A review of The Democratic Soul: A Wilson Carey McWilliams Reader, by Wilson Carey McWilliams, edited by Patrick J. Deneen and Susan J. McWilliams; and Redeeming Democracy in America, by Wilson Carey McWilliams, edited by Patrick J. Deneen and Susan J. McWilliams
As anyone who knew him would attest, the late Wilson Carey McWilliams was a force of nature. A big man of big ideas, he had a gravelly voice that could command a room, and a sense of humor that could disarm people across the ideological spectrum. More substantively, he had a command of American political thought and contemporary political theory that was perhaps unrivalled by anyone in his generation. A professor of political science at Rutgers University for 35 years, he made his reputation with the publication in 1973 of The Idea of Fraternity in America. That magnum opus, weighing in at 700 pages, chronicled America's "second voice"—often a compound of Biblical and classical affirmations—that offered a self-conscious alternative to Lockean, or liberal, individualism. In it he wrote sympathetically about the Puritans, the Anti-Federalists, the melancholic wisdom of Nathanial Hawthorne and Herman Melville, and the comic genius of Mark Twain. He also drew regularly on the insights of Alexis de Tocqueville (16 of the chapters in The Idea of Fraternity began with epigrams from Democracy in America). After this grand effort, his only other books were two collections of reflections on presidential elections tellingly called The Politics of Disappointment (1995) and Beyond the Politics of Disappointment? (2000). His political ideals often caused him to be disappointed with America's major choices and broad trajectory. This, however, did not deter him from seeking ways forward.
Above all, McWilliams was a gifted and prolific essayist. Written over the course of 45 years, often found in obscure journals, many of the best have now been collected in two wonderfully complementary volumes. Redeeming Democracy in America focuses on American political thought and gives equal time to American foundations, to the two voices in our tradition, and to some of the ambiguities and ironies of contemporary political life. The Democratic Soul ranges more widely, addressing many of the same themes but also broader discussions of religion, political philosophy, and important 20th-century political thinkers. Together, these two volumes exhibit the breadth and depth of McWilliams's achievement, as well as some of its limits.
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Patrick Deneen teaches constitutional law and politics at Notre Dame and Susan McWilliams teaches politics at Pomona College and is McWilliams's daughter. Their thoughtful preface to The Democratic Soul highlights Wilson Carey McWilliams's complicated relationship to the American political tradition. They emphasize his "anguished" love of America, his ambivalence about the work of the framers, and his appeal to an "unofficial founding" rooted not in 1776 or 1789 but in the Puritan settlement in New England. McWilliams was an anguished lover of America because he believed that the country was worthy of love in spite of and not because of its official philosophy of individual rights and government by consent, which he constantly linked to the philosophical liberalism of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. More broadly, his work was a critique and protest against the false and debilitating individualism of modern liberalism. Modern men and women are increasingly "[i]solated, voiceless, and civically powerless." Today they are regularly proffered an empty promise of "autonomy," a poor substitute for the dignity and duties of citizens. Against the dislocations of modern life, he defended a civic life rooted in "loyalty, memory, and place."
He therefore sought to expand the memory of Americans, to make us aware of that "second voice" in our own tradition that speaks of civic obligation, mutual dependence, and of a moral horizon that transcends self-interest, however rightly understood. This was a tradition that could speak of democracy as an end, as a form of "fraternal republic," and not just as a means to private ends. With the classical political philosophers he affirmed that political community is "the natural home of humans," and that politics is a "tutor that makes true human freedom possible, above all the freedom gained in self-government." He therefore wrote eloquently about "the discipline of freedom," what the editors call "the learned and practiced capacity of citizens to work in concert to practice the art of self-governance."
