A Review of Cornel West’s Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism by Bob Bauer
Cornel West’s Vision of Democratic Reform
A review of Cornel West’s Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism
by Robert F. Bauer
Someone flipping through Cornel West’s new book, will come, here and there, across the language of reform much as we hear it inside the Beltway. There are references to “pervasive corruption” among the political elites (p. 27), and a familiar characterization of American politics as anchored firmly in “self-interest and catering to narrow special interests” and conducted through “poll-driven, focus-group-approved slogans” (p. 64). Any similarity to the routine reform argument of the day ends there. The rest—the heart of West’s conception of democratic reform—could not be more different in origin, aim or style of argument.
West’s democratic vision is personal, inseparable from the commands of his Christian faith; and so readers will not find an attempt to painstakingly document, in the language of law or political science, the representative failings of our government. West presents himself—and hence, the nature of the case he is making—as follows:
I speak as a Christian—one whose commitment to democracy is very deep but whose Christian convictions are even deeper. Democracy is not my faith. And American democracy is not my idol…. To be a Christian—a follower of Jesus Christ—is to love wisdom, love justice, and love freedom. This is the radical love in Christian freedom and radical freedom in Christian love that embraces Socratic questioning, prophetic witness, and tragicomic hope. (p. 172).
In Cornel West’s Christian vision, democratic practice depends urgently on resistance to what he believes to be the prevailing dogmas of the day: free-market fundamentalism, aggressive militarism, and authoritarianism. These dogmas serve the purposes of a political life corrupted by market morality and committed to the protection of plutocracy without regard to “equality of opportunity, service to the poor, and a focus on the public interest.” (p. 74). The power of these dogmas rests on “nihilistic” political practices that undermine any possibility of true democratic development. There are three different forms of nihilism described by West, one associated with the Republican Party (evangelical nihilism), another with the Democratic Party (paternalistic nihilism) and the last with the media (sentimental nihilism). Successful challenge to the deadly effect of these nihilisms is possible only through “Socratic questioning, prophetic witness, and tragicomic hope” which are “the most sturdy democratic armor available to us in our fight against corrupt elite power.” (p. 217.) West contends that this struggle is as old as our history, waged under the terms set by a legacy of imperialism and racism.
The terminology fashioned by West for his purposes—the various forms of “nihilism,” for example—does not add much weight to his argument but instead weighs it down. One example is the media’s alleged complicity in the practice of “sentimental nihilism.” This form of nihilism implicates the media in avoiding “unpleasant and unpopular facts and stories, in order to provide an emotionally satisfying show” (p. 36) and build market share. But, as West defines it, the problem is not apolitical profit-mongering alone, but also class bias (the media being “too preoccupied with the concerns and views of middle-class and upper-class white people”) and ideological excess (the media being dominated by “blatantly partisan hacks”) (pp. 36-37). “Sentimental nihilism” seems a grandiloquent label for the array of complaints, not all of them obviously connected, regularly heard about the media’s shortcomings. It does not enrich the argument; it detracts from it, and it is not clear why West could not develop his argument, otherwise made with passionate clarity, without it.
West’s moral outrage is generally expressed with impressive, insistent, even stirring, conviction. But it does not show as well in his more concrete treatment of politics. West writes that “Since American civilization is first and foremost a business culture—a market-driven society—its elected officials and corporate elites are preoccupied with economic growth and national prosperity.” (p. 102). There is truth in pieces of this formulation—we would be surprised if elected officials were not concerned with “national prosperity”—but it would not explain much about the welfare state, hotly debated trade-offs between growth and the environment, or the centrality at various times of social and cultural issues. It is possible to reduce all historical and policy analysis to questions about resources and their allocation, but in doing so, West comes close to replicating the very preoccupation with “the market” that he disdains.
West also injects serious oversimplication into his discussion of American “empire.” One questionable line of argument may be found in West’s treatment, meant to be judicious and carefully drawn, of the place of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in American foreign policy. For West, the question is timely in a discussion of “democracy matters”: the United States promotes democratic development as the most decisive and effective weapon, in the long term, in the war on terror. West argues that U.S. policy has seriously endangered any possibility of genuine democratic development by favoring hard-line Israeli policies and supporting autocratic Arab states. His critique manages for a while to keep its footing, only to risk credibility and serious offense—and to the mind of some, worse—with comments about the Jewish “lobby” and Jewish media influence binding the United States to the reactionary policies he deplores. When later in his analysis of the flowering corrupt politics in America, he refers to the “unholy alliance of American Republicans, Christian evangelicals, and Jewish neoconservatives” (p. 165), the risk he is taking is grave indeed.
West’s failing here is not personal or moral, but simply that he seems unable to address these issues, like other difficult policy issues, with the care and precision they demand. This is perhaps the problem that develops when what is a religious manifesto, with all of its argumentative excesses, encroaches on the terrain of complex policy.
Argumentative excess has its place, however, when it is understood as “prophetic utterance,” the aim of which is to “shatter deliberate ignorance and willful blindness to the suffering of others and to expose the clever forms of evasion and escape we devise in order to hide and conceal injustice.” (p. 114). Perhaps the risks that West takes must be seen in this light, the light of the prophetic tradition, as his effort, with only hard words at his disposal, to “awaken sleepwalking.” (p. 99). He clearly understands his purpose as vastly broader, more significant and far-reaching than joining the tame version of “reform” argument popular with think tanks, editorial pages and the Hill. As one of the “artists, activists, and intellectuals” who are “the primary agents of our deep democratic tradition” (p. 67), Cornel West means to take hold of his readers and shake them hard. This is the power, but also the limit, of what is offered in Democracy Matters.