Saturday, March 03, 2007

Is Democratic Theory for Export?

Keith Burgess-Jackson has posted a link to Jacques Barzun, Is Democratic Theory for Export? (1.5MB pdf file), the 6th annual Morgenthau Lecture, given at the Carnegie Council in 1986.

Here is an abstract from the Carnegie Council website:

A prominent feature of American political consciousness is a desire to propagate democracy throughout the world. In our enthusiasm to share what we enjoy, Jacques Barzun sees that little attention is paid to exactly what we are trying to distribute. Through a brief historical survey of democracy, he shows that our popular conception of the term does not correspond with any particular definition. U.S. democracy has no central text and is distinctly different, in theory and in practice, from the democracy of other states, both historical and contemporary. Democracy is an abstract ideal that is a function of time. Its present incarnation in the United States emphasizes freedom and equality through the means and language of specific personal rights. Barzun sees an internal tension in this formulation, one that ultimately threatens both freedom and equality if exported to the rest of the world.

Buy a print copy.

Opening my copy after many years, I see a note:

Jan 13/87

Dear Leo

I love your pun on pedagogy — true inspiration. Have a good New Year — I began mine with the flu, but: I’m going on half time consulting & at home — 1170 Fifth Ave, N.Y. 10029 — which should be a great relief.

Best —

Rereading it, I see that Mr. Barzun’s lecture quoted a member of the Barzun Centennial Celebration Steering Committee:

In France, the last elections brought to power in the National Assembly, and hence in the office of the prime minister, a party opposed to that of the president, whose term was to continue for another two years. This vote caused immediate and prolonged consternation. Would there be a violent clash or would government stop dead in a stalemate between the president and his prime minsiter backed by the Assembly? A few daring souls said that “cohabitation” (which in French has no sexual overtones) might be possible. But debate raged on. It so happened that a young musicologist from Smith College was in Paris when the dismay was as its height. Being fluent in French, he wrote a letter to Le Monde, which published it as remarkable. It said in effect: “Good people, don’t be upset. What bothers you has happened in the United States quite often. Democracy won’t come to an end because two branches of government are in the hands of different parties.” (Peter Anthony Bloom, “La Le├žon des Etats-Unis,” Le Monde, Paris, February 28, 1986).

And as for present concerns,

In the democratic theorem, the sovereignty of the people implies the practical unity of that people. How to create it when it does not exist is a different task from that of developing free institutions and is probably incompatible with it.

See also Fashioning Democracy and Start Something Up.