Anecdotes as Antidotes

Blessed Are the Organized
Grassroots Democracy in America
Jeffrey Stout
Princeton University Press, $29.95, 346 pp.

Princeton philosopher Jeffrey Stout describes an encounter that I suspect many political theorists who have gone public with their doubts about the health of American democracy have had of late. Lecturing in Tennessee in 2004, Stout argued that “the current crisis of democracy is grave enough that concerted action on the part of many citizens would be required to overcome it.” During the question-and-answer period following his talk, he was brought up short by a college freshman who said that “he found my diagnosis of democracy’s ills persuasive,” but regarded the treatment Stout prescribed as “unhelpfully vague.”

Stout was compelled to admit that this young man with the “OK, so what do we do about it?” objection had a point, one that subsequent audiences also raised repeatedly. “I had not explained how people currently addicted to fast ‘food’ and ‘reality’ television might actually take back the country from the plutocrats, militarists, and culture warriors now dominating our politics. The truth is that I had only a vague idea.” His interlocutors “were all asking why they should have hope and what a better way of conducting our political affairs might look like in concrete terms.” If he was to answer their question better, he had to offer them examples that might offer some hope of awakening American citizenship from its slumbers, and not from now-distant memories of the civil-rights movement but from “contemporary democratic practice.”


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About the Author

Robert Westbrook teaches modern American history at the University of Rochester. He is the author of Democratic Hope: Pragmatism and the Politics of Truth.