Three-Dimensional Democracy


“Stump Speaking,” oil on canvas, by George Caleb Bingham, 1853-54. (Credit: St. Louis Art Museum)

“. . . faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Hebrews 11.1 (Holy Bible NRSV)

Surely, faith in democracy is a steadfast hope for a condition of self-rule that so far remains unrealized—a belief in the unseen.   What passes for democracy these days is more akin to oligarchy than self-rule, with democracy reduced to the conceit of ritualized voting.

The political imagination, as Sheldon Wolin holds, is a function of vision, of “seeing” a phenomenon in political space from a particular angle or perspective. Such vision can be descriptive or, more to the point, imaginative. As an act of imagination, it expresses fundamental values and seeks to transcend history. It is a multidimensional image that projects “the political order into a time that is yet to be”—an aesthetic vision of “political society in its corrected fullness, not as it is but as it might be.”[i]

An image of the people engaged in self-rule is the essence of the democratic faith. Two of its three dimensions, as I indicated in “Democracy with Property,” are the twin populist principles of increased political decentralization and adequate distribution of personal wealth, enough to keep elites from dominating the citizenry.  

The third dimension—the discourse of democracy—is harder to cull from the history of populism, precisely because that history is written from the perspective of speaking for the people rather than speaking by the people. Michael Kazin’s otherwise excellent history of US populism is a case in point.[ii]

Kazin begins his historical narrative of the populist persuasion with a quotation from Carl Sandburg’s The People:

Who shall speak for the people?

            who has the answers?

where is the sure interpreter?

            who knows what to say?

Sandburg’s question displaces the voice of the people, as does Kazin’s answer. “The language of populism,” Kazin writes, “is used by those who claim to speak for the vast majority of Americans.” It is “a language whose speakers conceive of ordinary people as a noble assemblage not bounded narrowly by class, view their elite opponents as self-serving and undemocratic, and seek to mobilize the former against the latter.” It is “a flexible mode of persuasion” employed by political actors (left-wing or right-wing) “to convince large numbers of Americans to join their side or to endorse their views on particular issues.” This “persistent yet mutable style of political rhetoric” is a “populist appeal” used by those who have “sought to speak for the people.”[iii]

There is no shortage of examples. Populist spokesmen range from Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan to William Jennings Bryan, Samuel Gompers, Father Charles Coughlin, John L. Lewis, Joseph McCarthy, George Wallace and many others interspersed betwixt and between. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are the most recent politicians singled out for their populist rhetoric.

Not surprisingly, this kind of populist rhetoric—this speaking for the people—often comes off as demagogic, which doesn’t bode well for democracy. Whether it expresses an “urgent need for a messianic awakening to bring about the sweeping changes required,” articulates “collective anger,” conveys “a sharply nativist message,” adopts a combative attitude, engages in scapegoating, or “allows the malicious to overshadow the hopeful,”[iv] it comes off as irrational, illogical, unrealistic, militant, opportunistic, and irresponsible. This populist persuasion on behalf of the people is a discourse of discontent, an emotional language of promise and disappointment, pitting the people against the establishment.

The stereotype of populist demagoguery is not a true measure of democracy’s third dimension. The discourse of democracy is a discourse of the people, spoken by the people, a discourse of sufficiently independent citizens deliberating issues and setting public policy. That, at least, is a fair expression of populist vision and democratic faith.


[i] Sheldon S. Wolin, Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), pp. 17-20.

[ii] Michael Kazin, The Populist Persuasion: An American History, rev. ed. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998).

[iii] Kazin, Populist Persuasion, pp. 1, 3, 5-7; emphasis in the original).

[iv] Kazin, Populist Persuasion, pp. 30, 37, 99, 162, 288.

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