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From the ancients "he absorbed the lesson that political life requires a fundamentally small setting wherein interpersonal relations can be fostered." The larger frame of the nation-state coexists unnaturally with citizenship and tends to make us at best "timid and cautious citizens" (McWilliams loved to quote this phrase from The Federalist). Here, however, one encounters an important conundrum—and qualification—in his thinking. Taken together, the essays make abundantly clear that McWilliams, like George Orwell, accepted "the theoretical superiority of smaller, simpler political societies." As his essay on the Englishman notes appreciatively, Orwell yearned for a self-governing England where artisans produced goods and services on a human scale and where technology was firmly under moral and political control. But McWilliams also forthrightly acknowledges that this sort of decentralized agrarian republic was out of the question in contemporary circumstances, since "foreign policy demands a more or less centralized state." An agrarian England "could not have resisted the Nazis" and would have left England vulnerable to the very totalitarians that Orwell dedicated his life to combating. A fellow partisan of "the small state" and decentralized politics, McWilliams was far from blind to the "terrible imperatives of modern politics," which "tend to subordinate theory to practice, ends to means, morality to necessity."
Yet politics cannot simply take its bearings from necessity if it is to safeguard decency, the Orwellian virtue par excellence. Some vision of the good society is also necessary, if modern men and women are not to succumb to a coldly realist politics that has little or no place for authentic human dignity, the dignity of self-government. My view is that McWilliams's oft-stated preference for the small state serves as a "utopia" in the classical sense of the term, a standard for thought and action meant to remind his contemporaries of what a genuinely human community would look like. When one loses sight of the best regime, one loses sight of a life worthy of man. At the same time, McWilliams knew that totalitarianism needed to be resisted and that free societies accordingly needed to draw on all the resources of the centralized state. He therefore was an unabashed Cold Warrior who remained a supporter of the Vietnam War when that was terribly unfashionable to do so. Still, he took his intellectual and political bearings by more than the immediate political urgencies of the day. His thought sought to acknowledge, and combine, political necessities and political elevation. Nor were these the only dualities found in his thinking.
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McWilliams complemented and complicated classical wisdom with a broadly Biblical perspective that emphasized "human fallenness, our partiality, our pride, and our need for stern but loving guidance." For McWilliams, Christian affirmations of equality, fraternity, and charity served to rebuke the pride and the inequality found in ancient politics and political theory, even at their most democratic. As the editors put it, his work suggests that Athens and Jerusalem use "different lyrics but the same harmonics." In his telling, politics for both the classical and the Biblical tradition are fundamentally about the formation of the human soul, and both remind naturally wayward human beings of inescapable limits and laws. Thus he articulated a politics of the common good that never lost sight of the "dependency and mutual need" that mark human existence.
These volumes feature multiple essays that capture McWilliams's understanding of democracy. The best and most revealing of these is his 1980 contribution to the American Enterprise Institute volume, How Democratic is the Constitution?, edited by Robert Goldwin and William Schambra. McWilliams's piece, entitled "Democracy and the Citizen: Community, Dignity, and the Crisis of Contemporary Politics in America," provides a synoptic account of his political philosophy, as well as of his "anguished" relationship to the American Founding. He understands democracy as articulated by Aristotle: the first principle of democratic liberty is not doing as one pleases but rather "ruling and being ruled in turn." The citizen both shares in the "responsibilities of rule" and assumes "the duty to obey." Aristotle criticized democracy when democrats acted as if they were the whole, as if "living as one likes" exhausts the meaning of citizenship. What Aristotle saw as the second, corrupted principle of democracy risked turning public-spirited citizens into "private-regarding individualists," mini-tyrants who had no concern for the public good. McWilliams wryly commented that "democracy can survive a few such citizens but not many." He insisted on the subordination of Aristotle's second principle of democracy to the first since the aim of democracy is self-rule. This governance of the self in community with others is more complicated and demanding than often thought, whether in antiquity or modernity. Today especially it requires recognizing that we did not make ourselves—that we are not self-created—and acknowledging the limits that nature itself sets to our rule. Human freedom is possible only when I acknowledge my dependence on the common good, and act as a part of a "whole" both civic and natural.
