Sheldon Wolin: The State of Democracy

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In this episode of World of Ideas, Bill Moyers talks with political philosopher Sheldon Wolin. Wolin taught at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1960s, where he witnessed and wrote about the student movement. Later, at Princeton, he founded and edited a journal called Democracy. As a scholar, Wolin wrestles with the meaning on democracy, the nature of power and the role of the state. Here, he discusses the power of central government, privatization of government services, Reaganism, and the meaning of collective identity.


BILL MOYERS: [on camera] Good evening, I’m Bill Moyers. The mayor of New York used to go around asking just about everyone he met, “How am I doing?” He stopped asking it when the answers grew consistently embarrassing. The question is one democracy is always asking of itself. Of the many things we can do to democracy, says a man I know, the worst is the indignity of taking it for granted. Some people think all the constant self-examination loosens our unity as a people, but I prefer the counsel of Sidney Hook, who said that in contrast to totalitarianism, democracy can face and live with the truth about itself. My guest tonight offers his own answer to the question of how democracy is doing. Join me for a conversation with Sheldon Wolin.

[voice-over] In the quiet precincts of scholarship, Sheldon Wolin wrestles with the meaning on democracy, the nature of power and the role of the state. But his insights as a political philosopher are also drawn from the noisy streets where theory confronts the realities of American life. Wolin was teaching at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1960s, where he witnessed and wrote about the student movement. Later, at Princeton, he founded and edited a journal called Democracy. Shortly before he left for a year’s teaching in Japan, I caught up with Sheldon Wolin at the Clark Library at the University of California in Los Angeles.

[interviewing] Let’s start with the past for a moment. You were at Berkeley during the demonstrations, the radical politics of the ’60s. What can we learn today, good or bad, from the ’60s?

SHELDON WOLIN: I think a lot. I think it’s easy to both romanticize the ’60s as well as to denigrate it. I think the one thing that I come away with really is, it seems to me, the whole question of a participatory understanding of politics; meaning by that the wide range of groups and peoples who are now involved in politics in America, that never would have really reached their level of political consciousness. That’s very much the legacy of the ’60s. I think —

BILL MOYERS: Power to the people, is that sort of slogan that —

SHELDON WOLIN: Right, yes, and the decentralization of power as shared, and the notion of political activity involving collaborative activity.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think that the expectations raised by the ’60s — the expectations of democratic participation, power to the people — have been largely disappointed?

SHELDON WOLIN: I think to some degree they have been. And I think one clear way in which they have been, or that has caused them to have the frustration, I think has to do with what again, doesn’t receive the kind of press it needs to, and that is the question of the growth, the continuous, consistent growth of centralized power in our society. People think of Ronald Reagan, as an opponent of state power, and as someone who wanted to get government off our backs and the rest of the campaign rhetoric. But actually, one of the legacies of the Reagan era is a stronger state. A state that doesn’t do as much in terms of regulation of the economy as the states growing out of the New Deal, Fair Deal kind of tradition, but a stale which in terms of defense, in terms of the protection of American interests abroad, in areas such as the advancement of technology or the law and order state, all of those involve extensions of national power.

BILL MOYERS: Is this for better or worse?

SHELDON WOLIN: I think it’s for worse. I think it’s for worse, because it’s been accompanied, as we know, by an incredible amount of apathy on the part of the American electorate in terms of the simple fact of voting. It is a less alert, less involved electorate at the national level.

BILL MOYERS: So the national government becomes stronger, but the participation, knowledge and involvement of the people diminishes!

SHELDON WOLIN: Absolutely. And at the same time, it’s becoming much more of a surveillance and control state in terms of the way that it intervenes in, knows about, pries into individual lives.

BILL MOYERS: Growing out of what you just said, this will strike you as a very simplistic question, but I need to ask it. Do we have a democracy?

SHELDON WOLIN: It isn’t a simplistic question, and the answer is I think we don’t. I don’t think the idea of democracy and the ideal of a strong state — centralized, inherently bureaucratic and administrative in its structure and operation — that those are compatible notions. I think that democracy does imply involvement, shared power, dispersed power and, above all, a significant equality. And I think state power means the opposite of those things. And similarly, I think the democracy clearly is at odds with corporate structures and the power of corporate structures.

BILL MOYERS: Hierarchy.

SHELDON WOLIN: Exactly. And also power that’s unaccountable, power that basically is unresponsive and is concerned with other things; bottom lines, profit margins and the rest.

BILL MOYERS: So we in fact have a rather thinly concealed power structure of large public institutions and private corporations?

SHELDON WOLIN: I think the most important development in the last 25 years or so has been the closer integration and intertwining of those two dominant structures of power, economic and political power. That the difference in the type of person who sits in one and sits in the other is now not what it used to be. I think the differences, too, in terms of the kind of skills that are needed in one domain against those needed in the other are increasingly the same.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean? Give me an example.

