The following paper is the transcript of a talk that I have delivered this fall to general audiences at the University of Tennessee and the University of Notre Dame



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The Spirit of Democracy
Jeffrey Stout

Columbia Legal Theory Workshop

November, 2004
The following paper is the transcript of a talk that I have delivered this fall to general audiences at the University of Tennessee and the University of Notre Dame. It summarizes a position on one aspect of the ethics of citizenship—a position explicated and defended in more strictly philosophical terms in my book, Democracy and Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004). I would encourage anyone interested in the details of my critique of Rawls and Rorty to read chapter 3. My critiques of John Milbank, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Stanley Hauerwas are presented in chapters 4-7.
Things would be different if you and I and others like us behaved differently. This is the thought that the Levelers had in mind when they claimed that all English citizens have a share in responsibility for decisions about who rules England and how. Sojourner Truth gave the same thought another twist hundreds of years later when she said: “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, [today’s] women together ought to be able to turn it back and get it right-side up again.”1

The thought is not that things would be different if we were gods or supermen. It need not involve an aspiration to take God’s place. The thought is that things would be different if we did what we could do, given our ordinary human capacities to think, converse, and interact with one another. And what we could do, in this sense, is what we can reasonably be held responsible for failing to do—by God, according to believers, on the day of judgment, by the victims of injustice in our midst today, if we give them a voice, and by our descendants, who will someday have to live with the long-term consequences of our actions.


