Manual The Americans: The Democratic Experience

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Although he never took any active part in politics after his youthful flirtation with communism, in many ways his intellectual trajectory paralleled that of neo-conservatives who moved to the right after what they saw as the excesses and absurdities of s liberalism.

by BOORSTIN, Daniel J

When attacked by the new left, Boorstin responded by calling his critics "incoherent kooks" and "barbarians". He stoutly maintained that he hated racism and believed in equal opportunity for blacks, but he angered many African-American leaders and intellectuals by dismissing black studies as "racist trash". Boorstin's learning and diligence were legendary. When he was appointed librarian of Congress, a public office requiring approval from the US senate, several senators asked him to give up writing while he was in the job.

He refused, but said he would not write in the public's time. He continued to pour forth scholarly works by getting up at 4. His books became bestsellers, and had an immense influence. There is a certain irony about the fact that, although one of Boorstin's main themes was the way intellectual life had been cheapened and vulgarised by the simplifications of politicians, journalists and publicists, his own work was far more popular with the general reader than with professional historians, who accused him of various biases and myth-making.

Boorstin's first book to make a major impact, The Image, evolved from an essay he wrote in response to the televised debates between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon in the US presidential campaign.


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America, he argued, was threatened by "the menace of unreality". He was particularly angered by the packaging of politicians and policies, and by the way that political advertising and journalism replaced factual description and analysis with the presentation of self-interested images. Boorstin apologised for his Communist party membership, and was one of those who agreed to name names in evidence to the House of Representatives unAmerican Activities Committee in From the s, his work acquired an unmistakably conservative tone, influenced by strong American patriotism.

Following the work of Frederick Jackson Turner on the influence of the frontier on American democracy, he argued that the American character had been shaped by the experience of taming and settling a continent. He also loved to twist the tails of shallow and fashionable progressives.

Even those who were made uncomfortable by his conservative and nationalistic conclusions found much in Boorstin's work to admire. He said that as an "amateur historian" - he trained as a lawyer - he looked at subjects that were outside the canon of conventional history, such as the effect of wrist watches, mail-order catalogues and air conditioning on history.

He was also a master of epigram and aphorism. Like most habits, democratic behavior develops slowly over time, through constant repetition. For two centuries, the United States was distinguished by its mania for democracy: From early childhood, Americans learned to be citizens by creating, joining, and participating in democratic organizations.

But in recent decades, Americans have fallen out of practice, or even failed to acquire the habit of democracy in the first place. To hear more feature stories, see our full list or get the Audm iPhone app. The results have been catastrophic. As the procedures that once conferred legitimacy on organizations have grown alien to many Americans, contempt for democratic institutions has risen. In , a presidential candidate who scorned established norms rode that contempt to the Republican nomination, drawing his core support from Americans who seldom participate in the rituals of democracy.

To stop the rot afflicting American government, Americans are going to have to get back in the habit of democracy. In the early years of the United States, Europeans made pilgrimages to the young republic to study its success. How could such a diverse and sprawling nation flourish under a system of government that originated in small, homogeneous city-states?

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One after another, they seized upon the most unfamiliar aspect of American culture: its obsession with associations. To almost every challenge in their lives, Americans applied a common solution. They voluntarily bound themselves together, adopting written rules, electing officers, and making decisions by majority vote.

This way of life started early. By the latter half of the 19th century, more and more of these associations mirrored the federal government in form: Local chapters elected representatives to state-level gatherings, which sent delegates to national assemblies. These groups had their own systems of checks and balances.

The Americans: The Democratic Experience, by Daniel J. Boorstin - Commentary

Executive officers were accountable to legislative assemblies; independent judiciaries ensured that both complied with the rules. One typical 19th-century legal guide, published by the Knights of Pythias, a fraternal order, compiled 2, binding precedents for use in its tribunals.

The model proved remarkably adaptable. In business, shareholders elected boards of directors in accordance with corporate charters, while trade associations bound together independent firms. Labor unions chartered locals that elected officers and dispatched delegates to national gatherings.

Civic participation was thus the norm, not the exception. This nation of presidents—and judges, representatives, and recording secretaries—obsessed over rules and procedures.

Daniel J. Boorstin

Offices turned over at the end of fixed terms; new organizations were constantly formed. Ordinary Americans could expect to find themselves suddenly asked to join a committee or chair a meeting. In , an army engineer named Henry Robert published his Pocket Manual of Rules of Order for Deliberative Assemblies , and it improbably became a best seller; within four decades, more than , copies were in print.

Democracy had become the shared civic religion of a people who otherwise had little in common. Its rituals conferred legitimacy regardless of ideology; they could as readily be used to monopolize markets or advance the cause of nativism as to aid laborers or defend the rights of minorities. Time and again, groups excluded from democratic government turned to democratic governance to practice and press for equal citizenship.

Free blacks in the antebellum North and formerly enslaved blacks in the postwar South were more likely to create and participate in civic groups than were their white neighbors. In mastering the associative way they have mastered the democratic way. But the United States is no longer a nation of joiners.

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As the political scientist Robert Putnam famously demonstrated in Bowling Alone , participation in civic groups and organizations of all kinds declined precipitously in the last decades of the 20th century. The trend has, if anything, accelerated since then; one study found that from to , membership in such groups fell by 21 percent. And even that likely understates the real decline, as a slight uptick in passive memberships has masked a steeper fall in attendance and participation.

The United States is no longer a nation of presidents, either. In a census survey, just 11 percent of respondents said that they had served as an officer or been on a committee of any group or organization in the previous year. This perspective lends itself to a certain optimism.

Not every measure of social capital is in decline: Americans still volunteer and attend religious services at relatively high rates. They can also use social media to connect with one another in new ways, forging communities of interest across vast geographic distances. In these ways, individuals can still accrue substantial social capital. The metaphor has its limits, however: In focusing on the importance of ties between individuals, it neglects the intrinsic benefits of participating in civic life.

Volunteerism, church attendance, and social-media participation are not schools for self-government; they do not inculcate the habits and rituals of democracy. And as young people participate less in democratically run organizations, they show less faith in democracy itself. Trump turned the long-standing veneration of civic procedure on its head. Trump secured the Republican nomination by speaking directly to those voters who had the least experience with democratic institutions.

But among those who seldom or never participated in community activities such as sports teams, book clubs, parent-teacher associations, or neighborhood associations, Trump led 50 to 24 percent. In fact, such civically disengaged voters accounted for a majority of his support. In office, he has run roughshod over established protocols, displaying a disdain for democratic procedures that Henry Robert would have found incomprehensible.

This disdain has not, however, cost him much political support. But in the polarized political environment of , the stakes seem incomprehensibly high. Norms are difficult to enshrine but easy to discard.

The relative stability of the American government, even when led by a proudly disruptive president, is a perverse testament to just how integral democracy has been to American culture. But this is changing. Trump insists on prioritizing outcomes over processes, spurring many of his opponents to respond in kind. The golden age of the voluntary association is over, thanks to the automobile, the television, and the two-income household, among other culprits. The historical circumstances that produced it, moreover, seem unlikely to recur; Americans are no longer inclined to leave the comforts and amusements of home for the lodge hall or meeting room.

Such a revival will need to begin where the erosion of the democratic impulse has been most pronounced—among the youngest generations. Happily, youth is when new things are most easily learned. The best place to locate new schools of self-government, then, is schools. That does not mean adding civics classes to the already onerous requirements imposed on students; habits like these cannot be picked up from textbooks.