SHELDON WOLIN: Managerial skills. I think managerial skills, managerial altitudes, managerial ideology are fundamental to both sets of institutions.

BILL MOYERS: So that the interests of the manager and the institution becomes paramount over the people to whom the institution is ultimately responsible, the people of the country, the citizens.

SHELDON WOLIN: I don’t think managerialism thinks in terms of that kind of responsibility. I mean, they may talk about shareholders and stockholders — bureaucrats don’t even talk about that. So those problems of structure and of the collapse of the distinctions between public and private, I think are very important developments in the last, as I say, quarter-century or so in this country. I think one of the interesting aspects of that, you know, is this push towards so-called privatization of public functions now, where private functions are now encouraged to take over what used to be regarded as public functions, whether it be education, medical care, hospital care, or again, a whole range of things.

BILL MOYERS: Prisons. I mean —

SHELDON WOLIN: Yes, prisons. Exactly.

BILL MOYERS: You get the government contracting with corporations to build and run prisons. What does all that say to you?

SHELDON WOLIN: It says to me not what I think. people are saying. It says — most people think that means what you’re seeing is a decentralization of government power. And that you’re dismantling the state. And I think that’s absolutely wrong. I think what it means is an extension of power which now is not coming from the state, but is coming from a combination of public and private power concerned. The best example, again, most recent example, would be drug testing, where you begin to talk about public employees in sensitive positions, and before long, private industry is into the same game, talking about drug testing its employees. And the result is that you’ve got a common network of control and surveillance, and pressing into the private lives of people that’s a combination of both forms of power, neither one nor the other.

BILL MOYERS: Is this what you meant when you wrote that “every one of this country’s primary institutions is antidemocratic — antidemocratic in spirit, design and operation.”

SHELDON WOLIN: It is. It is.

BILL MOYERS: That’s a strong statement. “Every one of the country’s primary institutions?” Meaning?

SHELDON WOLIN: Yes. Meaning educational institutions, large-scale educational institutions, meaning institutions of government, bureaucratic institutions, major institutions of media and communication, major institutions of a recognizably economic kind as well. And I would — and, I think, large cultural institutions, too. Again, something like the media.

BILL MOYERS: …is antidemocratic. Meaning?

SHELDON WOLIN: Meaning that — two things. One, hierarchical; they’re all hierarchical structures. And hierarchy means inequality. It means inequality of power. Secondly, I think they’re fundamentality elitist in character, which is to say that each of them involves a definition of who should lead or control that institution based upon criteria which can only be met by a relatively few. So it becomes a way of excluding.

BILL MOYERS: And that means antidemocratic. You do not consult the people, you do not involve the people. And yet, as you talk, I keep hearing the criticisms of the last 10 or 15 years — I’m sure you remember them — there’s been an excess of democracy, critics said. We have too much democracy, too much participation, growing in part out of the 1960s. Now, isn’t there a contradiction there?

SHELDON WOLIN: No. I think that the notion of there being too much democracy is basically, is basically hogwash. I think most of those are self-serving statements, and I think they represent — I think what they signify is something that decision makers are uncomfortable with decision makers, that is, those who think of themselves as policy-oriented and think of themselves as heading up institutions which are, which exist in order to solve problems of health, education, governmental policies of one sort or another, that they see democracy as some of the founders saw it, as an impediment to rational decision making.

BILL MOYERS: A prominent writer said to me just last week, “With a little less democracy, we could have won the war in Vietnam, and the whole history of the period since would have been different.”

SHELDON WOLIN: Yes. A little less democracy, and I shudder to think what winning the war in Vietnam would have meant in terms of executive power, if for nothing else. Because it seems to me Watergate and Vietnam are inseparable. And that I would find it hard to see a successful war prosecuted in Vietnam that wouldn’t also have managed to cover up successfully the Watergate thing. And since the Vietnam war had become by the end of the ’60s preeminently an executive war — Congress was now a critical voice in that thing that a triumph would have meant, it seems to me, a further consolidation of executive power, not to mention a vindication of military power. And I think the last thing American power needs at this point in our history is many more heady conquests.

BILL MOYERS: But these critics are saying the United States has become a pitiless, helpless giant in the world. We can’t accomplish in the world what we want to because of an excess of democracy, and too little executive authority and power. You obviously disagree with that.

