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If militarism violates the ideals of liberty and justice in one way, and rapidly increasing social stratification violates them in another, then American democracy is in crisis. A culture of democratic accountability will survive only if citizens revive the concerns that animated the great reform movements of the past, from abolitionism to civil rights. It is crucial, when reasoning about practical matters, not only to admit how grave one's situation is, but also to resist despair. Therefore, the fate of democracy depends, to some significant degree, on how we choose to describe the crisis. Saying that we have already entered the new dark ages or a post-democratic era may prove to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, because anyone who accepts this message is apt to give up on the hard work of organizing and contestation that is needed to hold political representatives accountable to the people. This paper asks how one might strike the right balance between accuracy and hope in describing the democracy's current troubles. After saying what I mean by democracy and what I think the current threats to it are, I respond to Romand Coles's criticisms of reservations I have expressed before about rhetorical excess in the works of Stanley Hauerwas, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Richard Rorty. This leads to a discussion of several points raised against me by Hauerwas. A digression offers some of my reasons for doubting that John Howard Yoder's biblical scholarship vindicates Hauerwas's version of pacifism. The paper concludes by arguing that Sheldon Wolin's work on the evisceration of democracy, though admirably accurate in its treatment of the dangers posed by empire and capital, abandons the project of democratic accountability too quickly in favor of the romance of the fugitive.

Keywords: Hauerwas; MacIntyre; Richard Rorty; Romand Coles; Sheldon Wolin; Yoder; democracy; justice; liberty; rhetoric

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Princeton University

Publication date: 2007-03-01

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