To track the meaning of American democracy through The Atlantic's archives is to be reminded how slippery, but strong, it has always been. No one, of course, rejects the principle trumpeted by Ralph Waldo Emerson at the outset of these selections that “Emancipation is the demand of civilization.” (What American would go on record trashing freedom?) But succeeding thinkers voice unease about just how to put it into action.
Woodrow Wilson wonders if democratic government, as established, can cope with entropic times, when “voters of every blood and environment and social derivation mix and stare at one another at the same voting places.” Walter Lippmann sniffs at “the prevailing public opinion,” worrying over how to strengthen “the judgments of informed and responsible officials.” But both men were writing when, from our standpoint, civilization’s demand for emancipation had not remotely been met. Wilson wrote when women had not yet gotten the right to vote, and Lippmann when blacks were still blocked from exercising that right, ninety years after the liberation that Emerson dreamed of. Indeed, Jack Kennedy had yet to demonstrate that a white and male—but Catholic—candidate could overcome the prejudice that the Happy Warrior, Alfred E. Smith, so powerfully inveighed against in 1927.
Looking backward, Isaiah Berlin sees in Roosevelt’s New Deal the right balance between state power and personal freedom, the reconciliation of “individual liberty and a loose texture of society with the indispensable minimum of organization and authority.” But less than twenty years later, another friend of the New Deal, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., fears that executive power under a Republican administration has run amok, resulting in “the imperial presidency.” A thread running through all these selections is the view—still a commonplace of American politics—that those charged with implementing the noblest American ideals are not quite up to the job. Wilson worries that democracy anoints “petty men of no ambition,” while P. J. O’Rourke contends that politicians are mostly “just ridiculous people—and therefore justly representative of their constituents.
Our present representative in chief, George W. Bush, declared in his second inaugural address, “Freedom is the permanent hope of mankind.” We may well hear a meaningful echo there of Emerson’s declaration of 144 years ago. Still, as the archives suggest, and as Mr. Bush’s efforts abroad have demonstrated, summoning the lofty sentiment—while important—is the easy part. —James Bennet
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