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Debating Democracy: Individual, Society, and Tradition

This course is expected to run but has not yet been scheduled.

Course Description

All of us are formally equal in a democracy. But does equality breed conformity? Can we really be individuals in the crowd? And conversely, given our many differences, is formal equality enough to hold a democracy together? Or do we need something more, like a shared sense of tradition or purpose? What does a commitment to democracy require of us today?

We will explore and debate these questions by engaging foundational texts in modern political theory, philosophy, and social thought. The course offers students an excellent introduction to historical debates in these fields and a strong foundation for future work.

In the first week, we will explore the rise of democracy in the modern period. After touching on Plato’s classical account of democracy and the emergence of modern political science in Hobbes, we examine Locke’s and Rousseau’s differing views on liberty and the social contract. Then we turn to debates around the American and French Revolutions, in the work of Thomas Paine and Paine’s famous debate with Edmund Burke. Finally, we consider Tocqueville’s account of the social effects of democracy and assess the relevance of his work today. Through these studies, we will develop an understanding of how here, at the origin of modern democracy, ideas about the individual, society, and tradition interacted to establish what are still the basic terms of debate in our political culture.

In the second week, we put this understanding to work to see how these conceptions were brought into new constellations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. After considering how realities of gender discrimination (Wollstonecraft) and slavery (Tocqueville and Douglass) have distorted the theory and practice of democracy, we examine Marx’s call for ‘human’ emancipation and Mill’s view of the individual’s relation to society. All of these figures were, in short, debating democracy - its promise, prospects, and dangers - and we will do the same. Finally, we examine and debate Arendt’s theory of political action and assess a 2008 work by political theorist Sheldon Wolin, Democracy Incorporated, where he claims that American democracy today is a ‘managed democracy’, slipping toward ‘inverted totalitarianism’. Wolin’s claims - informed by his reading of Arendt - are provocative but well argued, and students will be well-equipped to engage them by this point in the course.

In addition to laying a foundation for future work in philosophy, political theory, and related disciplines, students will be encouraged to form and articulate their own views about democracy and the concepts here linked to it: the individual, society, and tradition.