SHELDON WOLIN: I disagree. Yes. I guess first I disagree profoundly in the sense of how they understand power. That is, they think of successful American power as broadly coterminous with the globe itself, if not interstellar at this point. In other words, it’s that vision of power which John Kennedy, among others, enunciated in the early ’60s and Lyndon Johnson not long thereafter. That is, in which power is seen as infinitely expandable. It’s a kind of heady technological understanding of power as infinitely reproducible. And reproducible in ways that allow you to conquer and surpass all sorts of barriers that hitherto had been thought to — power had to recognize and stay within. That kind of understanding of power, it seems to me, the world is too small for it. I think that it’s impossible for fallible, frail human beings to handle those magnitudes of power without getting into serious questions of whether they really in fact can. And I don’t really think they can. So that the question of defeat and the question of limitations on American power, it seems to me are truly crucial questions about what kind of society you really have in mind. It’s a question, I suppose, of what kind of collective identity we want as a people. And in this first half of the 20th century through the Vietnam war, it’s basically been an understanding of a people whose identity lay with the expansion of power, world supremacy and primacy in terms of nations, and that vision’s been very difficult to surrender.

BILL MOYERS: Paradoxically, though, President Kennedy and President Johnson both thought that they were engaged in a moral enterprise in the shouldering of a great burden for the freedom, for the well-being of other nations and other peoples. Right or wrong, they did think of this burden as a moral burden, not as just a pure expansion of either military or technological power. Do you concede that, or do you see that?

SHELDON WOLIN: I concede that, sure. But that’s only to concede, I think, that a lot of crimes have been committed in the name of morality; at least as many as in the name of immorality.

BILL MOYERS: Seven deadly virtues.

SHELDON WOLIN: Yes, indeed. Yes, indeed. No, I think that that has been a problem for American Statesmen; the combination of deep moral conviction and an aggressive expansion of power at the same lime. And seeing those two as not incompatible but somehow mutually reinforcing.

BILL MOYERS: Certainly the consequence of it was this long train of executive abuses that you talked about, from Vietnam and the use of the army to spy on dissidents, to Watergate, which was really Richard Nixon’s effort to silence the critics of the war in Vietnam to, in our day, the Iran-contra expansion of White House national security power. There does seem to be some unintended creature that grows from beneath the rock of power.

SHELDON WOLIN: I don’t think it’s disconnected, though, to this other problem you were talking about, that is, the problem of the sort of future and prospects of democracy. I think at bottom, I believe that that commitment to power that characterized America and has characterized it ever since World War II, that commitment to power has been — as everybody has noticed — has involved a very close identification of ordinary citizens with that expansion of power. II wasn’t unpopular in many ways. I mean, Vietnam was clearly a turning point, but Grenada showed us that you could also still get vast outpourings of popular enthusiasm for the extension of American power. But I also think that in some ways it was a compensation for a growing sense of futilely and helplessness in terms of ordinary people being able to control and dictate the terms and conditions of their own lives, and being unable to do that because of the fact that the powers that confronted them in ordinary life — powers of business corporations, or powers of government agencies, whatever the case may be — that these made it very difficult for people to believe that they could control their own destinies. But lo and behold, here they were, the citizens of what everybody told them was the greatest power that had ever existed in the history of mankind, now controlling an entire globe. So that’s what gets denied in one quarter can find a certain kind of satisfaction or sense of fulfillment — I think pseudo — in this other area.

BILL MOYERS: You seem to be calling for a much more inclusive participation at the local level by citizens in all forms of political decision making at the very time — to take your own diagnosis — that the impetus of society is toward larger, more hierarchical, more distant, more remote, more powerful organizations. Aren’t those two fundamentally at odds with each other?

SHELDON WOLIN: Absolutely. Absolutely. The movement has been away from a federal decentralized system to an increasingly, almost hopelessly overcentralized system, so that the whole emphasis has fallen in the one direction.

BILL MOYERS: You sound like Ronald Reagan.

SHELDON WOLIN: I know. I’ve been accused of that several times. but I think that — I think, again, that the difference is that I don’t think Reaganism stands for the real revitalization of power at any other level. I think. Reaganism is a combination of a very strong push towards high technology, and it’s been very powerful in that direction. And it’s been a very strong push towards a strong state, as I’ve mentioned; aggressive foreign policy, strong defense, strong national — strong defense budget, and the rest of it. But it’s also been nostalgia. It’s been nostalgia in terms of 19th-century or even 18th-century values about home, church, family and that son of thing. And is that peculiar combination of sort of progressivism, technologically, and in terms of the political state, and a regressive view towards ethics, morality, piety, family and the rest of it. And I think it’s that American proclivity towards wanting to really find yourself sanctified by some set of values that you know very well cannot come from what you’re actually into. In other words, defense, high tech, strong corporate system can’t generate the kind of values that really make us comfortable, that really suggests the power that we have is good, and we deserve it.

BILL MOYERS: How do you explain this longing of Americans for the past, the nostalgia, the memory of things that often never were, but which seem real to us?

