Bert Emerson

Objective and Subjective Definitions of Democracy

Air Date: January 9, 2023

Oxford University Press "Democracies in America" coauthor Bert Emerson discusses disparate and shared understandings of democratic rule


Heffner: I’m Alexander Hefner, you host on The Open Mind. I’m really pleased to welcome our guest today, co-author of the new Oxford University Press volume Democracies in America. Bert Emerson is Professor of English at Whitworth University and director of the Honors program there in Spokane, Washington. Bert, a pleasure to see you.

Emerson: Thank you for having me.

Heffner: Let me ask you to start, what was the, the genesis of, of a project on Democracies in America? Why did you want to do this with your co-author, co-editor?

Emerson: Well, it started with kind of on an individual basis. Part of my, uh, graduate school research was engaging political culture in the 19th century, thinking through, uh, not only the predominant dis discourses of 19th century American literature, uh, and its connections with democracy, but also thinking about what other varieties of democracy might be present, uh, and some texts that maybe we haven’t considered quite as often. Uh, that led me to, I mean, there’s been a lot of, uh, scholarship over the over decades about the connections between American literature and, and our experiments with democracy. Um, as I got to know other people working on this in the field, including my co-editor Greg Lasky, uh, we decided to think about how we could bring together different scholars to think about issues with greater complexity and, and particularly how we could bring scholars in outside of our discipline of English and Literary Studies and thinking more broadly about historians and political theorists, uh, rhetoricians, and so forth. Uh, and so we initially pulled together a conference presentation and then, uh, that turned into a journal, a forum and a journal. And then, uh, we just, uh, were so intrigued in learning so much through this process that we wanted to, to gather, uh, people together. And when we started to, to look at some different University Press options, we were excited to find a, a home at Oxford.

Heffner: What is the through line here? The, the connective tissue of these essays?

Emerson: I think that the kind of central issue is, is thinking through democracy, not as something that we can necessarily pin down to precise definitions, but to acknowledge that conceptually within democracy as a, as an idea, uh, as well as in practice, that there are these enduring dilemmas, uh, that we are always facing. I mean, probably the most obvious one between liberty and equality. If I can have my own individual opportunities to, uh, use my talents and motivations to go as far as I can, how do I balance that with sort of a expectation that we have equality in this country or, or we maintain that. And that has been, uh, it’s not that it’s not irresolvable or that we can figure out a way to balance those ratios, uh, but that we have to, uh, in democracies think about, uh, how we navigate these enduring dilemmas together. Uh, if we stop at the standpoint of just thinking we need a majority and we just need a 51% winner take all, uh, approach, then we might, uh, not think about all that democracy might be able to offer this notion that if, if at the root form of the word we’re talking about the demos as the people kratos as ruling, what does it look like for the people to rule? What does it look like for people to have the power, for people to be empowered? Uh, and I think that’s really one of the driving motivations for a lot of the scholars, uh, who are writing on these topics today.

Heffner: You know, what, what did you find historically as the subjective versus the objective when it comes to, uh, democracy or democratic rule? Because it, it seems to me that the demos, like you’re saying, that there, that is objective, and then once you start to make it a constitutional democracy or Republican Democracy or a Democratic Republic, once you start to vary or deviate from the demos, uh, is when you get to stickier more subjective questions. Is that a…is that a through line?

Emerson: Absolutely. I mean, from the very start, there was, I mean, if you go back to our examples in ancient Athens, uh, there were very few members who are actually participating because there was a large slave class that was doing all the everyday labor to, to make participation, uh, in the political operations of, of the city state at the time, uh, bringing it forward. I mean, obviously our, the U.S. founding was built on, uh, this notion that, uh, yes, we would have, um, a government based on the consent of the governed, uh, but that there were, you know, some people who weren’t necessarily expected to, to, to provide their consent or, or, uh, thought worthy of, of doing so. And so that distinction between the subjective and the objective, um, I mean, obviously this is where we see, uh, democracy all going well beyond formal or procedural politics beyond just merely voting, uh, or petitioning or other instruments of, uh, participation that we have in a democracy. But also, uh, the cultural identity touchstones, the, you know, questions of race and gender and sexuality, religion, uh, all these issues, the cultural elements of a democracy that truly me, you know, represent the notion of people participating, the people having the power that people, uh, having, uh, the opportunity to participate in this, uh, operation of self-rule.

Heffner: And, and we’re talking about in your volume, um, really the beginnings of democracy in America through the progressive era, correct?

