Liberty for All

Democracy in Practice & Principle

When Abraham Lincoln defined democracy by contrasting it to the relationship between masters and slaves, he took for granted that the type of polity he was dealing with, and hoped to reform, was a republic. The first modern republics were supposed to protect and cultivate a people’s liberty. Achieving and maintaining liberty—in the quite precise sense of security against domination—were chief objectives of government.

What made the most productive reform movements of Lincoln’s day democratic, in his eyes, was that they sought to redefine citizenship, the primary locus of responsibility for political arrangements, in terms that did not entail an arbitrary exclusion. Liberty and justice were thus to become liberty and justice for all.

Here we have a cluster of concepts, each of which is sufficiently precise to do the socially significant work of ruling out various things. The democratic turn of Lincoln’s time did not abandon those concepts. Rather, it changed how they are to be applied and what their application is now taken to imply. Conceptual change emerged out of an extended argument over how we are going to live, an argument in which reasons were exchanged, but also one in which people were struggling for authority and power, and deploying coercive force. The process resulted in more determinate conceptions of what liberty, justice, domination, and democracy are.

Far from introducing a more permissive culture, which is to say a weakening of normative constraints, the movements Lincoln had in mind when he spoke of democracy sought to expand the citizenry’s conception of what a self-respecting republic needs to prohibit absolutely as incompatible with liberty and justice rightly understood. One can see these concepts becoming more precise and more demanding in Lincoln’s own speeches and writings from one year to the next, but a similar process was at work on a grand cultural scale and came to the point of crisis around the time Lincoln said that a house divided against itself on matters as important as slavery could not long survive.

The type of polity being proposed by the antislavery reformers was a democratic republic: a republic modified democratically. It was meant to retain the basic political roles found in republics—citizen, executive, legislator, and so on—while now excluding from society anything morally analogous to the roles of master and slave. Before, the roles of citizen and slave had been defined in relation to each other: a citizen was someone with the acknowledged authority to exercise certain responsibilities in the political sphere; a slave was someone utterly deprived of acknowledged authority, and someone expected to acknowledge the authority of citizens and masters. Taking the roles of master and slave out of the social system, while leaving the role of citizen in place, required a rethinking of what it is to be a citizen and who is to be counted as a citizen. To be a citizen was no longer to possess the authority to stand on someone else’s back.

The reforms also required a revision of the basic ideal of liberty. The citizens of a republic were those whose liberty the polity was meant to establish and maintain; they were liberty’s rightful claimants. Everyone but a masochist takes domination to be a horrendous thing to suffer under, which is why most of human history can be interpreted as a struggle to avoid it. The most common strategy for avoiding it is trying to get the upper hand: to dominate others so as to avoid being dominated oneself. Any regime of domination, however, contains the seeds of its own destruction, because the dominated always have a reason to overthrow the existing order. To seek liberty for one’s own group is to seek their security against domination. But the strategy of domination denies to others the liberty one seeks for one’s own group. It thus perpetrates on others something it takes to be horrendous.

The landmark conflicts in democratic republics since Lincoln’s time tend to be about which relationships sufficiently resemble the master-slave relationship to be ruled out absolutely. And this question often comes down to whether the power being exercised in the contested relationship is rightly regarded as arbitrary. The classical ideal of a republic expressed the reasonable desire to institute a regime within which some people, at least, could enjoy relationships with one another that were free of the arbitrariness inherent in domination. The compelling force of this ideal, the ethical impetus behind democratic reform over the past two centuries or so, has been the increasingly widespread recognition of the arbitrariness of maintaining a polity of free citizens by dominating noncitizens at home or abroad.

Republics brought before the moral imagination of humankind actual examples of citizens attributing to one another the authority to take equal responsibility for the political order; that was what it meant for them to relate to one another as fellow citizens. If such relationships exist, they must be possible. And if they are possible, then what, besides the arbitrary use of coercive force and the arbitrarily restricted application of the concepts of citizen and liberty, can keep the zone of human freedom and mutual recognition from being radically expanded?

