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On Hope, Reverence and Democratic Possibility



Authors as Published

The April issue of Commonweal features an essay by Harvard University history professor James T. Kloppenberg entitled, “Coming Apart? The Future of Democracy in America.”[1] His layered, often subtle and thoughtful argument captures many of the trends that have brought widespread anger, grievance and demagoguery to U.S. politics, and that have raised the central question for many of whether our polity can survive. Kloppenberg’s essay ultimately offers the following principal contentions:

  • U.S. politics is now suffering from an almost complete cultural abdication to the tenets of neoliberal ideology, which posits that markets and market elites are best positioned to rule. The result to date and for the several decades the construct has been regnant has been stagnant real wage growth for those without advanced education, declining mobility for a broad swathe of the nation’s population and growing income and wealth for corporate and finance executives. These trends have hit minorities especially hard. In short, the nation is now deeply unequal and growing more so across almost any measure one might employ, including economic, social and political dimensions.
  • Both major political parties have aided and abetted this ideological and economic elite cultural-take over, with the GOP launching it and institutionalizing it under the banners of “state’s rights” and “law and order,” as a sub-rosa means of capturing votes from those unhappy with extending Blacks full civil rights especially, under Goldwater and Nixon, and as a demonizing crusade against governance per se, under Ronald Reagan and thereafter. This positioning occurred as the nation’s political parties realigned over race and civil rights in the 1960s and 1970s and a rich bloc of very rich corporate actors (Adolph Coors and the Koch brothers, among others) within the GOP doggedly sought to roll back the New Deal. Racial animus and angst and neoliberal ideology—emphasizing rugged individualism— soon became that group’s favored cudgels for the purpose. More deeply, as Kloppenberg notes, “It is a fantasy to think these [legal initiatives] have succeeded in eradicating the assumptions that undergird practices of white supremacy.”[2]
  • Understanding the partisan realignment that has occurred around race is vital to understanding today’s politics as “No Democratic presidential candidate since [Hubert] Humphrey has won a majority of white voters.”[3]  That fact “illuminates a crucial dynamic: for many white Americans, liberty means opposing all challenges to white supremacy.”[4]
  • Withal, this fact has meant that as women and many minority citizens have continued to struggle for equality and civil rights in the ensuing decades, they have increasingly encountered the reality that, “many white men now hold an equally firm conviction that it is they who are now disrespected, disgraced, invisible, and subordinated. … Many white men now insist that they have been robbed of their freedom.”[5] That freedom appears, that is, to be tied to racial identity and standing and racial anxiety, if not always obvious animus.

    In addition to charting these trends as he cites and samples the theses of recent works on our democratic moment, Kloppenberg offers three other important arguments that I believe highlight a deeper and disturbing dynamic that the nation must address successfully if it is to overcome the present sustained assault on its democratic comity. First, Kloppenberg notes that the growing gap between those who have attained advanced education and often acquired a cosmopolitan worldview in so doing, and who now disproportionately support the Democratic Party, are perceived by those “left behind,” that is, not enjoying those advantages for whatever reasons (and apparently by definition), as condescending to them. Kloppenberg asserts that this has occurred even as Democrats have offered too little economic succor to those they supposedly demean. Since Republicans have implacably opposed virtually all efforts to provide such aid, they should be candidates for derision too, but are not, at least among their supporters, who have believed claims that “other” cultural elites are to blame.  Indeed, as Kloppenberg observes, the GOP has made this stance and its accompanying sense of grievance and racial anxiety a central polarizing political issue by which to mobilize voters for its otherwise market elite-oriented neoliberal agenda:           

Republicans tell voters that cultural elites are to blame for their situation; Democrats give them little reason to disagree … if one party loudly endorses American traditions of patriotism, self-reliance, Evangelical Christianity and white male supremacy while the other party makes fun of all that [again, as GOP supporters see matters], then the choice for many voters will be clear.[6]

            Second, and as a result, Kloppenberg contends, as media forms have shifted and splintered in the internet age—a phenomenon that has occurred at roughly the same time as these other trends have been afoot and, indeed, hastened it—this conjoining has permitted space for wholesale GOP demagoguery in which the “primary criterion of truth is what those on my side believe, partisanship becomes almost epistemological. … Trump’s lies were central to his presidency, delighting his loyalists while outraging everyone else.”[7] Overall, this leaves a landscape in which so-called cultural elites are blamed for rising social, income and wealth inequality by a party (Republicans) whose officials are also graduates of the nation’s elite universities and who have embraced a “mendacious serial swindler” who has lied to his followers about everything, has embraced overt racism, anti-Semitism and misogyny and has incited the violent desecration of our nation’s Capitol, and then told his followers that those who had killed and maimed in the name of his lies were simply innocents wronged by others.[8]

    All of this is well known, and one may differ with his emphases, as I certainly do at points, but Kloppenberg presents these trends trenchantly. Ultimately, he concludes that neoliberalism has hollowed out public services for decades and “enriched slivers of the private [market] sector” at the expense of much of the middle and working class, a share of whom are now being mobilized by the GOP on the basis of racial, social and economic angst and ever-more militant lies.[9] That fact, he contends, makes John Dewey’s argument that democracy cannot survive without broad acceptance of two “nonnegotiable rules” especially salient: “people cannot have their own facts, and no citizens can be denied equal standing.”[10]  And yet, as I write, Republican leaders are attacking the very idea of facts and truth and the rights and standing of multiple groups in our society.

