Guide Demanding Democracy: American Radicals in Search of a New Politics

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How can citizens be persuaded to accept plans for a more equitable, inclusive democracy, and how should those who are committed to such ideals behave when many members of the public do not share their aspirations?

A sensitive and thoughtful response to these questions, Stears indicates, must involve the relationship between the end of realising a better democracy and the means needed to achieve this end. This tradition, according to Stears, ran through the progressive reform movement of the early 20th century, industrial labour activism in the s, the civil rights movement, and the student movements of the New Left.

Professor Marc Stears

These movements thus combined a dose of optimism about the kind of democracy that could be achieved in the future with a good deal of realism about the means required to make progress—thereby avoiding both excessive idealism and cynicism about the future. Within these movements there was much internal argumentation, informed by practice, about the best ways to realise a more equitable democratic order given the non-ideal circumstances of contemporary life.

The courage, solidarity, and strong commitment exhibited in industrial strikes in the s, civil rights marches, and campus confrontations in the s may not be appropriate for the day-to-day politics of an improved democracy. This does not mean that the virtues of struggle should be avoided, but that radical democrats should be sensitive to the requirements of a peaceful future.

Stears argues, for instance, that civil rights organisations such as the Congress for Racial Equality committed themselves to nonviolence not in order to discharge moral duties to present citizens, but in order to create a future political and moral order unmarred by bitter recriminations brought on by memories of violence.

In addition, the examples of the radical democratic tradition illustrate the importance of leadership in changing the attitudes of a citizenry. In Demanding Democracy , he contends that the radical democratic tradition has been characterised by continuities in political strategy, such as the sit-down strike, in addition to a degree of institutional and personal interconnection.

Members of the radical democratic tradition, according to Stears, shared a propensity to invoke concepts derived from classic American political traditions and to insist that political structures be altered in order to deliver on the promise implicit in American democracy. The question, however, is whether such a tradition is really a coherent concept, given that participants in such movements did not necessarily see themselves as contributors to a wider strain of activism.

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Moreover, the fact that the political movements discussed in Demanding Democracy did not work toward shared concrete objectives leads Stears away from defining the radical democratic tradition in terms of the specific goals of its constituent movements. Instead, he characterizes the radical democratic tradition largely by reference to the fine balance between ends and means that their participants espoused.

This, however, raises the question of why Stears focuses on movements that are ordinarily considered progressive. What about conservative movements in America—the emerging Tea Party movement or the Moral Majority of the s—that express deep frustration about the existing political order, believe their views have been undemocratically excluded, and eschew calm, reasoned argument in favour of controversial rhetorical and protest techniques?

Indeed, there is an argument to be made that the sense of urgency and the commitment to divisive action that once animated progressive radicals in America has shifted to the right of American politics over the past three decades.


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Are conservative movements, then, part of the radical democratic tradition? If not, why not?

If so, then political theorists on the left may face with renewed vigour the question of whether radical politics is a desirable way to remedy injustice. It is true that he leaves out a lot: Marxists of almost every stripe, anarchists, and the fascinating parade of individuals and groupuscules which, even if they had little impact, often had ideas worth considering. If you are an afficionado of twentieth century American radicalism, you will probably find that some of your favorites are missing.

But one can only do so much. Stears has arguably centered our attention on a core, continuous strand in American political thought and action.

EconoSpeak: Demanding Democracy: American Radicals in Search of a New Politics

The book benefits from this clarity. My real criticisms are these: The most visible error in this work is to treat the s consensus theorists as bearers of the radical democratic tradition. Some were reformers, but few members of the flock Stears identifies deserve to be called radicals; nor, more to the point, did most see themselves this way.

The most important lacuna is the linkage between movements to achieve greater democracy and those in pursuit of narrower ends.

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This makes it possible for us to appreciate the substantive goals that lie behind the abstract formulations. This enables Stears to foreground the references that Progressives and later consensus theorists made to so-called American political values.

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But this is to give acquiescence to a myth, for the problems of democracy in America have never been insular. The civil disobedience tradition has its origin in German idealism via Thoreau , and nonviolent direct action was undergoing simultaneous experimentation in much of the world at the same time it was being tested in the US. Progressive reformers drunk heavily from European examples, as Dan Rodgers showed in Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age.