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Does American Democracy Still Work? (The Future of American Democracy Series) Hardcover – September 18, 2006

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Editorial Reviews


"Wolfe is the most interesting public intellectual in the country. His disturbing book provides rich food for thought about the future of our polity."—Sanford Levinson, University of Texas Law School

(Sanford Levinson)

"Alan Wolfe is an important scholar of American society as well as a major public intellectual. He is incapable of writing a dull or irrelevant book."—William Galston, Senior Fellow, Governance Studies Program, Brookings Institution

(William Galston)

"Alan Wolfe has written a terse, highly critical book on the ways that American democracy works—and does not work. Above all, he urges that Americans become more politically engaged."—James T. Patterson, Brown University

(James T. Patterson)

"Alan Wolfe, always a keen analyst of the American scene, presents a compelling and often passionate account of how to restore genuine democracy in America."—Howard Gardner, author of Changing Minds
(Howard Gardner)

"Alan Wolfe, a committed democrat, with a small 'd,' has written a searing account of the state of American democracy. The growth of cultural populist politics and growing partisan polarization and unity has created an unaccountable government. He brings home the stakes in our elections; not just which party governs but whether we revive our liberal democracy."—U.S. Representative Rosa L. DeLauro
(Rosa L. DeLauro)

"A startling, devastating critique of contemporary American democracy from one of the country’s most measured and respected social and political thinkers.”—Thomas E. Mann, Brookings Institution
(Thomas E. Mann)

"Alan Wolfe argues that while the extent of American democracy has increased greatly, its quality has declined notably in recent decades. His book, Does American Democracy Still Work?, will be widely read, ardently debated, and highly influential."—Martin Shefter, Cornell University

(Martin Shefter)

From the Author

A conversation with Alan Wolfe

Q:  In the past you argued that there is no culture war in America’s heartland, and that polarization and ideological warfare are largely "inside-the-beltway" phenomena. In this new book, you explain how "inside-the-beltway" politics are now becoming dangerous to our public life. What factors have contributed to this disturbing transformation?
A:  Americans think seriously about moral issues, tend to be moderate in their political views, and dislike sharp-edged political conflict. Yet their political system simplifies morality, exacerbates extremism, and relies on negative attacks. Americans are paying a serious price for a lack of attention to politics, a refusal to hold politicians accountable for what they do, and a widespread distrust of politicians that paradoxically encourages politicians to become ever more cynical.

Q:  Is one party or the other responsible for the poor condition of democratic life in America?
A:  No. Culture war polarization, issue simplification, partisan redistricting—all of these have bipartisan roots. Yet in recent years Republicans and conservatives have proven far more competent at using some of the less attractive features of American politics than Democrats and liberals. Liberal democracy has been seriously threatened by the administration of George W. Bush, but Mr. Bush is building upon procedures and processes that have been in existence for some time.

Q:  What can be done?
A:  I suggest that we need a democracy protection movement along the lines of the environmental protection movement. Like clean air and healthy forests, liberal democracy cannot be taken for granted. Americans need to improve their political literacy as well as their cultural literacy. Politicians should challenge, rather than flatter, conventional wisdom. Matters will not improve much if we just replace Republicans with Democrats. We need instead to drive the culture warriors out of business so that we can draw on the common energy of all rather than the partisan energies of the few.


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Product Details

  • Series: The Future of American Democracy Series
  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press (September 18, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300108591
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300108590
  • Product Dimensions: 8.4 x 5.8 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,792,220 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Alan Wolfe is professor of political science and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. The author and editor of more than twenty books, he is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, Harper's, and the Atlantic. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Photo credit: Lee Pellegrini.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

10 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Michael L. Schwab on September 13, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Wolfe explains in simple terms the many aspects of modern American politics that weaken, deflect, and encumber our ability to affect or even understand the laws that are being slung at us. Our incredible cynicism about the candor of the media, the ethics of our representation, and the effectiveness of our institutions allows pressure from certain groups to ensure that all of these actually live down to our expectations. Wolfe claims that government is the only thing that is capable of being impartial, and we need to refocus our priority on it.

I admit that I was looking forward to a critique of the structure of the federal government (more along the lines of Dahl's "How Democratic is the American Constitution?"). I was satisfied to find, rather, a very empirical look at the political messages he classifies as populism. Corruption and deceit being nothing new, he identifies the new tactic as abandoning the middle to whip up support in the base and discourage the opposition. In this way, Bush has been able to claim support for his radical and illogical ideas. Wolfe also includes a great deal of discussion of the events of the past year, when some would have argued that Bush was backing off.

Alan hints that the Democratic Party should be given a chance to straighten things out but never explicitly endorses anyone or rests his argumentation on contingent outcomes of any kind. He insists upon the participation and self-empowerment of individuals as the only way to ensure that the Dems won't be just as bad.

Between this title and Stefan Klein's "The Science of Happiness" I have to conclude that pessimism is no longer an option for those who consider themselves mature. It is not a path to pleasant surprises.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Thomas W. Sulcer on April 12, 2009
Format: Paperback
Alan Wolfe is a sharp thinker who argues persuasively that American democracy is in dire trouble. While I got new insights from this important critique, this book like many others is more accurately a chronicle of the failings of American democracy rather than an intelligent strategy for reform. It is an important book.

Dr. Wolfe's political orientation is that of a liberal democrat. What does this mean? He describes the liberal democratic outlook as tolerant, suspicious of divine truth, favoring laissez-faire economics and civil liberties, questioning unchecked central power, distrustful of war, committed to reason. It favors majority rule but limited government, individualism, the rule of law, respect for empirical facts, and pluralism. It is rooted, philosophically, with Adam Smith and John Locke and the Enlightenment. It's distrustful of war and likes commitments to international law. This is, in my ways, my value system although I'm more nationalistic perhaps, and I am decidedly non-partisan (whereas I bet Dr. Wolfe votes Democratic).

While Dr. Wolfe sometimes leans to the left politically, I do not think this undermines the integrity of his argument. For example, sometimes he thinks of justice as social justice (redistributing wealth to cause fair outcomes) instead of a conservative sense of justice as fair process. He sees conservatives as "people who have never given any indication of being constrained by conscience." I do not think this is fair.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Gderf on December 27, 2011
Format: Hardcover
A good topical discussions on many aspects of democracy degenerates into a liberal ideological diatribe. Wolfe says new democracy divisions are cultural rather than economic.
If that was ever valid it has certainly changed back. Whatever Wolfe says is new is by now well out of date (2011). He attributes populism to conservative ideology and Republican party politics. The popular concept of majority rule is itself populism. The move to popular expansion government was facilitated by the 17th Amendment initiating popular election of senators. Current there are populist attacks on the Electoral College and remaining super majority voting on tax legislation. That's all liberalism not conservative; Democratic politics, not Republican. If Bush manipulated opinions of Congress and finessed the press, he learned it from LBJ.

Wolfe attributes much power to the Republican party. In fact, it was not so long ago that the R party was considered to be nearly defunct. He attributes libertarianism to Republicans, recognizing that the Libertarian party has minimal popular following. Far from Wolfe's denial, big government is here to stay. Since the book was written Dems have gained control, largely from the popular anti Bush vote. Wolfe contradicts James Caraville's "40 More Years", a much more prescient view of politics. We have Nancy Pelosi saying "We won the election, we write the legislation." What's not outright wrong in the book is much out of date. Things have changed since 2006, but not as much as one would think from this reading.

Wolfe calls Bush our most ideological president. He's forgotten LBJ and Jimmy Carter and the book was too early for Obama. He attributes political opponents with fantasy in thinking that taxes can go down and spending up.
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