The dominant have always profited from confusion over what liberty is. Liberty in the sense of security against domination is distinct from liberty in the debased sense of an absence of constraint, interference, or influence. Lincoln understood that the sort of freedom being sought by the critics of chattel slavery was freedom from domination, and that this sort of freedom could be achieved only if people were made secure against being enslaved or otherwise dominated by others. Security against domination can typically be had only for those living under a society of laws framed and administered justly and backed up by the just and prudent use of coercive force. A society of that sort is not laissez-faire about domination. It is committed, by its basic ideals, to rule out domination as a matter of principle and, where prudent, also as a matter of law. That means giving an increasingly determinate sense to the ideas of domination and liberty. Once a society has declared slavery a paradigmatic instance of the horrendously unjust, it must ask itself what else, besides slavery, counts as domination.

The struggle to achieve a democratic republic is, first, an attempt to carefully define the notion of domination and, second, an attempt to make this notion concrete in a constitution and legal system that achieve actual security against the arbitrary exercise of power. Hammering out the concepts and giving shape to the corresponding arrangements are both required in order for a polity to achieve substantial freedom. And neither of these things is possible in an undifferentiated society, where individuals are absorbed into the mass, or in an atomized society, where individuals are isolated from one another.

Complete freedom from constraint by laws or norms is not substantial freedom. A society marked by total freedom from constraint is in practice a society in which the strong are free to dominate others without fear of legal interference, effectively organized opposition from ordinary people—or even, for that matter, a guilty conscience. For the dominated, total freedom from constraint, as opposed to freedom from unjust constraint, is having nothing left to lose. Freedom from constraint by norms would leave the dominated without moral principles to apply to the arbitrary behavior of the strong. (What business is it of yours that the captains of industry are moving their factories to some distant place or polluting your stream? Are they not free to do as they please with what belongs to them?) Freedom from constraint by laws leaves the dominated unprotected because it leaves the dominant in a position to act with impunity.

Substantial freedom for ordinary people can be achieved only in a justly administered system of just laws. To strive for the creation and proper administration of such laws, ordinary people need to form groups that are capable of generating power. The members of such groups must themselves have differentiated roles to play. They must be willing to be governed by norms and to judge the conduct and character of others in light of those norms. The concepts of leaders, members, allies, and opponents will have to be used with some precision, as will such concepts as domination and security against domination. The whole effort is bound to fail so long as people remain loosely organized around extremely vague notions of freedom and equality.

Some people view legal constraint as inherently evil. They treat it either as a regrettable necessity or as something one should try to dispense with altogether. What attracts people to these positions in the contemporary world is that the nation-state, as it now exists, does not seem capable of framing, administering, or enforcing laws justly. It is true that the nation-state is not capable of doing these things when citizens fail to cultivate and exercise power of their own. But what if many more citizens were to cultivate and exercise power in a democratic spirit?

In any event, neither of the two antigovernment positions just mentioned faces up to what would happen if its proposals were taken literally and accepted. When the state’s capacity to tax the rich and to regulate the conduct of the economically powerful is weakened beyond a certain point, ordinary people become less secure against economic domination. This is the main lesson of the period that began with Ronald Reagan’s election as president and ended—or rather, should have ended—with the financial crisis of 2008. We now know that a state small enough to be drowned in a bathtub is also small enough to permit elites to exercise power arbitrarily over others. If we went ahead and drowned the nation-state in the hope that much smaller political units would serve our purposes better, what would constrain the behavior of the economically powerful in the new situation? It is wishful thinking to suppose that there will be no developers, bankers, and billionaires looking for opportunities to exploit, or that all of the relatively small polities that will crop up around the corpse of the nation-state will be havens of inclusive nondomination.

Would-be masters must be constrained from behaving as they please. It will take power to do the constraining—pedagogical power in the first instance, but coercive force if necessary. Pedagogical power, the power to inculcate commitment to norms, is something that all societies exercise over their members. If the norms empower people to criticize and oppose domination, the power to transmit those norms need not itself qualify as an instance of domination. Similarly, the use of coercive force to influence the behavior of people who would otherwise be disposed to violate the norms of inclusive nondomination need not violate those norms. On the other hand, if these two forms of power are not themselves constrained by constitutional and legal prohibitions and by the counterpower of a vigilant and active citizenry, they too will be exercised arbitrarily over people.

Some of my students hope that capital and empire will collapse under their own weight and usher in a new era of decentralized community, free of the need for rule and coercion. Even if, by some miracle, this were to happen, there would immediately be new elites to rein in, new brigands, pirates, slave traders, tyrants, and megacompanies plotting to take over as much of the globe as they can. The powers required to teach and enforce norms would still need to be exercised in those circumstances. Those powers will always need to be exercised—and need to be constrained by criticism and counterpower.