By refusing to defer to unjust rulers or any other human being who claims to be our superior, it is in our power to deny them effective authority. This implies that the decision about who rules and what the basic roles and regulations are going to be in fact rests with us. The responsibility for our institutional arrangements belongs to us. What, then, do I mean by the spirit of democracy? The notion that we, the people, are responsible for the condition of our society and that it is therefore up to us to take responsibility for our common life.
The self-conscious affirmation of this responsibility first achieves expression in early-modern Christian talk about popular sovereignty. This talk was not meant to deny God’s ultimate sovereignty over the political order as part of creation. To the contrary, it took for granted that all human beings are responsible ultimately to God for the human arrangements in which they are complicit. But the notion of popular sovereignty did involve a historic expansion in the range of things for which human beings are to be held responsible. The basic social framework had long been viewed as given by God, as something already settled as part of God’s creation, with the basic roles having already been defined and distributed. Both sides of the original debate over popular sovereignty made their cases in theological terms. Both sides acknowledged God’s ultimate sovereignty over all creation.
Modern democracy is the tradition in which the implications of human responsibility for human arrangements are gradually made explicit—not only in cities and states, but also in civil society, in corporations, and in families. It consists in the attempt on the part of human beings to exercise collective responsibility over the arrangements governing them. Exercising this responsibility in the public sphere is a matter of holding rulers responsible for the arrangements they make on one’s behalf and holding one’s fellow citizens responsible for the role they play in determining who rules and what the arrangements are going to be. In the ancient world democracy meant direct rule by the commons. In the modern world it refers in the first instance to formal procedures that allow citizens to turn them out of office in favor of someone else. As Oliver O’Donovan points out, the modern legislature or parliament is supposed to conduct its deliberations against the background of, and in response to, a public discussion in which all members of the society are entitled to participate. In this respect, it differs from medieval councils, which served at the pleasure of monarchs and gave their advice to them privately.2
But the meaning of democracy in the modern world is hardly exhausted by the procedural structures of government. Indeed, the structures of government, being largely administrative, tend to be largely bureaucratic in nature. They tend also to be large, hierarchical, and to some extent corrupt. As such, they are also resistant, for a variety of reasons, to being held responsible by the societies they are supposed to serve. It therefore makes sense to say that modern governmental structures are democratic only to the extent that they are actually responsive to a public discussion and an electoral process in which members of the society in question actually participate. Hence Dewey’s claim, in his early essay “The Ethics of Democracy,” that “Democracy is a form of government only because it is a form of moral and spiritual association.”3
In other words, a form of government ceases to be democratic insofar as the public life surrounding it ceases to be animated—ethically inspirited—by a concerted attempt on the part of citizens to hold one another responsible for the condition of the government and to hold governmental officials responsible to the governed. The activity of holding rulers and one’s fellow citizens responsible by offering reasons to them and demanding reasons from them places citizens in a moral association with one another—an association the spirit of which is mutual recognition and accountability. By allowing all citizens to express their own most deeply felt commitments and aspirations, as well as their interests, in the public discussion, a genuinely democratic community also implicitly affirms its members as spiritual beings. The spirit of democracy resides in a citizenry that practices accountability and mutual recognition. Where the spirit of democracy is lacking, the rhetoric of democracy becomes mere ideology, a decoration draped over institutions to enhance their authority by disguising their nondemocratic reality.
Democratic discussion cannot proceed from perfect agreement in spiritual outlook, because the most deeply felt commitments expressed in it are various, conflicting, and constantly in flux. Still, many are the citizens who aspire, in expressing their concerns, to bring about a more perfect union by their own lights. The United States of America is full of perfectionists bent on perfecting both themselves and the life that citizens share together. But democracy in this time and place has had to come to terms with a plurality of perfectionisms. American citizens are conscious to the extent to which their ideals of perfection conflict. While modern democracy has deep religious roots, and retains a perfectionist impulse, it should not be viewed as a species of religion. It has become an attempt on the part of human beings to take responsibility for shared arrangements, despite (and in light of) the differences in religious outlook that divide one person from another. Its wise defenders value it without proposing it as an object of worship in its own right. To bow down before democracy, or any other product of human effort, is idolatry.
Almost every finite good becomes somebody’s ultimate concern sooner or later, and democracy is no exception. That is why my book chastises Whitman, one of my heroes, for occasionally allowing his love of democracy to degenerate into “chauvinistic idolatry.” All human societies are prone to self-idolatry. A society that takes pride in democratic self-reliance is no less prone to self-idolatry than a society that considers itself God’s chosen people. The warning is always in order.
