Friday, September 27, 2013

Book Review: "Liberal Democracy and Political Science" by James W. Ceaser

This was a book I was supposed to read (at least in part) for a graduate course on Constitutionalism. If the markings at the beginning of the book were any indication, I read at least the first 40 pages. I'll be generous with myself and assume that that was all that was assigned...

Since then, I've been meaning to get back to Dr. Ceaser's book. In part, this is because I am a fan of his writings over at Postmodern Conservative. In part this is also because I was impressed with the book and have been meaning to get back to it. In yet another part this is because I have a friend who is in pretty regular contact with him regarding freedom, politics, Christianity, and all that stuff. In yet a fourth part it is because I once had a brief email exchange with him, not that he would remember it, given how in-passing it was. (But how could I pass up a chance to show off all the famous people I know?)

Mostly, however, I took up this book now because I have started teaching political science at a four-year institution, and I thought it would be a good idea to start the year off by thinking carefully about exactly what my responsibility as a political scientist/teacher in a liberal democracy is in the first place. Since this is pretty much the only book I know that deals with the question, Liberal Democracy and Political Science seemed like a good place to start.

LDPS has eight chapters. The first two define and discuss the problems with the definition of "liberal democracy." The next four deal with the nature and methods of political science past and present, but with a heavy emphasis on Tocqueville and the political science of the second half of the 20th century (up through the end of the 1980s, since this book was published in 1991). The last two chapters discuss how political science and liberal democracy ought to interact. I won't go into too much detail in any one of these, but instead will try to hit the high points from each section.

Essentially, the point of this book is to explore one particular problem experienced by liberal democracy: that of maintaining the sort of political culture/mores necessary for its own continued existence. That is, liberal democracy--a state that is both liberal in its view of freedom and democratic in its functioning, as opposed to say an illiberal democracy, a liberal despotism, or an illiberal despotism--requires a certain sort of citizens in order to continue to function. Caeser writes:

[Tocqueville] shows us that what happens in one sphere (e.g., the religious, the artistic, or the philosophic) affects what happens in the others (the economic and the political). The formal or juridical boundaries, from this perspective, are not primary. Liberal democracy depends upon a certain political culture, which is a product not just of law, but of philosophic and religious views, of habits and sentiments. The creation of a supportive political culture is not, however, automatic; the interaction between the private and public spheres does not necessarily regulate itself in a way that supports liberal democracy.
The private sphere must, accordingly, be superintended by a self-conscious effort. The immediate response is probably to think of the state as the best agency to perform this task. But if this task is handled chiefly by the state, in particular by the central authority, it would add to centralized power and contribute further t conceiving of 'government as the sole, simple, providential, and creative force' in society. Even where the central state can be used effectively, its benefits must be carefully weighed and discounted against the long-term effect of people's overall reliance on government. The means of promoting liberal democracy cannot habitually be contrary to its ends and still succeed in promoting those ends. (36-37)
In other words, a free society requires a citizen shaped in a very specific way by culture, education, religion, art, and a number of other social factors. The problem is that if the government itself tries to ensure such a shaping, it has to become so large and powerful that the resulting society can no longer truly be considered a "liberal democracy." This is where, according to Tocqueville and Ceaser, political science steps in.

What government cannot do without destroying by its means the ends it aims at, political science can achieve. With that in mind, Ceaser gives an overview of the discipline, tracing its development from "traditional political science" through "the new normativism." I'll confess that I found portions of these chapters to be a bit, well, dull. I know that's the fault of political science and not Dr. Ceaser, but nonetheless one can only read about methods for so long before one starts to nod off a bit.

With that said, if nothing else these chapters were useful (if a bit dated--remember this was published 20 years ago) for showing me that I am in fact a dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist when it comes to political science. That is, I prefer studying political culture, ideal regimes, and real regimes to behaviorism, postbehaviorism, the new normativism, and so forth. Which isn't to say that these newer methods don't have their value, just that I find the traditional method both more interesting and more useful when studying and teaching about government.

The last two chapters of the book focus on how political science works in the context of the American regime, specifically in terms of the analysis of Tocqueville and our contemporary issues. Parts of this were necessarily dated, since our "contemporary issues" have changed since the early 90s--though of course Tocqueville remains the same. I suspect that the most useful aspects of this section have to do with 1) Ceaser's analysis of Tocqueville and exposition of his thought; and 2) the model Ceaser provides of how political science ought to support and criticized liberal democracy. By looking at HOW he does it, rather than WHAT he says the 20-year gap becomes that much less relevant.

Overall, this was an excellent and useful read. It will certainly affect how I approach the discipline in the future, and will even affect some of what I do in my American government courses. Recommended to those interested in thinking about teaching government and American politics, and those interested in Tocqueville.

End note: Apparently, the price of this book has gone up significantly since I bought it for class sometime in 2006/07. This book is certainly worth the $15 I paid for it, probably worth the $25 now being asked if and only if (as the mathematicians say) you're in the discipline, and not worth the $40 that I've seen the price peak at. So do with that information what you will.


  1. you do know the technology exists to fabricate dreams and visions.

  2. What the holy crap does that have to do with anything?