A review of Democracy and Tradition, by Jeffrey Stout

This book is so full of interesting, challenging, and generous arguments and interpretations, one feels almost churlish in criticizing it, even in part. So it is fitting to turn, first, to the general contours of Stout's argument and its many praiseworthy elements. 

Although he spills a good deal of ink on the philosophic problems of democracy, democracy is not, for Stout, reducible to a philosophic problem. Too many liberal political philosophers have been seduced by the work of the late John Rawls into thinking that, if you get the philosophic architecture right, you will somehow have captured the essence of democracy. Not so, avers Stout. Democracy is also a culture and, as such, is riddled with complexities, tensions, nuances, and ambivalences that a philosophic structure, especially one of the Kantian sort, can only distort rather than clarify. 

Stout thus positions himself against one of the major contenders in the arena of democratic debate—the Rawlsian notion of what a just liberal democracy must be. But he frets as well about proclaimed alternatives, especially those that look to religion "as a source of civic unity." Seeking a "unifying framework" for modern democracy, these anti-liberal thinkers—Stanley Hauerwas, Alasdair MacIntyre, and John Milbank—present the strongest case for what Stout calls "the new traditionalism." The Rawlsians play right into the hands of their critics, in two ways: (1) They "have endorsed a theory of the modern nation-state as ideally neutral with respect to comprehensive conceptions of the good"; and (2) they "have proposed to establish political deliberation on a common basis of free public reason, independent of reliance on tradition." 

This suffices for the traditionalists to pounce; but Stout thinks they make a mistake in doing so, for, in the process, they take the arguments of liberal philosophy for the thing itself—for modern democracy in all its gritty reality—and then proceed to denounce it.

Stout's purpose, after he spends the bulk of his book "deconstructing" both the dominant liberal position and the stance of the "new traditionalists," is to mount a different defense of democracy. Rather than drawing on Locke or Rawls, he looks to democratic practices as themselves constituting a tradition worth endorsing. Modern democratic culture is no naked public square. To the contrary, Stout insists, it is "anything but empty. Its ethical substance…is more a matter of enduring attitudes, concerns, dispositions and patterns of conduct…"; therefore, "Rawlsian liberalism should not be seen as its official mouthpiece." Democracy in this sense needs defending, because it is neither the vacuous, pernicious thing its traditionalist critics claim, nor does it conform to the determinant "system of rules or principles" advertised by its liberal defenders. 

We—contemporary observers of American democracy—do indeed require a robust defense of a public philosophy, but in order to assay this task we had best look at the "ethical inheritance" of democratic citizens themselves. Stout calls this a "pragmatic conception of democratic sociality," and his book rises or falls, in part, on how compelling this alternative is. By pragmatism Stout means ways of thinking and talking, especially about ethics, but also about the activity of "intellectuals who attempt to make sense of that thinking and talking from a reflective, critical point of view." But democracy isn't just talk—it is also habits, or as Stout prefers, "practices." And the American character can be best understood by looking at our traditional sources of piety, hope, and generosity. 

It makes sense, then, that Democracy and Tradition, in Part One, takes up the "question of character," as Stout invokes thinkers on whom he will rely to make his positive case: Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and John Dewey. He embraces an expressivist conception of norms (e.g., "stealing is wrong" means "I dislike stealing"), drawing on Dewey, but he insists that this leaves room for ethical discourse involving full-fledged truth claims. Stout is never anything less than intelligent and illuminating in his discussion of the American character and our views of race and nation. But a question occurs immediately and haunts Stout's project, and that is whether Whitman and Emerson and Dewey can sustain the critical and the constructive weight that Stout places on their shoulders. 

In Part Two, Stout looks at what, for him, is the ambivalent legacy of "religious voices in a secular society." Some, of course, would cavil at his characterization of American society as "secular." One can have a secular government—in the sense of no established religion—without having a thoroughly secularized society. But be that as it may, in this section Stout looks at the conflict between secularist and traditionalist interpretations of American political culture. He appreciates why secularism, as an ideology, gets the dander up of thinkers like Hauerwas, MacIntyre, and Milbank. Thereare reasons why even a feature of our polity regarded as one of its most noble—freedom of religion—might be interpreted by some as a "ruse designed to reduce religion to insignificance." 

But over the long run the traditionalist insistence that free exercise is but one sham among many not only fuels radical anti-liberalism, it also undermines commitment to democracy. This is one of Stout's most consistently expressed worries. How long before the "traditionalist backlash against contractarian liberalism" becomes more generalized as an attack on democratic practices tout court, of the sort Hauerwas and others have mounted? 

