February 17, 2019

Is There a Future for Liberal Democracy

“There’s an intriguing phenomenon in publishing you could call the One Great Idea book. Usually written by a leading senior scholar in an interdisciplinary field such as international relations, political philosophy, or comparative literature, the One Great Idea book displays a command of numerous languages and wide-ranging familiarity with classics in philosophy or religion. Its major aim is to reduce our understanding of complex realities by identifying one guiding thread that helps unravel the mystery with which it is concerned.

In the modern world, the best exemplar of the One Great Idea book is Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Although it was published in two volumes, and contains insights on subjects as different from each other as federalism, the education of young women, and military discipline, Tocqueville’s masterpiece was dominated from start to finish by one and only one idea: that democracy had, mostly problematically, influenced every area of American life. Unlike the Enlightenment thinkers who preceded him (Voltaire, for example, wrote poetry, drama, history, philosophy, and even theology), Tocqueville made no effort to master all the available genres. His Recollections, unlike Rousseau’s Confessions, are not especially personal and are confined to a limited period in his life: the French Revolution of 1848. He, in contrast to Diderot, would edit no encyclopedia. And though his other books, especially The Old Regime and the Revolution, are still read and debated, it was Democracy in America that put forward a unifying theory.

We do not have many Tocquevilles among us in the contemporary world. The country of his birth, France, comes closest to keeping alive the tradition of what one French philosopher, André Glucksmann, called “the master thinkers.” (Glucksmann wrote to warn against them.) We can now trace the roots of many of these to one of the most captivating intellectuals of the twentieth century: the Russian-born French philosopher and civil servant Alexandre Kojève, whose seminars on Hegel in the 1930s shaped the way Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jacques Lacan, Raymond Aron, Louis Althusser, and others too numerous to mention understood the world.”

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