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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 " social, economic, and personal " is formal equality enough to keep a democracy going? Or do we need something more, like a shared sense of history, tradition, or purpose?

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 emergence of democracy in the early modern period. After touching upon the classical critiques of democracy in Plato and Aristotle, we will examine, first, Locke’s and Rousseau’s conceptions of individual rights and the social contract, then the controversies surrounding the French Revolution (in Edmund Burke and his critics), then finally the early decades of the American Republic as chronicled by Alexis de Tocqueville. In these studies, students will learn how here, at the origin of modern democracy, conceptions of the individual, society, and tradition interacted to establish the basic terms of debate in our political culture today.

In the second week, we will put this understanding to work in exploring how conceptions of the individual, society, and tradition have formed four diverse constellations over the past 150 years: in socialism (Marx, Lenin, and Oscar Wilde); in totalitarianism (Carl Schmitt, Mussolini, and two of their critics, Arendt and Popper); in conservatism (Leo Strauss, Russell Kirk, and Roger Scruton); and in liberalism (in John Stuart Mill, John Rawls, and Richard Rorty). All of the thinkers we will read were, in short, debating democracy " its promise, prospects, and dangers " and we will do the same. We will conclude with readings from a 2008 work by the Princeton political theorist Richard Wolin, Democracy Incorporated, and debate his claim that, due to corporate power, American democracy today is ‘managed democracy’ and even slipping toward an ‘inverted totalitarianism’. Wolin’s claims 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. Students will write two short essays, for which they will receive thorough instructions and one-on-one guidance.