Stout is exemplary in his charitable yet pointed interpretation of the traditionalists, especially of Hauerwas, for whom he expresses some admiration. But he questions whether Hauerwas's critique "of liberal democracy exemplifies the ideals of Christian charity and Aristotelian friendship that he himself embraces as alternatives to contractarian liberalism." Our political culture is a far nobler thing, Stout insists, than either its Rawlsian defenders or its Hauerwasian detractors declare it to be: they both fall short of the mark. Stout once again reminds the reader that there are "spiritual benefits" to be derived from "expressive freedom" of the sort that sustains "democratic individuality as a positive good"—this against both camps. This expressivist vision rejects the notion that religion is always a conversation-stopper (the Rawlsians) or, alternatively, the only repository of truths worth believing (the traditionalists). 

In Part Three, Stout develops further his claim that modern democracy is not primarily a celebration of secularism. It involves, rather, a "kind of pragmatism" that "can transcend the current standoff between secular liberals and new traditionalists—and do so by borrowing crucial insights of both sides." Stout does yeoman's work in articulating what "pragmatic expressivism" is all about. Unfortunately, at times his positive case falls into the rigidities he criticizes in liberal political philosophy; indeed, he lapses into the sort of abstract philosophic defense he argues that democracy does not in fact require. This may result from the fact that pragmatic expressivism is, by definition, a slippery thing; it wouldn't be expressivism if it weren't.

Stout proclaims his commitment to truth, hence, to a defensible "ethics without metaphysics." Emerson and Whitman, among others, are called upon to shoulder this burden, too. The American democracy can consist of multiple ethical communities insofar as they share "a way of thinking and talking about ethical topics, or more precisely, a discursive social practice." This is rather thin gruel, I fear, but Stout clearly believes it will suffice. He makes a good case that "democratic individuality," which he endorses, is not to "be confused with atomistic dissolution of social life," which he laments; and he believes the latter has been overdrawn in the "apocalyptic" tone of much postmodernism, including its new traditionalist forms.

* * *

To be sure, democracy's future will be unpromising indeed "so long as…entrenched constituencies jointly control the political landscape," for neither formalistic defenses of democracy, nor heated denunciations of it as nigh irredeemable, will do. Democracy's survival demands that people "learn to think of themselves as individuals while identifying with a broader ethical inheritance and political community." (Again he stands, as he tells us, with Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreau.) Such individuals, Whitmanesque citizens, will sustain "the social practices that matter most directly to democracy," namely, "the discursive practices of ethical deliberation and political debate" requiring that we all become "reason-givers." This formulation sneaks in through the back door a big dose of "deliberative democracy" derived from the Rawlsians. But Stout shifts the requirements for what counts as reason-giving by opening the door to religious reasons so long as these reasons are but one among many. 

Stout insists that one can reject Rawlsian liberalism without rejecting liberal democratic culture. This culture involves "substantive normative commitments" but "does not presume to settle in advance the ranking of our highest values." Nor does democracy resolve the first and last questions of life, sin, and death. Stout's democracy is a distinctly non-utopian project; he shares this view, although a far sunnier version of it, with those he calls "Augustinians," from Reinhold Niebuhr to this reviewer. Stout's book commends itself to all theorists of democracy and concerned citizens who would understand the current debates about democracy's perils and possibilities. 

But, truth to tell—and churlish as one may feel to say so—Stout's defense of democracy is rather anemic on its own terms. The practices that flow from a community banding together to fight off a giant chain store or a smaller portion of that community supporting enthusiastically a child's soccer team, aren't quite the stuff out of which robust defenses of democracy are made—especially in a time when a war to the death has been proclaimed by democracy's enemies. 

Finally, the Emersonian "self-made man" is both too strenuous ("man alone" fighting for his individuality) and too weak (it is "man alone," after all) to do the job Stout requires. And it is all a bit too nice—no doubt because Stout deploys "conversation" as the dominant metaphor for democratic culture. "Conversation" doesn't really cut it for those for whom contemporary political contests are quite literally about life and death (abortion, capital punishment, cloning and stem cell research, etc.). They know, all too well, that the arguments they make will be chastised and rebuked as "conversation stoppers" by those who believe any articulation of first principles is unacceptable in democratic debate. Stout offers no way around or out of this dilemma.