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In a small state, "the natural home of democracy," I know my fellow citizens and they know me. Such a state does not require economic equality and homogeneity but "it does require a sense of commonality and equal dignity." More deeply, wise democrats should see law and nature "not as confining prisons in which the self is trapped but as boundaries that delineate the self." Nor should they recoil before any and all yokes and boundaries: an "exacting regimen of civic education" is at the service of, and required by, democracy's most "audacious" goal: "the governance of the body by the soul."
In "Democracy and the Citizen" McWilliams speaks emphatically of the "framers' rejection of the ancients" (the italics are my own). He suggests that their real concern was individual liberty, not republican self-government (despite the fact that Publius' stated purpose was bringing together the exigencies of "good government" with "the republican form" in keeping with "the American genius"). McWilliams constantly identifies the framers with "philosophical liberalism," in effect reading them as modern liberals in the fullest, most self-conscious sense of the term. Because the framers took their bearings from "the familiar locutions of social contract theory" they must have accepted the anthropology underlying that theory. This is highly questionable. What he says about the framers is undoubtedly true of Hobbes and perhaps also of Locke: the early modern liberals believed that human beings "are by nature free,morally independent without obligations to nature or their fellows." But one can find any number of statements from leading Founding Fathers—John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, James Wilson, and Thomas Jefferson, among them—that affirm "superintending principles" above the human will and a "moral sense" that is not derived from some arbitrary contract at the foundation of civil society. It is deeply implausible to argue, as does McWilliams, that the framers as a whole endorsed Aristotle's second principle of democracy, which identified democracy with doing what one pleases regardless of whether it was right. He even goes so far as to suggest that for the framers the "really desirable" regime was a tyranny in which the individual is free "to command the bodies and resources of others." According to him, for the framers the choice of constitutionalism and limited government was the second-best order after the willful self-assertion of the individual in the state of nature. Such an interpretation strains credulity. It is one thing to say that the framers rejected the classical case for the small state; it is another to suggest that they believed the nation-state was simply incompatible with the "republican genius" of the American people. To repeat, a main purpose of The Federalist was to argue the opposite.
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In a word, McWilliams sides with the Anti-Federalists, whose thought he presents in an attractive gloss that makes them latter-day Christian Aristotelians. He rightly emphasizes that the Anti-Federalists' suspicion of concentrated power and emphasis on deliberative communities, public morals, and active citizen participation helped shape the "use and interpretation of the Constitution and its powers." But he also knows that the Anti-Federalists were less than loyal to the old science of politics that he presents as the ultimate source of their wisdom.
For all its intelligence and honesty, his account of the framers is a caricature that makes them more opposed to the older wisdom than many of them in fact were. It should be noted that in a fine essay in Redeeming American Democracy, he denies that the Declaration of Independence draws on social contract theory as such. Instead, it speaks in a neo-Calvinist way of governments being "instituted," and makes explicitly theistic religious affirmations along with recognizably "deistic" ones ("nature and nature's god"). The Declaration could be affirmed by orthodox Christians as well as by adherents of modern political philosophy. My own surmise is that McWilliams deliberately overstated the self-conscious modernism of the framers in order to highlight both the corrosive logic of social contract theory and what was truly distinctive in our nation's "second voice." He is thus able to set up a dramatic conflict between the old and new political science even though important elements of civic republicanism and Biblical wisdom informed the debates of the founding period on both sides.
