The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

May 27, 2018

What’s Good about American Democracy?
Jeff Taylor - 03/19/08

review of Joel A. Johnson, Beyond Practical Virtue: A Defense of Liberal Democracy Through Literature(Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2007)

Joel Johnson’s Beyond Practical Virtue is an inspiring book. It is a welcome change from the typical writings of paleoconservative and libertarian intellectuals, many of which are initially bracing but ultimately depressing. Instead of doom and gloom, Joel Johnson presents the promise of American democratic life. It has not been fulfilled but it remains a promise. It is hope tempered by realism.

Johnson, a political scientist at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, engages the aesthetic critique of liberal democracy. Johnson is using liberal in its classical, Locke/Smith sense, and democracy in its diluted, representative sense. Aristocratic, elite-minded writers from Plato to T. S. Eliot have argued “that the conditions of liberty and equality level out life in a way that every citizen in a democracy comes to possess nothing less than, but also nothing more than, a mediocre soul.”

Johnson answers the contention that democracy tends to lead to an “amoral, conformist culture.” The aesthetic critics were concerned that “liberal democratic institutions impoverish citizens’ souls by stripping society of all elevating and enlightening influences.” European by birth or choice, these writers saw the United States as the worst example of this debasing effect. To them, modern democracy—characterized by liberty, equality, and prosperity—leads the majority inexorably into mediocrity rather than into individual development. Democracy gives rise not only to social and political anarchy but to an anarchy of the soul that encourages petty materialism. Their recommended alternative to liberal democracy was cultural elevation through hierarchical institutions, both public and private.

After considering the Platonic roots of the aesthetic critique, Johnson summarizes the anti-liberal, anti-democratic leanings of Thomas Carlyle, Matthew Arnold, John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Nietzsche, W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and D. H. Lawrence. He gives the aesthetic critics a fair hearing, and even supporters of democratic liberalism would concede many of their points.

Arnold, for instance, complains that through “tall talk and inflated sentiment” Americans have convinced themselves that they comprise the best nation on earth and lack nothing while “many countries, much less free and prosperous than the United States, are yet more truly civilized; [and] have more which is interesting, have more to say to the soul.” It is not enough to have liberty and wealth. Point taken. It could be added that the “We’re number one!” shout of shallow nationalists is unbecoming of citizens in a land where ideally “there’s never a boast or brag.” Tocqueville observed the same unfortunate tendency when he toured America a half century before Arnold.

When Eliot criticizes the “death in living” that characterizes the empty existence of so many in the West, it is hard to argue with his assessment. It is likely, though, that the source of the emptiness and its attendant value system of violence, greed, and hedonism is more spiritual than political. As a Christian, Eliot himself understood this. Johnson summarizes the aesthetic critique of democratic liberty in this way: “To the critics, whether a nation is prosperous, law-abiding, and civic-minded is only part of the story. A regime must also speak to the soul of man, and produce citizens who are well developed as humans.” Their solution is the preservation or creation of hierarchical institutions. They offer the right diagnosis but the wrong prescription.


Johnson responds to Continental literary greats by making use of the writings of three nineteenth-century American novelists: James Fenimore Cooper, Mark Twain, and William Dean Howells. Cooper is cited for being “helpful in understanding the opportunities for and obstacles to individual development in situations where liberty and equality, as on the frontier, are in their extreme forms.” Johnson finds in Twain a sharp analyst of “barriers to individual development in both hierarchical and egalitarian societies” and of “the relationship between modern technological thinking and individual development.” Howells deals with “the impact of America’s transition to urban capitalism on the individual.”

The novels of Cooper, Twain, and Howells allow Johnson to construct a response to the aesthetic critique of liberal democracy. One chapter focuses on the liberating aspect of democratic freedom; the next on its formative aspect, in terms of individual development; and the last on how democrats need the elevating influence of a vigorous public sphere to bring out their higher sensibilities. The novelists offer a rich account “of the effects of liberty on ordinary people, and they question the notion that liberty disposes such people toward conformity.”

