evident than the impossibility of raising all men to the highest standard of tastes and refinement, the alternative would be to reduce the entire community to the lowest.

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