Democracy without Politics

"Democracy without Politics," review of Democracy without Politics, by Steven Bilakovics, Defining Ideas, 14 March 2012.


Steven Bilakovics has written a promising first book that will give concern to all who reflect on democracy today. It begins from the simple observation that although everybody loves democracy, everybody is disgusted by democratic politics. Yet what is democracy if not the rule, the politics, of the people?  Democracy is loved in theory and despised in practice, it seems. Its theory requires careful deliberation and argument, but democratic peoples demand decisive and immediate action. How can an anti-political democratic people that cannot stand “politics as usual” be so insistent that democracy is the best form of government?

We must not be dismayed that this simple observation and question are followed by a complicated argument. This is a serious book of political philosophy. Not surprisingly, Bilakovics has recourse first to the analysis of Alexis de Tocqueville, so luminous in appearance—“in broad daylight,” to quote one of Tocqueville’s favorite phrases—yet so difficult to figure out and make consistent. From this analysis Bilakovics concludes that Tocqueville saw democracy as “openness,” open to dualities such as cynicism and idealism, so that we always expect less of democracy at the same time that we expect more of it.

Then Bilakovics turns to two veteran philosophers of the present who share this interpretation of Tocqueville. These are the French philosopher Claude Lefort and Sheldon Wolin, retired professor from Berkeley. Both are men of the Left, who I venture to say deserve much more attention than they get, from either Left or Right. Still, this interesting move by Bilakovics forces a departure from the beauties and depth of Tocqueville’s prose to the industrial terrain of academia, even if at its best, where the argumentation loses some of its sparkle.   Bilakovics makes this move only to find the two professors inadequate in their analysis of openness, and he ends on his own, with an interpretation he admits is not quite faithful to Tocqueville. He both admires and criticizes his two fellow interpreters of Tocqueville.

“Openness” is not a term of Tocqueville’s. It is true, as Bilakovics notes, that in Tocqueville’s conception, democracy tends toward formlessness and limitlessness. Democracy is hostile, or at least temperamentally averse, to forms and limits—whether political as constitutions, social as manners, or literary as conventions—because these are restraints on the people’s will. They prevent democracy from charging ahead, heedless and even ruthless, toward greater equality. On the first page of Democracy in America, Tocqueville declares that the “primary fact” in America is “equality of conditions,” toward which “a great democratic revolution” elsewhere, particularly in Europe, is also taking place.

Hoover Institution