SHELDON WOLIN: I guess I think about it mostly as the son of paradoxical counterpart to a people which also believes in the importance of constant change, and in the belief that it is the society in which mobility, social mobility, is possible; that people can go from humble beginnings to affluent endings. That America is the land where anything is possible, and that change and new horizons, new frontiers, are always there. That kind of people finds, I think, some kind of security by appealing to biblical myths, or myths of the founding, or myths about American virtue, or “cities on the hill,” or whatever the metaphor might be. Because the progressivism to which it’s committed in this other sphere doesn’t generate values that make people, I think, really feel good about what they’ve done. And they’ve got to find other modes of justification.

BILL MOYERS: It’s this change, it’s this mobility of American society that is most destructive of the things that conservatives honor; family life, community stability, neighborhoods, all of those human relations that require time are destroyed, cut asunder by the rapid change that is remaking our society.

SHELDON WOLIN: I see cultural casualties. I see casualties of all kinds. I see cities that are — many of them are unlivable, as we’ve known for 20 years — and in which the cultural life is on the edge of extinction, in which there is a great deal of class conflict and sharp cleavages and distinctions of rich and poor which are beginning to become mindboggling. I guess one of the things that’s so crucial in all of this is that this innovative society we’re committed to has clearly developed a surplus, superfluous population. A population for whom there may be no work. A population for whom, if there is work, it isn’t terribly meaningful, and it doesn’t have much of a future to it. And that we as a society don’t really know what to do with that surplus population.

BILL MOYERS: Do we need a revolution?

SHELDON WOLIN: I think we need radical reconsideration of some fundamental assumptions, but I still believe that violence and older understandings of revolution are as anachronistic as perhaps New England town meetings, maybe more so. It seems to me that modem societies have reached such a fragility that the notion of overturn and overthrow makes no sense, except if one has an unlimited appetite for barbarism, which I don’t happen to have. Because we have got to deal with where we are at this point, and so consequently I guess I am driven ultimately back to questions of education and the possibilities of education in terms of helping to ease our way into a better kind of world for us as well as others.

BILL MOYERS: What are the skills of citizenship and how do we gain them? How do we teach them? How do we appropriate them?

SHELDON WOLIN: I don’t think we approach them by the way they’re currently being approached. I am a little suspicious of most contemporary educational reform proposals, because the business community is so enthusiastic about them, and they can see, of course, a way in which public funds get used to create job training for private industry.

BILL MOYERS: But if you want to empower people, as you were talking — you obviously believe people need to be empowered — if you want to empower people to function in an economic order, don’t you give them a vocational skill that they can go forth with and use to their advantage?

SHELDON WOLIN: To a degree. The question of what it means to be empowered, I think, is at the heart of the whole issue of educational reform now, but it’s being faced only as a job issue, not as a question of what it means for students to be systematically deprived of the kind of knowledge, sensibility, understanding that can come from so-called soft subjects, subjects like literature, or later on, philosophy, or history, or some of the softer social sciences. Now, those kinds of subjects, I think, teach people not job skills, but they teach people how to interpret their experience, how to interpret what’s happening to them. What’s the meaning of this, what’s the meaning of that? And what literature, history, philosophy, politics gives you an understanding of our relationships of power in ways that aren’t handled by more scientific understandings, ways in which power relates to personal hopes, personal fears, vulnerabilities, and the rest of it. Now, those understandings, I think without them — I think a person without them is really powerless.

BILL MOYERS: What are the questions you think we must ask as we move toward that rapidly approaching year 2000?

SHELDON WOLIN: The central question, to me, is the question of what I would call collective identity. That is, what do we think we want to stand for as a people? And that’s what I think the democracy the preoccupation with a democratic culture, for me, is all about. What I think we want to stand for is not expansion of American power, not the endless economic and technological innovation that I think we’re committed to — whether we want to be or not — but really, what is it we want to see ourselves identified with as a people? Do we want to see ourselves identified with notions of cooperation, notions of diversity, notions of respect and encouragement of different kinds of sensibilities and different kinds of cultures, different kinds of understandings of the world? Or do we want to see ourselves instead basically as the technological power of the world? Collective identity is something that the founders tried to deal with in the preamble to the Constitution, where they mentioned certain kinds of values, that —

BILL MOYERS: “We the people, in order to” —

SHELDON WOLIN: “In order to.” Yes, and justice is part of it, and so is defense, of course, but it’s a first stab at a collective, and an understanding of ourselves and how we want to present ourselves to the world.

BILL MOYERS: Is it romantic to think that each of us, high and low, black and white, male and female, has an opportunity to contribute to the answer to that question?

SHELDON WOLIN: Oh, I think we do. Because I think, fundamentally, democracy in a democratic culture comes down not to big, high-falutin’ institutions or policies, it comes down ultimately to how we treat each other in our ordinary range of relationships and in conversations.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] From the Clark Library, University of California at Los Angeles, this has been a conversation with Sheldon Wolin. I’m Bill Moyers.

This transcript was entered on March 30, 2015.

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