The Case for Democracy
commentary, Jan. 19,2005
The new cycle was signalled in President Bush's remarks last week on the recent Palestinian elections and the Iraqi elections on Jan. 30: "As a democrat, as a person who believes in democracy -- a Republican democrat, I might add -- as someone who believes that everybody has a right to live in a free society. . . January, 2005, is an extraordinary month."
True, small-d democrat isn't exactly a rare word. But nowadays we tend to reserve it for people in places like Russia, Iraq or Ukraine, where the system of government is up for grabs. When we describe Americans as small-d democrats it's invariably in a purely social sense, to praise some aristocrat for a seeming indifference to class distinctions. A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times reviewer of a posthumous collection of George Plimpton's essays described Plimpton as "a democrat of the first order." It struck me that you could have said the same thing about Rodney Dangerfield, except that that would have gone without saying
That's pretty much the reason why Americans rarely bother to describe themselves as small-d democrats in the political sense of the word, to mean someone who advocates democracy -- it's supposed to go without saying.
But until the 20th century democrat was a charged term in American political life. In the age of Jefferson and Jackson, Americans were still aware that the word had been borrowed from French at the time of the French Revolution, when democrat was opposed to aristocrat, and the idea of "rule of the people" could evoke the alarming echoes of tumbrils in the streets. And the name of the Democratic Party itself (or the "Democratic Republicans" as they were called in Jefferson's time) was derived from the clubs called "democratic societies," which were modeled after Jacobin groups of Revolutionary France.
That sense was still alive at the end of the 19th century, when William Jennings Bryan said that "between one who is at heart an aristocrat and one who is at heart a democrat there is a great gulf fixed." Bryan made a clear connection between the small-d and big-D senses of democrat and democratic -- in fact he sometimes used democracy as a synonym for the Democratic Party itself. 
It wasn't until the 20th century that democracy began to recede into the American rhetorical wallpaper, stripped of most of its connotations of social and economic equality -- this even as "the people" was starting to sound a little musty as a name for the common man. In fact nowadays the phrase "economic democracy" is only a tenth as common in the press as it was in the Roosevelt years, and almost wholly absent from political discourse, where it calls up phrases like "income redistribution" and "class warfare."
Once democracy was safely disconnected from its more radical egalitarian implications, it no longer conjured up the specters of mob rule and despotism that made writers like Kant and Burke so wary the word. Democracy is simply a symbol that creates a sense of unity without connoting much of anything specific -- one of those words Walter Lippman described as "assembl[ing] emotions after they have been detached from their ideas."
Who started this and when? Acting on a tip, I wrote to the man who was campaign director of Wendell Willkie's race against Franklin Delano Roosevelt. ''In the Willkie campaign of 1940,'' responded Harold Stassen, ''I emphasized that the party controlled in large measure at that time by Hague in New Jersey, Pendergast in Missouri and Kelly Nash in Chicago should not be called a 'Democratic Party.' It should be called the 'Democrat party.' . . .''But in fact you find instances of "Democrat Party" going back at least to 1923, when H. Edmund Machold, the Republican Assembly Speaker of NY State, was quoted as saying:
The people of this State have chosen the Republican Party as the majority party in this House, and the representative of the opposite party, the Democrat Party, for the place of Chief Executive of the State. (New York Times, Jan. 4, 1923.)
And Hoover used the phrase in the 1932 campaign -- for example in a speech in St. Louis on November 4, 1932:
Many years ago the Democrat party undertook to remedy that whole question of booms and slumps by the creation of the Federal Reserve System. (New York Times, Nov. 5, 1932). Return
Copyright Â© 2004 Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.