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America's Discontent and the Search for a New Democratic Ideal
By Philip Slater
Boston: Beacon Press, 1991, 224 pages

In a 1964 article in the Harvard Business Review entitled "Democracy Is Inevitable," Philip Slater and Warren Bennis argued that as societies, corporations, and other institutions become larger and more complex, they become unmanageable under hierarchical systems of command. The spread of democracy — not simply as a form of government but as a commitment to the sharing of power and information — is inevitable in the twentieth century, they said, simply because it is the most efficient way of organizing human relationships under conditions of constant change.

In this perceptive and sharply argued analysis, Slater expands on his earlier ideas and places them within the context of what he sees as a global shift from an authoritarian to a democratic "megaculture." By megaculture, he means that core of attitudes, practices, and beliefs shared by a wide range of different cultures in many parts of the world. While democracy is emerging as the dominant megaculture, remnants of the old one still permeate our psyches, Slater suggests. "Many of the agonies and upheavals of our time result from our efforts to move into a new era while still toting a huge load of emotional and intellectual baggage from the old one."

Much of A Dream Deferred is given to an analysis of how this shift is being played out in politics, business, education, science, religion, popular culture, and relations between men and women. In each of these areas, Slater shows how traditional systems are proving too rigid and inefficient to cope with the continuous change that characterizes modern life. He also shows how many of our responses to current social and political issues are rooted in an old authoritarian mindset. For example, the effort to increase the power of the executive branch relative to the Congress, the drive in education to "return to basics," and the push for stricter licensing and credentialing standards in the professions all represent authoritarian answers to fundamentally democratic dilemmas.

Americans are prone to four general misconceptions about democracy, according to Slater: 1) we believe that democracy is created by idealistic strivings, by a "yearning for freedom," when in fact democracy exists because it is the most flexible and sophisticated form of social organization under conditions of change and cultural complexity; 2) we maintain that democracy is synonymous with capitalism when in fact democracy can exist with or without capitalism; 3) we insist that we are living under democratic conditions now when in fact "our corporations, professions, and educational institutions have yet to feel more than the palest breath of democratic influence"; and 4) we believe that democracy has to do only with forms of governing and the relation between the governors and the governed when in fact "democracy is a vast social movement embracing every aspect of human existence."

Another common fallacy is that individualism is the antidote to authoritarianism, Slater says. The notion that no ideology is so noble as to justify the sacrifice of an individual to a group seems, in theory, to be a great encouragement to democracy. But in practice it turns out to be little more than an escape valve for individual frustration. "The irony," Slater writes, "is that the regimentation we complain about so much comes not from too much connectedness but from too little — not from the active 'we' of community but from the passive, withdrawn 'I' of individualism. It is the inability to cooperate, to negotiate actively about the things that concern us, that leaves room for — and makes necessary — the vast impersonal systems against which we rail, and upon which the individualist heaps so much impotent scorn."

Copyright 1993 by Scott London. All rights reserved.