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Toward an Organic Democracy


From the outset of his career Whitman worked from the premise that his duty as the national bard was to put democratic theory, the cultural lifeblood of nineteenth-century America, to verse.  The poet's "spirit," he wrote in the 1855 Preface, "responds to his country's spirit"--and his country's spirit was democracy (CRE 713).  He also knew that it was only through the medium of poetry that he would be able to suggest the contours of an idea so comprehensive, yet so illusive and suffused with futurity, that its final and precise meaning could never be completely articulated.  "Thus,” he could assert in Democratic Vistas,  “we presume to write, as it were, upon things that exist not, and travel by maps yet unmade, and a blank." (PW 391)   But of course, such a formulation inevitably begs the pragmatic question: can so purposefully vague a theory of human organization—a map so “blank” as Whitman’s democracy—possibly matter?  Can such an abstract vision of associative life make any practical difference in the actual lives of real people?  I believe it can and does.  However illusive Whitman’s conception of democracy is, it does, nevertheless, foreclose certain ways of thinking about organized public life just as it also demands thinking of it in others.  And to be sure, the way we conceptualize our governing ideology and its demands shapes the way we imagine a society worth building. 

To understand the scope of those demands that Whitman’s vision imposes on us, we should begin by recalling that democracy, for Whitman, is more than the political process:  "Did you, too, O friend, suppose democracy was only for elections, for politics, and for a party name?" he asks in Democratic Vistas.  "I say democracy is only of use there that it may pass on and come to its flower and fruits in manners, in the highest forms of interaction between men, and their beliefs . . ." (PW 389).  And democracy could so manifest itself in the “highest forms” of human belief and behavior because, for him, it is "organic," an ever-growing, ever-changing system of interrelated parts.  Indeed, the belief that democracy is an all-encompassing and dynamic ideological whole is the foundation of what Richard Rorty refers to as Whitman’s “civic religion.”  In previous chapters my approach has been to explicate the individual elements of Whitman’s holistic vision of democracy in the order in which the poet himself encountered them--that is, as each emerged over time within his developing poetics.  Now, however, I would like to bring those different elements together and consider how they function systemically.

Whitman's categories are never neat; nevertheless, eleven democratic elements or "departments," as he calls them, stand out.  A  Mythology that employs its own "pragmatic" theory of truth in order to subordinate competing antidemocratic belief systems; a Cosmology that argues the harmony between democratic metaphysics and natural science; a Phenomenology of Self that situates the individual and society in a relationship of interdependence; a Psychology that dramatizes the centrality of human agency and the capacity for ch­oice-making to democratic life; a Historiography which attempts to distinguish human history from natural history; a Socio­politics that attempts to regulate the political process by ritualizing the ethic of social reconciliation; an Economic Creed which insists that rough material equality is a necessary condition for democratic development; a Cultural Theory that outlines the beliefs a society must construct in order to foster democracy; a Religion that attempts to facilitate "spiritual transcen­dence," the ubiquitous human desire for ecstatic experience, by redefining it as the individual's quest for reconciliation with the larger (social and cosmic) democratic order; and, of course, a Political Philosophy that takes on faith the belief that the People are sovereign in every meaningful sense of that word--and that believing so, naturally means that the political process by which they speak is sacred.

It is true, of course, that Whitman's treatment of none of these subjects is complete.  For example, his economics was, alternately, a critique of market capitalism and a faith in its potential for egalitarian achievements; it was not, however, a systematic explanation of market processes.  And his historiography may indeed have conditioned the study of the human past by distinguishing it from the processes of nature, but it did not attempt to offer anything like a coherent theory of historical causation.  To be sure, the value of Whitman's approach is not that it exhausts everything that can or should be said of each subject.  Indeed, his treatment of each discipline is narrowly focused in a way that makes democracy itself--and democracy only--a universal organizing principle.  This is to say two things.  First, Whitman ferrets out the democratic implications of each subject—what the knowledge and mode of thinking peculiar to each “department” further suggests about the meaning of democratic life—and then translates those implications into discipline-specific democratic imperatives.  Second, he treats each of these departments (and the democratic values that he derives from them) not as static and discrete genres of thought, but as parts of a dynamic and interconnected whole.  Their interconnection is particularly important: by casting into relief the democratic values implicit in each, Whitman also throws them into relation—in effect highlighting the way each supports, compromises or modifies the democratic claims of all the others. 

