The Decline of Fraternity

Redeeming Democracy in America
Wilson Carey McWilliams
University of Kansas Press, $34.95, 336 pp.

“Character is a fine autumnal word, with echoes of Protestant gentility and sherry in the afternoon.” Perhaps surprisingly, those are the words of someone who worked in political science, a discipline whose practitioners, along with many in the social sciences, tend to write in flat, desiccated prose. But Wilson Carey McWilliams—whose sudden death in 2005 shocked his family, friends, students, and profession—was a rarity among political scientists. He was neither a rank empiricist nor an abstract theorist. The editors of this excellent collection of his essays, Patrick Deneen and Susan McWilliams (the author’s daughter), have wisely titled the book Redeeming Democracy in America, evoking the masterwork of Alexis de Tocqueville, McWilliams’s model for thinking about democracy in America.

McWilliams was not just a political scientist. He was also a political historian, a cultural ethnographer, an astute interpreter of classic texts, a stout-hearted reader of the Bible and Calvinist tradition, and a lover of great American writing. A frequent contributor to Commonweal, McWilliams tended to avoid many of the official organs of the profession and to publish his papers in book collections or in journals more open to his sort of eclectic approach. The heart of McWilliams’s approach is fraternity and...

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About the Author

Jean Bethke Elshtain, a political theorist, authored more than a dozen books, including Women and War (1987), Democracy on Trial (1993), Augustine and the Limits of Politics (1996), and Sovereignty: God, State, Self (2008). She was a frequent contributor to Commonweal and covered many subjects in our pages, including feminism, family, just war, criminal justice, and capitalism.