Our society is so far from being worthy of worship in my view that it barely sustains the hope required to continue the struggle for just arrangements. Sheldon Wolin rightly laments “the evisceration of democracy” in our day.4 The problem has a cultural and an institutional dimension. Culturally, individuals had until recently largely lost their habits of political participation. In most recent elections they voted in low numbers. What they said in public often lacked the spirit of mutual accountability and respect essential to the “moral and spiritual association” Dewey was trying to describe in 1885. As Wolin makes clear, many members of our society do not think of themselves as citizens, as having a share in the responsibility for its condition (590-594). Given that they work mainly in corporate and governmental bureaucracies, they are in the habit of deferring to superiors and then expressing their resentment privately. They have learned the habits of the culture they inhabit.
The state of political culture reflects the nature of our institutions. We now live in a world dominated militarily by the American Superpower and economically by corporate conglomerates. Our inherited procedures of accountability—the election of political representatives, legislative bodies that are responsive to public discourse, and an independent judiciary —might now be incapable of constraining the mutually reinforcing powers of empire and capital. Organizationally speaking, Wolin concludes, we have entered a postdemocratic era.
Democracy survives, in effect, only by splitting in half. On the institutional level, as the semblance of an accountable form of government, it is a structure of electoral and other procedures in fact controlled by empire and capital; it is the means of disguise by which empire and capital legitimate their control of government. On the cultural level, as a social practice dedicated to demanding real accountability, democracy becomes “fugitive.” It becomes a perpetual but necessarily ephemeral struggle to hold organizations of all kinds accountable for their behavior. Fugitive democracy depends, as Wolin puts it, on “the ingenuity of ordinary people in inventing temporary forms to meet their needs” (603). It does not aspire to govern, he says, because that would involve accommodating itself to hierarchical institutions. It aspires instead to “nurture the civic conscience of society” (606).
I share Wolin’s concerns about the evisceration of democracy. And as Democracy and Tradition makes clear, I am more than happy to join him in an attempt to nurture the civic conscience of society. Better fugitive democracy than no democracy at all. Yet I also worry that Wolin’s vision is self-defeating. His picture of our situation is too bleak to sustain hope, but also too bleak to be entirely accurate. Fugitive democracy—like its close cousin, fugitive Christianity—threatens to become a mere “ought” that has lost both its roots in the soil of social life and any hope of effecting change in the institutions it criticizes. It is the spirit of spiritless conditions, the sigh of creatures who take themselves to be powerless against the major agents of their oppressed condition.
Wolin sees grounds for hope only at the local level. It is true that local arrangements are inherently easier for citizens to hold accountable than national and global arrangements are. Capital now holds by far the greatest concentration of power, operates freely at the national and global levels, and transforms most political officials at both of these levels into its tools. But the arrangements required to keep power concentrated in this way—deregulation of corporations, imperial control of oil-rich countries, and a shift of societal burdens from rich to poor—depend for their survival on the deference and torpor of ordinary people. If we, and many others like us, behaved differently, things would be different.
To abandon the hope that we might, by changing our own behavior, be able to use governmental structures to exercise a greater degree of control on the economy than we now do is also to resign ourselves to ever-increasing domination by corporate elites. While it is foolish to think that the election of democrats to political office would transform government into something other than a sprawling hierarchical bureaucracy, it is too early or too despairing simply to concede essentially unconstrained global power to capital. It is also premature to cede control of the legislative and electoral processes to big money or control of the judiciary to people who believe that the Bill of Rights became obsolete on the day our government declared a permanent state of war against terrorism.
Even from the vantage point of a strictly fugitive democracy, the question of who holds office in the three branches of government in the United States remains an issue of great consequence for people everywhere. The major institutional buttress of fugitive democracy as a cultural force in the United States is judicial respect for the First Amendment. If we lose freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right of assembly, democracy will not be fugitive; it will be subterranean. If the legal system is to survive as a significant institutional repository of practical wisdom, it needs judges who are prepared to nourish the spirit of democracy and protect the Bill of Rights. Who will appoint those judges, if democrats abandon the mechanisms of government to the interests of empire and capital? I conclude that a strictly fugitive democracy—as a politics that has lost all hope in the representative function of government as a means for holding rulers accountable—is self-defeating in practice.