When Lincoln defined democracy as he did, he was using the term as shorthand for a “democratic republic.” He was not proposing direct rule by the undifferentiated mass of ordinary people. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s expression for the undifferentiated demos was “the herd,” a term of abuse Friedrich Nietzsche later picked up from him. Emerson saw the herd as a powerful and worrisome engine of social conformity. To be absorbed into the herd, or even into a small commune such as Brook Farm, was to lose one’s individuality—that is, one’s capacity for critical resistance and for membership in effective coalitions.

But the citizens of a genuinely democratic republic would not be an undifferentiated mass. They would occupy roles in a society that includes other differentiated roles, and participate in practices in which authority can be won and challenged, practices whose norms can be adjusted in light of experience while retaining their capacity to rule some things in and others out. In such practices, capital and armed force, rather than having their own way, must contend with the counterpower of citizens and be constrained by the rule of law. The body of citizens ideally comprises differentiated but related individuals, capable of taking responsibility for themselves and of holding others responsible. When functioning democratically, the citizenry is not a herd.

Democracy, in the sense I am commending, opens up space for minority voices because it is committed both to freedom as non-domination and the avoidance of arbitrary exclusion. Neither of these things can be achieved, according to the tradition of grassroots democracy, unless a lot of ordinary people get organized and actually hold officials accountable. These are things that require action, the accumulation and exertion of power, and a cultivation of the capacity to act. The ethical substance of grassroots democracy is to be found in the concrete engagements where, as Emerson put it, the spirit or “genius” of democracy is “transformed into practical power.”

In communities all over the country, thousands of ordinary people gather regularly in living rooms, churches, synagogues, community centers, and schools. They swap stories, identify shared concerns, work through differences, investigate the relevant facts, and select leaders. Over time, with the help of professional organizers, they build powerful organizations. The organizations cultivate leaders, teaching them, among other things, the importance of reflecting critically on what they are doing. When the groups act, they often do so with a well-constructed plan and with considerable effect.

In the southernmost region of Texas a Latino priest brings his parish into a citizens’ organization known as Valley Interfaith. His motivation, he tells me, is fidelity to the church’s teachings on social justice. Why does he think that something good can come of his efforts? It is because Valley Interfaith has already succeeded in transforming hundreds of impoverished shantytowns along the U.S.–Mexico border into habitable neighborhoods. An organizer is helping him figure out how to energize his parish. The heroes of the shantytown struggle enliven his imagination.

The section of Los Angeles formerly known as South Central is riddled with violence and ethnic tension. Yet in a public school there the principal, the teachers, and some of the parents, with the help of organizers, have constructed an island of civility where children can learn. The principal tells me that citizens of goodwill are in a life-and-death struggle with gangs over the allegiance of the young. He says that whoever does the best job of organizing wins.

Near San Francisco, sixty delegates from citizens’ organizations in northern California are meeting for the first time. Among those represented are labor unions and religious institutions. In welcoming the delegates, a rabbi says that the work of a citizen pertains to the preciousness of human beings, to something one ought to hold sacred. The next speaker is a Latina who represents farm workers in the Napa Valley. Later, a nurse asserts the need to build power. The chief organizer is a nun who tells me that it isn’t enough to care about social change: “You have to know how to bring it about.”

A priest, a principal, a rabbi, a farm worker, a nurse, and a nun—empowered citizens all eager to convey what they are doing to help their communities. They take pride and encouragement from their successes. Their frustrations reveal what they are up against, what anyone who wants to hold elites accountable is up against. These ordinary people are practicing a kind of grassroots democracy and helping each other get the hang of it. Hearing them out is, I believe, a good way of learning what citizenship can be and an apt occasion for reflecting on the nature of power, authority, and domination in a society officially committed to liberty and justice for all.


This article is adapted from the book Blessed Are the Organized, which Princeton University Press will publish in December. Copyright © 2010 by Princeton University Press. Printed by permission.

Related: The Contested Sacred, by Jeffrey Stout

Published in the 2010-09-24 issue: 

Jeffrey Stout is professor of religion at Princeton University. His most recent book is Blessed Are the Organized: Grassroots Democracy in America  (Princeton University Press).

Also by this author
The Contested Sacred

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