If We Build One, They Will Come

If We Build One, They Will Come

The Paradox of American Democracy: Elites, Special Interests, and the Betrayal of Public Trust
by John B. Judis
Pantheon, 2000, 305 pp., $26


John Judis has written a valuable book of the kind that rarely interests commercial publishers anymore. It is an overarching, public-spirited argument aimed at that nearly extinct species known as the “common reader,” about the sorry state of our democracy. Although such books are often widely reviewed—and Judis’s certainly has been—they need more than just common sense wisdom to justify their existence to the publishing industry. True, an unsuspected “breakout” is always possible, but the sad fact today is that though conservative public policy books can depend on a reasonably sized natural constituency (along with some mass purchasing by like-minded foundations), liberal authors can have no such confidence. While some pundits and politicians of the center-left have amassed sufficient celebrity to engage the mass media to help sell their books for them (Bill Moyers, Robert Reich, E.J. Dionne), they are few and far between. The rest have been victimized by destruction of the “gentleman” cast to the publishing industry as well as the increasing disappearance of the kind of reader who might once have been expected to support such enterprises with their time and money.

So the appearance alone of Judis’s book is a cause for minor celebration. So too, is its measured, respectful tone. One of the most common weaknesses of leftist screeds these days is that they are pitched in a voice that frequently falls somewhere between whiny and accusatory. The former is one of the unfortunate side effects of the reification of victimization by so many on the left while the latter seems to derive from a sense of embitterment born of marginalization. In either case, it makes it nearly impossible for the writer to do much beyond preaching to the already converted, and therefore reinforces the very isolation from mainstream debate and discussion that caused the isolation in the first place.

Judis’s work suffers from neither of these foibles. A former long-time contributor to the democratic socialist publication In These Times and currently a regular writer for the New Republic and GQ, he makes no apologies for his left-of-center assumptions. His argument is itself a pretty simple one. Democracy, he insists, requires disinterested elites to balance the competition between capital and labor, and when necessary, to intervene on the side of one or the other on behalf of social peace, domestic cohesion, and what used to be called “the common good.” According to Judis, such elites, which arose in self-organized fashion in the United States during the Progressive Era, and who spearheaded many key reforms, have traditionally been represented by such organizations as the Brookings Institution, the Ford Foundation...

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