This is to say that Whitman understood democracy as a complex of fundamental and interrelated values.  By contrast, more modest definitions would have undoubtedly struck him as shortsighted and even dangerous.  He would have been perplexed, for example, to read one historian of democracy assert that it "is only one among many social objectives":  
There are ideals of personal freedom and human justice, programs for government efficiency and economic productivity, visions of international peacekeeping and global environmentalism, along with many others, whose pursuit may well run at odds with the quest for an invigorated democracy.1 

Whitman's quest, by contrast, was for an invigorated comprehensive version of democracy, one in which personal freedom, human justice, and collective responsibility were not at odds with the democratic political process but, in fact, organically connected to it.  As two of the necessary conditions for healthy political democracy, for instance, he would have insisted that individual freedom and human justice are inextricable from any truly meaningful definition of democracy.  Moreover, he would have thought it illogical to expect that an electorate, having fully internalized the democratic values of freedom and justice, could be capable of making anything other than just decisions.  The ballot was indeed the heart that pumped life to all corners of Whitman's organic democracy, but considered alone, it was not to be confused with the whole body it served.

This is not to say that organic democracy prescribes any particular policy agenda.  Rightly considered, organic democracy offers no plan, no policy, no hint as to precisely how, in the context of specific historical conditions, the needs of a full and dignified democratic life should be met.  This is, of course, as it must be: for no conception of democracy that places such a premium on the individual citizen's capacity to deliberate and decide could then, in good faith, proceed to foreclose the exercise of that capacity by determining in advance which decisions must be made and how.  The futurity at the heart of Whitman’s vision argues for a kind of democracy that is not a detailed blueprint for the final construction of human society but a framework of values by which successive societies should think about the process of making and remaking themselves.  It should also be said that Whitman’s organic democracy should not be thought of as an ideal vision of a unified American culture.  Whitman is often (and with some justification) interpreted in the communitarian mold, a poet who sought to reveal the essential connections that might bind together the diverse strands of American life.  While it is true that Whitman was moved by an appreciation for the interconnectedness of life, it would nevertheless be a profound error, I believe, to confuse the concept of an organic democracy with the notion of an organic American state.  As I see them, they are radically different, even antithetical, ideas.  For Whitman, our commonality was largely a physical and material matter—and interdependence on the physical level does not entail harmonious political cooperation under the umbrella of a shared cultural identity.  It does, however, stand as an argument for the proposition that social cooperation is not only possible, but deeply rewarding as well--that it is a reasonable kind of life to choose.  Just as the notion of democracy as a detailed policy manual is dangerous because it effectively usurps the people's prerogative to determine their collective fate, so too is the idea of an organic community dangerous.  When political consensus is mistakenly seen as a social norm rather than as the consequence of successful dialogue, then the heated, often rancorous, clash of values and voices so essential to democratic life suddenly becomes a threat to the social order and not the deliberative process by which a free society orders and reorders itself.

