Democracy Without Politics
Steven Bilakovics received his Ph.D. in 2008 from the Department of Government. Published while a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University, Bilakovics has enjoyed great success with his first book, Democracy Without Politics. The book is based on his dissertation, “Constituting Freedom and the Democratic Way of Life,” which was named co-winner of the inaugural Jack Miller Center Chairman’s Award for Best Dissertation in American Political Thought at the 2011 American Political Science Association Annual Meeting.
Among other things, the book explains why the general public holds democratic principles in high regard while simultaneously despising the democratic politics with which they live. In Western democracies today, politics and politicians are held in contempt by the majority of citizens. Bilakovics argues that this disdain of politics follows neither from the discontents of our liberal political system nor from the preoccupations of a consumer society. Rather, extending Tocqueville’s analysis of the modern democratic way of life, he traces the sources of political cynicism to democracy itself.
Democratic society’s defining openness—its promise of transcendent freedom and unlimited power—renders the everyday politics of argument and persuasion absurd by comparison. Persuasion is devalued relative to the norms of free-market competition and patriotic community, assertions of self-interest and self-expression take the place of arguing together, and political life is diminished by the absence of mediating talk. Bilakovics identifies this trend across the political landscape—in the clashing authenticities of the “culture war,” the perennial pursuit of the political outsider to set things right again, the call for a postpartisan politics, rising demands on government alongside falling expectations of what government can do, and in a political rhetoric that is at once petty and hyperbolic. To reform democratic politics and ameliorate its pathologies, Bilakovics calls on us to overcome our anti-political prejudice and rethink robust democracy as the citizen's practice of persuading and being persuaded in turn.
“Democracy without Politics is an ambitious, important book. It ropes together a detailed reinterpretation of Alexis de Tocqueville’s political thought with a diagnosis of the cynicism and idealism found in American democracy and a critique of recent democratic theory’s fascination with radical openness and indeterminacy… Political theorists and other scholars will find here a great many important insights and fascinating paths of research. Well written and filled with fascinating examples and analyses of recent political trends, the book should contribute a great deal to studies of Tocqueville, contemporary democratic theory, the analysis of political culture, and critical studies of U.S. politics.” - G.D. Mackin, Choice
“In this extended meditation, Steven Bilakovics takes Tocqueville as his guide to the pathologies of democracy in modern America. Following Tocqueville, he dares to suggest that what troubles us most about democratic political life reflects, not non-democratic distortions, but rather the inexorable logic of the core commitment to equality. This book will enlighten and provoke everyone interested in the political sociology of American democracy.” - William A. Galston, The Brookings Institution
“Many people today are cynical about democratic politics. Could democracy itself be partly to blame? That is the provocative suggestion of Steven Bilakovics’s fascinating new book on democracy in America. Bilakovics begins where Tocqueville left off, tracing the internal logic of democratic thought and demonstrating its manifestations in everyday life. He argues that we often misunderstand the virtues of our own political culture, thinking of democracy simply as a form of ‘openness’ and thereby leading ourselves to disappointment and disillusionment. The book as a whole makes a powerful case against democratic complacency.” - Bryan Garsten, Yale University
“Addressing the peculiar seesaw of cynicism and idealism that characterizes American politics, Steven Bilakovics provocatively suggests that our current anti-political prejudices flow not from some extra-political source (such as neoliberal economics or fundamentalist religion) but from the spirit of democracy itself. Democracy Without Politics is a masterful reworking of Tocqueville’s theses concerning equality, freedom, and democratic openness. It illuminates, in a radically original way, our ongoing love affair with democratic ideals and our growing impatience with—even contempt for—democratic politics. A must-read.” - Dana Villa, University of Notre Dame