In his chapter on democratic liberation, Johnson concludes that many of the undesirable traits observable in democratic citizens do not spring from democratic liberty but rather from “the vestigial habits of older regimes.” He also deals with “the nature of man when liberated from hierarchy and the conformist pressures of crude egalitarianism” and “the obstacles to achieving democratic liberation.” Johnson admits that aesthetic critics are partly right in their complaint that “money has become the standard of all value; everything has its price, according to the dominant bourgeois ideology,” but he uses a Howells character to show how Americans are able to rise above narrow materialism.

Twain’s Connecticut Yankee makes an interesting comparison between the peasants of Camelot and the poor whites of the Old South. The non-slaveowning yeoman farmers who so admired the populism of Jefferson and Jackson, “who were always despised and frequently insulted, by the slave-lords around them, and who owed their base condition simply to the presence of slavery in their midst, were yet pusillanimously ready to side with the slave-lords in all political moves for the upholding and perpetuating of slavery, and did also finally shoulder their muskets and pour out their lives in an effort to prevent the destruction of that very institution which degraded them.” Twain reminds us that “even egalitarian institutions require genuine independence of mind and spirit to flourish.” Johnson takes the lesson from Cooper that “unless the democratic spirit of liberty is extended to those relationships commonly considered nonpolitical, individual development will still be hindered.”

The individual development chapter argues that “by placing citizens in a position where they must continually strive for autonomy, democracy serves to develop their faculties to a greater degree than aristocracy does.” While leisure is important to personal development because it gives us opportunities for rest and reflection, “without an active, engaged life to prompt and guide reflection, leisure simply becomes an opportunity for laziness” and social isolation. Since a democratic citizen can “neither rely on the protection and provision of a superior, nor live off the labor of inferiors,” she is the master of herself and “must constantly strive to exercise control over her environment and maintain her democratic independence.” This constant exercise can lead to informed reflection and an elevation of character. Johnson believes that the “arrogant materialism” sometimes associated with democratic liberty emanates not from democracy or liberty per se but from the dangers of complacence, inequality, and narrowness. In his view, “Although the democratic struggle indeed fails to call forth directly many of the higher virtues (wisdom, an appreciation of beauty, and so forth), and though it breeds a certain arrogance in those who succeed in achieving autonomy it nonetheless develops people more fully than other sociopolitical systems do.”

Johnson poetically provides some examples of how the democratic struggle can move us beyond the “cult of practicality” exemplified by so many Yankees: “Even the most uneducated, unrefined farmer, who has nothing on his mind but feeding his family and making a profit, is likely to appreciate the beauty of gently swaying corn tassels and the sweet scent of freshly mown hay.” And: “Being actively involved in a child’s rearing, which requires an inordinate amount of time and energy, not only gives parents greater insight into the characteristics of human development, but makes them appreciate more directly the miraculous beauty of life.” Of course, making use of such opportunities may not be the norm. It does depend to some degree on the sensitivity and depth of the individual. Ideally, though, living in a democracy and contending for our independence can move us beyond practical virtue into deeper types of virtue.

Johnson’s final chapter seeks “a refinement mechanism that can restrain democratic arrogance and materialism while nourishing and elevating the nobler sentiments the democratic struggle calls forth.” The mechanism is linked to the fact that “equality breeds a healthy skepticism, and the free interchange of ideas in such an atmosphere cannot fail to be productive.” Johnson sees the public sphere of liberal democracy as taming arrogant materialism in four ways: intuition gives way to conscious ideas when it is articulated in conversation; we gain critical perspective when our opinions are questioned by others; people often qualify their opinions after hearing dissenting views; and our constant practice of “explaining ourselves, listening to others, and reconciling discrepancies” naturally promotes individual development.