Whitman’s organic democracy does, nevertheless, place complex demands on the ways we attempt to fashion a meaningful associative life.  To cite just one example, consider its implications for the way we approach the problem of economic privation and the distribution of wealth.  Clearly, individual misery and mere subsistence living is a profound human tragedy that troubles the heart of all conscientious persons, whether or not they believe government has any obligation to remediate it.  But even if it were to be judged tolerable by the dubious logic of some other moral, economic, or political theory, organic democrats would still regard it as a virulent cancer.  Poverty's threat to democracy, however, is not only in the way it subjects the individual to an inhumane level of suffering, but also in the political inequality that economic inequality entails.   That is, democracy can only be sustained when political power is widely disseminated; but because wealth, like all other forms of power, can be converted into political currency, its concentration in the hands of a few effectively denies to the many the ability to assume an equal share of the duties--and rewards--of community governance.  Universal suffrage alone cannot render democratic a citizenry which divides into beggars and middle class benefactors.  Whitman understood this point as clearly as anyone.  In his vision, the belief that individual citizens are spiritually equal--and thus, politically equal--is the principle that animates American democracy.  But however central this ideal is to his vision of ideal America, he was under no illusions as to the political consequences of unequal wealth in real America.  In a brief note entitled "Who Gets the Plunder?," for example, he rails against protectionist trade policies because the "immense revenue of annual cash" they produce does not go "to the masses of laboring-men," but rather to "a few score select persons--who, by favors of Congress, State legislatures, the banks, and other special advantages, are forming a vulgar aristocracy."  Whitman, the visionary democrat, concludes by aligning himself with Swiss economist Jean Sismondi's critique of unregulated capitalism: "As Sismondi pointed out, the true prosperity of a nation is not in the great wealth of a special class, but is only to be really attain'd in having the bulk of the people provided with homes or land in fee simple.  This may not be the best show, but it is the best reality.2 "

Organic democracy, then, requires us to deepen the way we define the problem of poverty.  It also complicates the way we must imagine possible solutions.  In effect, it extends the traditional humanist impulse to respond to privation as a personal tragedy by insisting that such suffering is a symptom of a complex social pathology.  Privation, then, cannot be remediated simply by dissociating it from its full matrix of historical, cultural, socio-political, psychological and spiritual conditions and consequences.  To say this is merely to recognize that the minimal requirements for democratic life certainly include--but at the same time, far exceed--the minimal requirements for biological life; it is the human as agent, the whole "Democratic Being," who must be nurtured.  No one aspect essential to democratic life--even subsistence--may rightfully be purchased at the price of another.  Thus, paternalist and dehumanizing policies such as welfare are, however nobly intentioned, almost as odious as official indifference.  Just as it would be absurd for a society to offer the ballot as a substitute for food, so too would it be unthinkable to design a policy that assists the poor by crippling their capacity for engaged democratic living—that is, by dismantling the psychological equipment a citizen needs for self-government while simultaneously undermining the high value democratic culture places on self-reliance.

Whitman’s democracy is a pragmatic democracy—a system of interrelated and mutually modifying values, ideas, and imperatives to act.  Another way of putting this is to say that his vision of democracy functions as a grammar, a framework for social and cultural criticism.   Of course, electoral democracy has always been considered critical in that it requires a community to periodically render judgments on issues and people.  But organic democracy takes the critical aspect of democracy several steps further by defining it as not only a process, but also as the conditions necessary to preserve the vitality of that process--indeed, a ma­trix of criteria by which we evaluate our attempts to extend the meaning of human freedom.  For those whose notion of freedom continues to be shaped by the Jacksonian-era faith in laissez-faire, for those who believe that a complete absence of restraint is the purest and most virtuous form of freedom imaginable, such a critical matrix may seem more like an impingement on liberty than its enhancement.  And to be sure, when this laissez-faire sense of fre­edom is viewed not as a philosophy but as an impulse, a visceral predisposition to be wary of authority, it clearly functions as a safeguard against the tendency of power to preserve itself through institutionaliza­tion.  Indeed, this was Whitman's own starting point.  But Whitman knew--or rather, he came to understand--that a full appreciat­ion for the complexities of human life meant understanding that liberty can take many different and conflicting generic forms.  Identif­ying those forms and their various positions within a system of relations is Whitman's great achievement.  His challenge to us is to identify—and reconcile—the real, historically specific, content of those competing definitions of liberty.   To accept that challenge is to continuously restructure the terms of associative life in ways that secure ever-newer forms of freedom 

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