If fugitive democracy is self-defeating, is that because Wolin’s picture is too bleak or because it is not bleak enough? The completely bleak conclusion would be that democracy can survive in the decades ahead, if at all, only by going underground, by abandoning its hopes of holding any institution accountable and becoming instead a subterranean affair of clandestine meetings and occasional imprisonment and martyrdom. If it comes to that, then underground I will go. But it is not obvious to me that ordinary people are incapable of taking collective responsibility for their institutional arrangements. Wolin underestimates the potential vitality of democratic culture because he doesn’t look in the right places to find it. His localism proceeds largely without the benefit of local knowledge.
The eclipse of the American tradition of democratic thought in Wolin’s work is almost total. In his magisterial book on Tocqueville he sees America through the somewhat blinkered eyes of a European aristocrat. Of the great American thinkers who were preoccupied with democracy, only Emerson appears in Wolin’s book on Tocqueville—and he is mentioned only once, in passing.5 The expanded edition of Politics and Vision mentions neither Emerson, nor Whitman, nor Thoreau. John Dewey, to whom Wolin devotes considerable attention, is thus deprived of his Emersonian forebears. He springs out of nowhere into an otherwise wholly European canon. Dewey’s successors are no more visible in Wolin’s story than his predecessors. Why are these omissions significant? Because David Bromwich was right when he warned: “if one tried to imagine an America free of Emerson’s influence, the strictures of [Tocqueville’s] Democracy in America would turn into an accurate prophecy.”6 Tocqueville’s picture would have been correct if Emerson had never existed. But Emerson did exist.
For these reasons, the emphasis Cornel West places—most recently in Democracy Matters—on “the democratic tradition in America” can be seen as an attempt to complement and correct the excessively bleak picture offered by his former teacher Wolin.7 For West, Dewey is one voice in an American tradition of democratic theory that begins in Emerson’s generation and extends through W.E.B. Du Bois, Muriel Rukeyser, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison, down to the present. Equally important, according to West, one can discern sources of democratic vitality in the religious outlooks of Jews, Christians, and Muslims who have learned from the prophets how to hold societies and rulers accountable to God’s standards of righteousness.8 West argues that those who look hard enough can discern similarly prophetic impulses hidden even in a secular youth culture that has otherwise been corrupted by market forces and nihilistic despair.9
Hope is not a matter of being sure that things are going to work out well. What keeps hope alive is the realization that there is no reason to feel certain that our fate is already sealed. Things have changed before, and they will change again. We should not pretend to know how the people are going to respond as the gap between the wealthy and the rest of us continues to widen, the budgetary consequences of tax-cutting begin to be felt, the military and economic difficulties of maintaining an empire become more salient, and the struggle with terrorism worsens. A heightened sense of crisis could either hasten the evisceration of democracy or shake the people from its slumber and remind it of its heritage. The crisis over slavery helped create the generation that included Lincoln, Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, Fuller, and Douglas. A crisis of similar magnitude could be approaching. This time around, with the citizenry beginning to stir, intellectuals had better be ready to retrieve the democratic tradition on behalf of the people. Otherwise, the people, for lack of a salient alternative that is genuinely democratic, will probably consent to some kind of despotism that masquerades as democracy.
Now consider this question: What is happening to the young people who would have joined the Civil Rights Movement if they had come of age politically when I did in the 1960s? When a lot of them get to college or law school, they are exposed to forms of moral and political philosophy that insist on the importance of keeping religion completely out of politics. As a result, some of them become liberal secularists. Others recoil and retreat into anti-liberal forms of traditionalism.
The traditionalist backlash is fairly extreme among the theologians. The traditionalists feel that if liberal secularism is what American democracy is all about, then genuinely religious people will have to be against it. The most prolific and influential theologian in America is Stanley Hauerwas, who teaches at Duke Divinity School. In the same month as the 9/11 catastrophe, Time magazine named Hauerwas America’s Best Theologian. (That was the same issue in which Allen Iverson was named America’s Best Athlete.) Hauerwas is a leading traditionalist, and is heavily influenced by the Notre Dame philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. Hauerwas often expresses distaste for liberal modernity as such, and even suggested in one of his books that justice is a “bad idea” for Christians. He is actually less crazy than that makes him sound. But perhaps you can see why I have been trying my best to persuade the theologians to make the churches safe for King’s legacy.
What, then, about the ethics centers, philosophy departments, law schools, and politics departments, where some version of liberal secularism has typically taken hold as the dominant outlook? Working on Democracy and Tradition persuaded me that King was more faithful to the spirit of the First Amendment than the liberal secularists have been. King’s view was that all citizens should feel free to express the ideas that lead them to their political conclusions. The right to do so is protected by the First Amendment’s ideal of free speech. When those ideas are religious in content, the First Amendment’s provision for the free exercise of religion also kicks in. Many citizens are religiously committed to expressing their religious views in public and to pressing for policies that are consistent with those views. When such citizens speak freely, they are also exercising their religious freedom. The Bill of Rights protects them twice over.
