Ideas

Things Fall Apart: The origins and future of American democracy

Harvard historian James Kloppenberg traces the long and tortuous tradition of American liberal democracy. He argues that the United States has arrived at such a precarious place in its political evolution that the very conditions that make democracy possible are under threat.

Does America’s early experiment with self-rule offer lessons for the U.S. today?

Detail from "Stump Speaking" by George Caleb Bingham, 1853-54. Historian James Kloppenberg believes America should return to its earlier roots of participatory politics. (Wikipedia)
Listen to the full episode53:59

It may sound surprising, but American democracy has its origins in Christianity — or at least versions of it practiced by early colonists in New England. That's the contention of Dr. James Kloppenberg, who delivered a public talk at McMaster University presented by the Socrates Project and the Wilson Institute for Canadian History on 1 April 2019.

In 1717, Congregational minister John Wise proclaimed that: "the democratical principle is the original form of government." Christian communities such as Wise's believed the right to self-govern was fundamental, bestowed upon them by God, and embedded in Scripture.

As one might expect, this right to self-govern applied only to men who were established members of the religious community. Dissenters were encouraged to leave.

James Kloppenberg is the author of "Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought". 1:35

From this highly exclusive form of democracy, America would go on to build a nation that allowed men — principally white men — to live free from the whims of kings.

That freedom to live according to one's own choice was slowly extended to other groups, but was still subject to expansion and constraint as people grappled with how to share — and not share — both space and power.

But the long-tested principles upon which American democracy relies — reciprocity, autonomy, equality — are buckling under increasing stress.

The ideological hardening of political parties, the role of big money in electoral politics, and growing income inequality are just a few of the factors that have pushed America toward a greater authoritarian culture. 

In this episode, Harvard historian James Kloppenberg traces the long and tortuous tradition of American liberal democracy. He argues that the United States has arrived at such a precarious place in its political evolution, that the very conditions that make democracy possible are under threat.

Professor Kloppenberg says unless Americans are willing to move away from widespread destructive tendencies like self-righteousness and dogmatism, then democracy itself may never recover. 


James Kloppenberg is the Charles Warren Professor of American History at Harvard University. He is the author of Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought (Oxford University Press, 2016). 


**This episode was produced by Naheed Mustafa.

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