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Essays on the State and the Constitution
By Sheldon S. Wolin
The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989, 228 pages

The eleven essays collected in this book were occasioned by the bicentennial celebrations of first the American Revolution and later the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Bicentennials "are by nature civic," Wolin writes, public "rituals organized to promote a mythic history." While they appear to be celebrating the past, however, they tell us more about our collective identity in the present. As such, these essays were written "to illuminate the present political condition" against the backdrop of the "values, myths, ideologies, and theories" inspired by the American founding.

After a brief introduction, Wolin looks at what he considers "the main paradox at the center of the American Constitution": the dual principles of restrained and divided power, on the one hand, and the sovereign power of "the people," on the other. He then explores the notion of collective memory — "the formation, interpretation, and retention of a public past." In "Elitism and the Rage against Postmodernity" he issues a stern critique of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind and offers his views on the future of higher education. Next, he reflects on the development of a "new science of politics," which Tocqueville described as the uniquely American experiment with democratic republicanism. "Tending and Intending a Constitution" outlines the distinction between what Wolin conceives as two fundamentally different forms of politics, the "politics of tendance" and the "politics of intendance," the former associated with a decentralized and diverse democratic political vision nurtured by actively caring citizens, the latter characterized by a centralized and homogenized administrative authoritarian vision controlled by expert professionals, which the Framers dressed up as republicanism. "Montesquieu and Publius" addresses the sources and legacy of "The Federalist," which is, in Wolin's estimation, the supreme American text. "E Pluribus Unum" examines the shifting meanings and significance over time of pluribus, "the many," and unum, "the one," in our national motto. "Contract and Birthright" is a critique of contemporary contract theory a la John Rawls and Robert Nozick and a call for a new interpretation of citizenship based on the notion of political "birthright," or inheritance. In "Democracy and the Welfare State," Wolin sketches a theory of state power based on the connection between the concept of Reason of State (staatsrason) and the principles of the welfare state. "Democracy without the Citizen" explores the multifaceted and contradictory nature of American citizenship; while "it is perhaps the most complex conception of citizenship ever devised," Wolin observes, "we have no coherent conception of it." In the concluding essay, "Democracy and Operation Democracy," he reflects on the increasingly rhetorical nature of the democratic idea in contemporary American politics.

At bottom, these essays all express a deep concern about the "anti-democratic thrust" and "the steady de-democratization of American society." Wolin traces this trend to the ratification of the Constitution in 1787 which he says betrayed the spirit of the Revolution. He presents the issue in terms of the loss of democracy (as it was embodied in the Declaration of Independence) as a result of the rise of the state (following the ratification of the Constitution). The American contribution of 1787 was that the Framers chose a state and a Constitution both at the same moment. This act laid the groundwork for the development of the "megastate" by subordinating the local power structures necessary for a genuinely democratic politics. The Constitution, in other words, was a modernizing, centralizing document designed to suppress decentralized, popular forms of politics. Its essential purpose was not to limit power but to generate it — to unlock "access to power, making it available to the state." The Founders' determination to reduce popular influence in government and to avoid the "weakness inherent in democratic states" also had the effect of creating a new role for citizens as "watchers of how their powers are being used rather than as participants in those uses." In this way, "the citizenry was conceived in terms that allowed the American political animal to evolve into the domesticated creature of media politics" — a passive, depoliticized spectator of politics as carried out by technocratic elitists, bureaucrats, and ideologues. Today, with the rise of "a postmodern politics in which democracy serves primarily a rhetorical function with little or no correlative in official institutions and practices," we have "virtually ceased to think of ourselves as a political people."

Copyright 1993 by Scott London. All rights reserved.