Wilson Carey McWilliams was above all a partisan of democracy and its moral principle, human equality. In essay after essay he defended equality understood as "equal worth." For all his debts to the classics, his conception of politics was more partisan—more single-mindedly egalitarian—than Aristotle would have recommended. There is no comparable emphasis on statesmanship or magnanimity in his writings. But his conception of democracy had little to do with majoritarianism, the quintessentially modern solution to the political problem. For Lockean liberalism the majority's specific title to rule derived from its "greater force." In contrast, McWilliams imagined a democratic polity where "citizenship rules partisanship and public principles govern private interests." Fully aware of the high demands of this view, he argued that democracy "requires community, civic dignity, and religion." In defending the intimate connection between what Tocqueville called "the spirit of liberty" and the "spirit of religion," he argued against both the secularist and fundamentalist subversions of the religious foundations of a free society. But given contemporary circumstances, he especially recommended a renewed secular engagement with the wisdom of the Bible, the true source of the "second voice" in the American tradition. Biblical wisdom powerfully exposes the sophistry underlying the claim that human beings are "born ‘free and independent.'" It reminds fallen men that the desire for radical autonomy is a "result of sin, and not the true nature of humanity." The Biblical tradition knew that government must be limited and that men must be governed by laws. But it rooted limited government in the dependence of man on God and nature and denied the "self-sovereignty" that is at the heart of the modern affirmation of the self. One should add that McWilliams's knowledge of Scripture was exhaustive. He brilliantly draws out the political wisdom of a New Testament that points beyond politics. His essay on "The Bible in the American Political Tradition" from Redeeming Democracy in America is perhaps the best on the subject, a model of political theory confronting Biblical wisdom on its own terms.
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There are many gems to be recommended in these two volumes. Among the strengths of The Democratic Soul is its impressive treatment of Orwell, Reinhold Niebuhr, Bertrand de Jouvenel, and Leo Strauss. His early essay on Niebuhr (his only one to appear in The American Political Science Review) will change the way people think about Niebuhr's "Christian realism." McWilliams shows that while Niebuhr is an impassioned critic of modern liberalism and its utopian illusions, his basic political ideas are drawn from the very liberal tradition that he so incisively criticizes. "[B]eginning as a critic, he ends with concepts and convictions drawn from the core of the liberal tradition." His "realism" is ultimately at odds with both orthodox Christianity and classical political science. In contrast, McWilliams draws sympathetically on the fusion of liberalism and conservatism, classicism and modernism, in the thought of the French political philosopher Jouvenel. A "pessimistic evolutionist" who never confused technical progress with moral progress, Jouvenel was the most lucid contemporary critic of social contract theory, a tradition that had forgotten the fundamental debts that human beings owe to their forebears and to the larger patrimony that is civilization. He knew that a free spirit must affirm obligation and honor, two concepts overlooked by philosophical liberalism. And in writings such as Sovereignty (1957), he showed how statesmanship required both the instigator (Dux) who set great actions in motion, and the stabilizer (the Rex) who reestablishes bonds of trust within society.
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McWilliams also wrote sympathetically about Strauss and in a brilliant essay shows how Strauss helped revive the dignity of the American political tradition. It becomes a crucial moment in the self-understanding of Western civilization, where the residues of classical and Christian wisdom come together with the "first wave" of modernity, that is modernity at its most politically moderate and sober. McWilliams beautifully shows how Strauss helped recover the "high adventure" of American political thought, even if it was not a central intellectual preoccupation of his. McWilliams is that rare scholar who did not begin as a Straussian but became over time a "Straussian fellow-traveler," albeit one whose Christian faith and love of politics took primacy over an abstract preoccupation with philosophy.
Few readers will agree with all of his arguments. I have already suggested that he is less than equitable to the American framers. His comments on Ronald Reagan and American conservatism are often summary, as if conservatism is reducible to a mean-spirited defense of economic oligarchy and an excessively sunny view of capitalist modernity. I for one do not agree with his claim that dignity and citizenship have no place in "an unstable society or a large state." The nation-state is the only political form outside the classical city to be a home of self-government in any meaningful sense of the term. To identify self-government exclusively with the small state is to risk enervating souls who participate in the modern adventure. It also fails to do justice to specifically American forms of citizenship. Other readers will find other claims with which to quarrel. But these two volumes are to be celebrated for giving the political animal in our souls "the words and speech appropriate to a citizen." As Wilson Carey McWilliams argues, that is political education at its best and a crucial step toward the recovery of genuine self-government.