Emerson: That’s right. We have, we cover what we call the long 19th century, this period that runs roughly from the Revolution of in 1776 or Declaration of Independence up through the constitutional moment, and then all the way through the 19th century into the early 21st, uh, at the beginnings of World War One, 1913, 1914, as the progressive era sets in. We find this a really valuable historical moment to think about because of, uh, there were so many questions about what democracy was supposed to mean in this particular moment. It was not a foregone conclusion that it would be a success. It was great anxiety among founders, uh, in all different sorts of areas of everyday life, from education to the economy, to, um, religious values that were going to, to determine whether or not this would survive. And then what I think of a lot in a lot of ways is the adolescent period of the, of, uh, our nation, at least at this stage, uh, coming before the Civil War and all these different ideas about whether we would have slavery or not, or whether women might vote or not, or any other sets of questions that come through after the Civil War reconstruction offering so many possibilities. Uh, the moments when the reconstruction amendments finally defined citizenship for the first time in our constitution. Uh, all the progress or possibility that was imagined during that moment, and then the pushback against that and how that played out, uh, all the way into the early 20th century. Again, we think that this 19th century moment has so much value for us, uh, different from the 20th century, and it’s in its period of more focus on democracy versus communism or more international concerns dictated by World Wars and so forth. Uh, uh, we also see a lot of relevance today with the, the changing communications and technologies that were happening, and especially in the pre-Civil War period, uh, that aren’t very different from our new digital age that has come upon us in the last 30 or so years. So, uh, again, this is this historical period that we find so, uh, fascinating as people were thinking through these concepts, these enduring dilemmas, uh, that share with us so much to think about for today.

Heffner: And what do you say, do you accept the proposition that inherently 19th century U.S. democracy was more anti- or undemocratic than than 20th century? Um, or is that a faulty premise?

Emerson: I definitely think from a lot of perspectives, that’s a, that’s, that’s quite a reasonable premise. I mean, the fact that not everybody was, uh, allowed to participate, that there were, um, significant, I mean, a a majority of people living in the nation who were not given the rights and privileges and responsibilities of citizenship. Uh, and so that’s definitely the case. I I often think though of this period, uh, that, you know, at that period of revolution and the times that came after, as soon as the genie was out of the bottle, that everyday people might have some say in how their lives were governed and that they were being asked to participate in this notion of self-rule. Uh, you couldn’t get that genie back in the bottle. And so whether people were fully participating or not, or, or had the, the grounds of citizenship from which they might participate, they were still active. I mean, the, the Color Conventions were one, a great example where there’s been so much great scholarship in the last, uh, 10 to 15 years thinking through how, um, people who were deemed not citizens, uh, came together and, and advocated for, uh, various rights, uh, maybe not necessarily in the form of the vote right away, but in different ways of being on juries or rights to petition or assemble, I mean, a wealth of activities that, uh, disfranchised people, uh, still were taking on because they understood that they should have the opportunity to do so. So in some ways, while the formal constraints were in place, that limited democracy, in some ways there were other democracies, and hence some of the reasons for our, the, the plural of our title, uh, where we see other things that are so viable for us to think through today

Heffner: In those multiple democracies. Um, from where should we derive inspiration, Uh, if there’s a single text or a figure, um, you know, the obvious one might be Lincoln, but beyond Lincoln, because I think Lincoln, um, while warranting our attention and, you know, serious, um, worship, uh, in, in some quarters, um, that there’s more, there’s more than Lincoln. Um, so from in your mind, Bert, um, you know, if there, if there’s a document from this period that can guide us, um, to accomplish democracy more constructively in this decade, what would it be?

Emerson: I think there are a number, and I think that our volume brings many of those to light. Uh, and I, this is part of the encouragement of, of a volume like ours with these shorter 4,000 word essays where people can see so many different people from, from all the way from the founding era through the, the 20th century. Uh, the one that comes kind of most immediately to mind is Francis Harper, Francis Ellen Watkins Harper, who, um, was a poet and a writer and a political activist, uh, writing as a, um, African American woman who, uh, was advocating for abolition and then was writing all the way through, uh, the sort of promise or possibility of Reconstruction. And then afterwards in the, the, the reaction to, uh, that moment producing poetry and novels and political speeches. Um, she had a speech in 1866 called, “We Are All Bound Up Together,” um, where, uh, I have it right here. She says, We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity. And so society cannot trample on the weaken, weakest, and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse of its own soul. This grand and glorious revolution, which is commenced, will fail to reach its climax of success until through the length and breadth of the American republic. The nation shall be so colorblind as so to as to know no man by the color of his skin or the curl of his hair. Uh, it’s a document that where she comes in and she says, You know, most of you people thinking of, I mean, this isn’t a women’s right convention where women are advocating for the opportunity to vote. And she comes in to speak to this audience saying, You speak of rights, I speak of wrongs. And there’s a way that this, uh, as coming from someone who doesn’t have, uh, the, the opportunity for full participation at that moment, at least as we historically and traditionally think about, uh, citizenship, she is, um, coming through and, and delivering through, uh, you know, the impressive rhetoric through persuasion, uh, through narrative, through all the elements that a language can provide or, or that we all have opportunity to, uh, to engage, uh, is, is advocating for, for, uh, democracy of this variety where more can participate and more can be, uh, where it can ring more true.