Johnson cites Twain’s memoir Life on the Mississippi in the context of his fourth effect of the public sphere. He points out undemocratic elements of America, and includes Twain’s argument “that the Civil War was caused in part by southerners’ fanatical love of medieval romances.” Referring to Sir Walter Scott’s novels, Johnson comments that many historic “southerners simply surrender their democratic skepticism, swooning before Scott’s gilded heroes. They give in too easily to someone else’s ideal, and in the process ruin their own civilization.” In the words of Twain,

The genuine and wholesome civilization of the nineteenth century [South] is curiously confused and commingled with the Walter Scott Middle-Age sham civilization, as so you have practical common sense, progressive ideas, and progressive works, mixed up with the duel, the inflated speech, and the jejune romanticism of an absurd past that is dead, and out of charity ought to be buried. . . . It was [Scott] that created rank and caste down there, and also reverence for rank and caste, and pride and pleasure in them.

This might strike the reader as an oversimplification; the aristocratic bent of southern cavaliers had additional origins, including differences of theology and practice between, say, Anglicans of Virginia and Congregationalists of Massachusetts. Still, it is an interesting interpretation and serves as a corrective to the nostalgia evoked by pro-Calhoun, pro-Confederacy intellectuals who, by implication, glorify the worst cultural traits of the aristocratic South: slavery, slothfulness, and self-satisfaction.


Johnson concludes that “liberal democracy brashly eliminates the supposed elevating influences of aristocracy, theocracy, clerisy, and other formal hierarchies. However, it more than makes up the deficit by supplying a number of elevating influences indirectly. Liberal democracy places people in an unmediated, strenuous relationship with their environment, and the resultant challenges call forth a wider range of excellences than hierarchical relationships do.”

So far as it goes, Johnson mounts a persuasive argument. But a few distinctions need to be made. For example, Johnson equates capitalism with free enterprise, yet they are not synonymous. In the United States, the laissez-faire of Adam Smith has been abandoned in favor of a system of state capitalism closer to Mussolini than to Jefferson. And speaking of our third president, Johnson comments in passing that “Jefferson and the Constitution’s framers were committed to democratic liberty” and that the Constitution injected “a substantial amount of democracy into liberalism.” The classical liberalism of Locke was certainly an important influence on both Jefferson and the framers of the Constitution, but Johnson is exaggerating the democratic sentiment of both the Constitution and its authors. Almost without exception, the delegates who signed the document were enemies of Athenian-style democracy. They detested and feared what they called “mobocracy.” Only one-sixth of the federal government was designed to correspond to a watered-down, indirect, form of democracy (one half of one branch: the House of Representatives). Jefferson belonged to a distinct minority of the founders who were sympathetic to democracy in its true sense of rule by the common people. The Constitution’s “We the People” preamble was as much public relations as political thought. Popular sovereignty was more theoretical than actual in the resulting republic, just as the Anti-Federalists had predicted—and as Alexander Hamilton had desired.

Furthermore, Johnson’s book focuses on liberal democracy, but the accuracy of the term as applied to contemporary America seems open to debate. Do we really have a nation of equal rights for all and special privileges for none? Of limited government scrupulously respectful of individual unalienable rights? Do the common people really rule our land? The questions answer themselves. Johnson acknowledges that his book is “a somewhat idealized account of democracy,” but the differences between the ideal and our reality might have been more fruitfully used to inform his analysis.

Nevertheless, it is admirable that Johnson can so unashamedly endorse egalitarianism without falling into socialistic nonsense or limousine-liberal hypocrisy. As he writes, “There is something democratically important about making a person who drives a Mercedes wait in the same line at the post office as the driver of a second-hand Pinto.” Amen. Jeffersonian thought and the uniquely American conservatism it helped to spawn include not only libertarian elements but also healthy doses of populism and moralism. Anything less than the full, robust blend is unbalanced, unpopular, and untrue. Equality has a champion in Joel Johnson.

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