It is imprudent, as well as against the spirit of the First Amendment, to tell such people to shut up or to demand that they filter out the religious content of their thinking before they address the public. Religious people are going to rely on religious premises when reasoning about political questions regardless of what the secularists say.
For most religious people, integrity requires that they refuse to separate the private and public dimensions of life. The “wall of separation” between church and state does not run through the heart of believers. So unless these people stop being religious, as seems unlikely, the philosophers who want political deliberation to be conducted in a completely secularized way are fighting a losing battle. But if that is true, and a large segment of the citizenry is in fact relying on religious premises when making political decisions, it behooves all of us to know what those premises are. Premises left unexpressed are often premises left unchallenged.
Among the great achievements of American history was the abolition of slavery. How did it come about? Not by argument cast in a thoroughly secularized vocabulary. The Abolitionists had to persuade American Christians that biblically grounded defenses of slavery were not compelling, despite St. Paul’s advice that slaves should obey their masters and the notion that God had punished blacks as descendants of Ham. The Abolitionists did not say to their opponents, “Keep your religious views to yourselves.” They said, “Speak your minds, so that we can test the soundness of your argument and its coherence with the rest of what you have said and done.” And then they talked about the Exodus from Egyptian slavery and the rights that everyone possesses as a child of God.
A debate is now raging over the issue of same-sex coupling. Like the debate over slavery, it is full of fear, hatred, and paranoid fantasy. It is too early to know how it will turn out, but there is no way to avoid having it. If you look at the debate closely, you will see that it is not a dispute between Christians and non-Christians. Much of the debate is among Christians who are perfectly orthodox in their conception of God and revelation. Some of the same biblical passages that mattered greatly in the debate over slavery are receiving extensive attention again. One of these is Galatians 3:28, where St. Paul implies that all sorts of divisions, including those separating slave from free and male from female, are overcome in Christ.
History should teach us something about how real political discussions work in a religiously diverse democratic republic. Each of us is free to say why we accept the political conclusions we do. We can filter out the religious content of our reasoning or not, as we wish. But when we have expressed an argument, we should expect our interlocutors to pick it apart and to test its fit with other arguments we have made and other proposals we have favored. We do not just express our own views; we criticize one another’s views. Sometimes minds change in the process, and we reach a consensus. Sometimes the discussion grinds to a halt, the votes are counted, and we go home, determined to press our case a bit differently the next time. Even when consensus is out of reach for the time being, however, we can show each other respect as the particular people we are by hearing each other out and grappling with the arguments that have actually been made.
A free wheeling exchange of views in the public square can be a dangerous thing. The debate over slavery led to civil war. The debates over same-sex coupling and abortion have inspired some to speak of cultural warfare. Whenever a political proposal appears to threaten an entire way of life to which some people are deeply committed, passions will inevitably flare. At these moments, much depends on the determination of citizens to speak the truth as they see it, to address each other with civility and respect, to avoid manipulation and demagoguery, and to interpret each other’s actions and words charitably. Political leaders who wish to keep the spirit of democracy alive are especially obliged to exemplify the virtues of civility and respect when they decide what to say and how to say it.
Time will tell whether new leaders will arise who can revive the ideal of democracy in the wake of 9/11. In the meantime, it won’t help for our judges to display the Ten Commandments in our courthouses or for our Congressmen to stand on the steps of the Capitol and sing “God Bless America.” The kings and queens of ages past made a mockery of religion by presuming to be its caretakers; what most of them really wanted was a kind of religion that would justify their rule while pacifying the populace. Our elected representatives are prone to the same temptations.
It might seem that I am now taking back what I said before about the First Amendment, but I am not. The First Amendment’s position on religion includes two clauses, one of which protects free exercise of religion, the other of which prohibits the state from establishing a religion for the society as a whole. Public deliberation is fully in keeping with the spirit of the First Amendment only when it reflects both of these clauses. Echoing the notion of free exercise, I say that all ordinary citizens should be encouraged to express all of their reasons for their political conclusions—including, if they wish, the religious ones. Echoing the prohibition of an established church, I say that political officials should stay out of the business of speaking for the whole nation on religious questions.
My problem with most of the distinctively religious reasons expressed these days in the public square is that they are false, not that they are unconstitutional.  But how am I going to show what is wrong with such reasons unless religious people express the actual premises from which they infer their political conclusions?  And what leads anybody to think that people like this are going to agree to follow secularist advice about how to reason politically? As I see it, the secularist restriction on the expression of religious reasons is both counterproductive and unrealistic.