Heffner: When you think of democracies in America now and, um, a leading debate being, you know, how, how representative should we be as individual citizens and how representative should our states or our geography and land ought to be? Um, that that is not a different debate. However, more modernized or humane, our democracy or pseudo-democracy or half-democracy, whatever you wanna call it, is today. Fundamentally, when it comes to the systemic, uh, constitutional questions that make or break representation, it’s still about people versus property.

Emerson: That is certainly, uh, yeah, that is a huge element of this. And it was a question that vexed people at the founding, like to what degree there might need to be, uh, equality built around economic, uh, considerations in order to facilitate political ones. This was part of the, some of the founding debates over the Constitution itself and what came before, and you see it in the pretty well known, uh, rebellion or, or uprisings that you might have, or regulations which to, to think of the more popular term rather than the one from the, the elites, whether Shea’s Rebellion or the Whiskey Rebellion or these other, uh, in incidences in the 1780s and 1790s, uh, that definitely put property right front and center. Uh, and these continued on into the 19th century, um, uh, and, and were huge in these questions and certainly have remained, uh, central to our concerns right now. I guess the thing that I come back to and, and, and thinking about, uh, this enduring dilemma that is, um, that again, if liberty is connected to economic opportunity or economic gain, uh, and how we maintain some measure of equality around that, uh, we need to again, find common ground together and common purpose where, uh, you know, if I don’t have all my liberties fully exercised, is that necessarily gonna mean that I don’t have as much power as I have had. Uh, and I think this is a narrative that we are in a language that we are thinking through, uh, in all of these different contexts, whether it’s, it is that sort of primary issue of, uh, individual liberty or, uh, economic welfare or so on and so forth.

Heffner: And, and yet the conundrum of representation, um, you know, this most recent midterm election cycle, I think deviates from the prior analysis that institutions like the Electoral College and and the Senate, um, have given an unfair advantage to a minoritarian wing, uh, or segment of the population. You have a midterm contest with, uh, roughly even voting. It, it’s, it’s possible at this count, um, that the Republicans have an advantage in the sheer total of vote. And, uh, and so as, as we speak, we anticipate one House to be governed by the Democrats and one House to be governed by the Republicans. Um, and yet we’ve had these successive cycles before the ‘22 cycle, in which a majority, and a and, and a healthy majority would vote in the overall country for the Democratic Party, and you would have not unanimous control or united control, and the remnants of of that are, um, you know, are still in the system. Um, even if in a cycle the Republicans win the majority of votes and the Republicans govern one chamber. But, um, how do you see this evolving, um, further, or do you think the, the filibuster idea, basically the, the filibuster proof majority idea that really you can’t control decisions and make, expand the Supreme Court or do whatever thing you want to do unless you have unanimous control, Um, that’s just baked in. That is our democracy, that is our demos. Uh, the, the idea that a super majority is required for any kind of major overhaul, uh, or any kind of reform, um, that, that that’s who we are?

Emerson: I, I certainly think that a lot that’s built into the Constitution, uh, certainly suggests that it’s, it’s, I mean, it’s very difficult to make amendments. It’s very difficult to, um, to bring about reform at a, at a, on a broad scale. And it seems really, you know, unlikely under, in our current circumstances, for sure. But I think if history teaches us any, uh, anything, there’s, there has been tremendous reforms across time and, uh, that, um, I guess I take as I’m not a, an expert on the 21st century moment, I’m more of just a participant and I’m an educator, uh, who is encouraging participation, uh, in trying to teach people about the sort of, uh, narratives and the histories that we like to tell ourselves in developing this language. Um, but I, I look to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences having just produced this Commission on Democratic Citizenship and their recommendations for, um, reinventing American democracy. There, this notion that we are kind of in a fourth, uh, founding period, if you day back to the original and then the civil post, Civil war period, the civil rights era, that we are at a time where, I mean, 20 years ago there were, uh, books like Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam, who that were saying, we’ve just, we’ve won the Global War for Democracy and now everyone is apathetic and no one wants to be involved anymore. And in a very short time, we have this, you know, hyper-participation. Everyone wants to be involved and wants to, to have a say. And in my lifetime, I have never seen so much focus as I have on these, in these midterms for A) participating in midterm election, and B), thinking about local elections and thinking about, about local participation and shifting, uh, a narrative that our national media has sort of focused on that national story and, and the, and US Congress and, uh, in Washington DC and thinking more about what’s happening on the local level, whether that means school boards, whether that means, uh, just local office offices and county commissions, sheriff’s elections, uh, I, I see that all this energy, and this is, this is what the Commission was interested in doing, taking all this energy that had appeared over the last couple of decades, maybe since 2008, and financial crisis and the Tea Party movement and the Occupy Movements and the protest, Black Lives Matter and Me Too, um, and all this part or hyper-partisanship and polarization, and are there ways that we can change the narrative and try to steer this energy into constructive democratic engagement?