    In short, the party and its leaders are today violating both of Dewey’s cardinal tenets for the preservation of democratic norms and values. Many GOP leaders are going much further by labeling many Americans as enemies and offering, alongside media allies, a fantastical array of conspiracy claims and lies to justify such claims. In this, they are following an age-old script in which some individuals or groups are mobilized at the expense of the rights of others to secure or obtain power and wealth. In so doing, they are routinely dehumanizing and demeaning those selected others. It is this phenomenon to which I wish to point, as Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis and other GOP leaders rally voters to abstractly derived hate.

    I am often reminded as I read such rhetoric of the depths of depravity to which such efforts have led historically. The great Italian writer and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi wrote searingly in If This is a Man of a moment during which he was interviewed potentially to serve in the camp’s chemical commando, because of his scientific background in that field. He recounted that the Nazi official with whom he met had been so conditioned to loathe and hate Jews as barely even to countenance his existence:

From that day I have thought about Doctor Pannwitz many times and in many ways. I have asked myself how he really functioned as a man … because the look [when he looked up at Levi from his ‘well organized’ desk] was not one between two men; and if I had known how completely to explain the nature of that look, which came as if across the glass window of an aquarium between two beings who live in different worlds, I would also have explained the essence of the great insanity of the third Germany.[11]

    That is, Levi would have been able to explain how Germany’s majority became so mesmerized by scapegoating hate and imagined grievance against those targets, that they could countenance the creation of an assemblage of extermination camps and view those they killed by the millions in those carefully designed manifestations of Hell as something other than human beings innately deserving of respect and dignity. 

    In fact, the challenge of what is now occurring in our polity, is not only the enervation of a willingness to accept ambiguity, to negotiate in good faith with those possessing other perspectives and to accept a shared reality as well as to sacrifice in the name of a good beyond self as Kloppenberg highlights. Nor is that test simply comprised of ongoing efforts to dehumanize and other entire groups. It is instead, and more deeply, a wholesale attack on reverence in our society, which, as Paul Woodruff has observed,

… begins in a deep understanding of human limitations: from this grows the capacity to be in awe of whatever we believe lies outside our control—God, truth, justice, nature, even death. The capacity for awe, as it grows brings with it the capacity for respecting fellow human beings flaws and all.[12]

    Woodruff has also argued that a facility for reverence can avoid what the ancient Greeks and Chinese alike identified as Hubris, an arrogance and shamelessness “unable to feel respect for people it sees as lower than itself—ordinary people, prisoners, children.”[13] Dr. Pannwitz epitomized such “Power without reverence [which] is aflame with arrogance … blind to the general good and deaf to advice from people who are powerless.”[14] A lack of reverence leads ultimately to pitiless disregard and to dehumanization and in the United States, as Kloppenberg notes, that force has been unleashed in a culture that contains many citizens who have long been willing to believe some are “less than” by definition. This is to say that callous disrespect for humanity can lead not only to democratic degradation, but also, as the Holocaust has shown, to much worse. Ultimately, we must have a society of citizens with “well developed capacity to have the feelings of awe, respect, and shame when these are the right feelings to have.”[15] Notably, this virtue, like all others, can be acculturated, but it may also be interdicted and truncated or even lost by those willing to serve as, or to follow, hubris-filled leaders.

    None of this should lead to despair or anomie. Instead, as Kloppenberg observes, citing a new book by Peniel Joseph, it suggests that Americans can and must rebuild the sinews that bind them together and in so doing reclaim their rightful claim to shared self-governance. Joseph has also noted that doing so will require that our citizenry writ large choose “love over fear, community building over anxiety and equity over racial privilege.”[16] Quoting Joseph once more, Kloppenberg concludes, “We have a grave political and moral choice to make. I choose hope.”[17] Just so.


[1] Kloppenberg, James T. “Coming Apart, The Future of Democracy in America,” Commonweal, April 2023, 16-27;, Accessed April 16, 2023. 

[2] Kloppenberg, “Coming Apart,” 18.

[3] Kloppenberg, “Coming Apart,” 20.

[4] Kloppenberg, “Coming Apart,” 20.

[5] Kloppenberg, “Coming Apart,” 16.

[6] Kloppenberg, “Coming Apart,” 23.

[7] Kloppenberg, “Coming Apart,” 24.

[8] Kloppenberg, “Coming Apart,” 22.

[9] Kloppenberg, “Coming Apart,” 22.

[10] Kloppenberg, “Coming Apart,” 27.

[11] Levi, Primo. If This is a Man, The Truce, London: Little Brown Book Group, 1987, 118.

[12] Woodruff, Paul. Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue (Second Edition), New York: Oxford University Press, 2014, 1.

[13] Woodruff, Reverence, 2.

[14] Woodruff, Reverence, 2.

[15] Woodruff, Reverence, 6.

[16] Kloppenberg, “Coming Apart,” 27. See also Joseph, Peniel. The Third Reconstruction: America’s Struggle for Racial Justice in the Twenty-First Century, New York: Basic Books, 2023.

[17] Kloppenberg, “Coming Apart,” 27, and Joseph, The Third Reconstruction

Publication Date

April 17, 2023