Hence, I propose no such restriction. Instead, I propose a relentless program of respectful but hard-hitting immanent criticism, directed against all positions, religious or not, that lend support to injustice or threaten to muzzle democratic debate. The secularists and the new traditionalists are the objects of my immanent criticism in Democracy and Tradition. But they hardly exhaust the list of outlooks that need to be criticized. Among the most urgent tasks on the agenda of public intellectuals today is the criticism of the so-called “compassionate conservatism” of the Bush administration. Another, of course, is the criticism of Islamic radicalism. Both of these “isms” are much more important than the ones I have examined in Democracy and Tradition.


The current debate over the role of religion in politics isn’t just about what citizens and leaders should say when engaging in political deliberation. It is also about the nature of the religion that politicians practice in public. I have already said that this kind of public religion often violates the spirit of the First Amendment. But it needs also to be said that such religion often smells of self-idolatry. It is an expression of nationalist pride, of group egoism. Its symbolic gestures make for bad religion as well as bad politics.
Pretending to speak for the people as a whole on religious topics, the politicians imply that citizens who refuse to be spoken for in this way are less than full-fledged members of the people. When dissenters object, they are demonized as secularists. Symbolic sacrifice of the secularist scapegoat is itself a ritual essential to the public religion that some politicians and intellectuals would have the nation adopt. Those who perform this ritual rend the body politic at the very moment that they purport to be binding it together symbolically. Of course, they know exactly what they are doing.
A country that has preachers, prophets, poets, houses of worship, and open air does not need politicians expressing its collective piety in public places. Individual citizens, families, churches, and other religious bodies can be trusted to find appropriate ways to express their own religious convictions and train the young in virtue. What the people need from political leaders are the virtues of truthfulness, justice, practical wisdom, courage, vision, and a kind of compassion whose effects can actually be discerned in the lives of the poor and the elderly.
Politics is the art of tending to the arrangements we make for ourselves. Citizens should feel free to say what they wish about those arrangements, not least of all by expressing their religious convictions and drawing inferences from those convictions about what our arrangements should be. Political officials, without pretending to hold no such convictions themselves, should take pains, in their public pronouncements as well as in the laws they propose and the policies they execute, to respect the religious plurality of the people and do what they can to bind us together in love of justice and peace.
If our leaders fail to do this, it falls to the rest of us to hold them accountable. We do this in the most basic way when we vote them out of office because they have represented us poorly or improperly. The electoral process is the most basic legal means of accountability the citizens of a representative democracy have at their disposal. But the electoral process counts for nothing unless the spirit of democracy is made manifest in the behavior of ordinary citizens outside the voting booth.
It is up to us to demand reasons from our leaders, to subject those reasons to criticism, and state reasons for whatever alternative conclusions we reach—and, in doing these things, to build up the spirit of democracy among us. When we allow political advertising and the demagoguery of talk radio and cable TV to replace public reasoning in a democratic spirit, the result is government of the people by the corporations and for the corporations. But whom do we have to blame but ourselves? Martin Luther King Jr. was right to suggest that injustice needs our silence to maintain a grip on power. This was his way of saying that things would be different if you and I and others like us behaved differently.


1 Sojourner Truth, “Ain’t I a Woman?”

2 Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 269-270.

3 John Dewey, “The Ethics of Democracy,” in Pragmatism: A Reader, edited by Louis Menand (New York: Vintage Books, 1997),

4 Sheldon S. Wolin, Politics and Vision, expanded edition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 598.

5 Sheldon S. Wolin, Tocqueville between Two Worlds: The Making of a Political and Theoretical Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 157.

6 David Bromwich, A Choice of Inheritance (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), 148.

7 Cornel West, Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight against Imperialism (New York: Penguin Press, 2004), chapter 3.

8 West, Democracy Matters, chapters 4 and 5.

9 West, Democracy Matters, chapter 6.


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