Heffner: In the minutes we have remaining, I want to focus on the economy, um, in, in these essays, and I know you can speak only holistically and we’ll encourage folks to pick up the book at Oxford University Press or any book seller. But when it comes to understanding the, the conditions of an economy that are synonymous with democracy or that make, uh, democracy more healthy, what were the notions, um, of, of this period kind of holistically? Because I don’t think that the period chronicled in your book would recognize the economy of our democracy. Um, you know, of course there’s the outsourcing of industry, and that’s, that’s a component that was not in the 19th century, uh, and in, not in so much of the 20th century either. Um, but separate from the outsourcing of our economy, um, in terms of what constitutes the conditions of an economy in a democracy. What, what was the spectrum of view on that?

Emerson: Well, if at the founding there were definitely plenty of places that believed that there needed to be property requirements to give people the opportunity to vote, uh, that you had to have a certain base level of, uh, economic welfare in order to have the wherewithal to be able to be aware of what people were talking about in the political sphere, to be able to participate and, and to lends say as, uh, you know, notions change over the decades in the 19th century. And, and instead of on economic lines, uh, the notion of suffrage would be extended mostly on racial and gendered lines, where you had universal male suffrage in the, uh, 1820s and 1830s, so many states reforming their constitutions to determine voting rights, uh, all the way, you know, pushing past that into the, um, later 19th century, the gilded age, the, the sort of moves of the progressive reforms that came along. I mean, these questions of, of economic haves versus economic have nots and who would get to participate in collective organizing and the way that, uh, groups of people could come together. Um, this is, I mean, again, this is what makes the 19th century a really ripe time to think through wealth inequalities today, to think through, uh, who had the money and, and where money had to, whether money was speech or whether money meant, uh, access to, to power and decision making. And so I think that yes, there’s a lot of it baked in that says, you know, you have to have a certain economic, uh, ground level, uh, to participate, uh, in everything. But at the same time, there were a lot of reforms that took place to try to keep that le playing field as level as possible, uh, and to, to, because that was the way that we were gonna make sure that people could participate on an equal standing.

Heffner: Just a final question. By the end of the Progressive Era, which kind of fizzled out, um, we were electing senators by popular vote in our growing country. Yes. But we know all the way through the, the New Deal that the, the, um, the restoration of anything in the Constitution and the Declaration that fundamentally gave us the economic right of livelihood or wellbeing was a, was mythologized, but not in practice. And so do you think that there was a feeling, and we only have some seconds left, but there was a feeling at certain points in the Progressive Age that we, we are realizing this, this Economic Bill of Rights, this, this idea of economic liberty not just being enshrined in, in the abstract principle, but in practice. Um, and was there ever any kind of cohesive agreement, you know, on that question?

Emerson: I don’t think there was cohesive agreement on really any of these questions in our history. I think that that’s one of the really, uh, the, the wonderful, uh, and also, you know, hair pulling, uh, experiences of our, of our history.

Heffner: I guess my, my, again, just seconds left, but I guess my better and more concisely put, was there, was there any kind of recognition just at the, in the, in the Roaring Twenties, there was just this question of, of free capitalism and no question of what each person ought to have as the bare minimum of their economic right or output. But because you end in the Progressive Age, I was just wondering if there was any kind of, uh, of beginning formation of of of, of that sort of that recognition, uh, not, you know, not so much the cohesive answer, but that there was some kind of, um, feeling of economic rights developing, but then something happened.

Emerson: Yeah, I definitely think so. I mean, when you think about the, the trust busting efforts of the federal government, the attempts to limit monopolies, uh, the sort of all the elements of the progressive era that put limits on capitalism’s exploitation of the, of the disempowered, I think, uh, is certainly, you know, right front and center. And, uh, that notion of that if people were gonna be empowered and get to participate in their democracy, that, uh, they had to have certain economic rights and positions just like everybody else.

Heffner: Bert, I’m sorry to cut you off. Uh, this has been a really wonderful session with you. We’re out of time for now, but I urge all of our listeners and viewers to check out Democracies, that is multiple Dmocracies in America. Um, coauthor and editor of the compilation with us today, Bert Emerson of Whitworth University. Thank you for your time.

Emerson: Thank you, Alexander. I really appreciate it.