An Attack on Democracy

Overcoming the Dogmas of  Aggressive Militarism,  Market Fundamentalism, and Escalating Authoritarianism that Transformed the United States into an Antidemocratic Force.  Throughout history individuals have discussed the term democracy, which has its origins in ancient Greece, and is derived from the words demos and kratos.  The literal definition of this term is “rule by the people.”   However, this definition is ambiguous and has allowed scholars to interpret it in a variety of ways.   In order to assess the threats to democracy, we must understand what the term actually means.

Today, the term democracy has many definitions, which, in turn, cloud the fight for true democracy.   This situation is due to the fact that scholars have not been able to agree on how to define the term.   Some believe that certain definitions might themselves be a threat to democracy (Touraine, 1994/1997).   The problem with this development, however, is that it makes democracy subjective and open to manipulation and abuse, enabling those in power to use the term to their benefit.   Others have used different approaches to defining democracy, including looking at characteristics of countries that are typically called democracies (Lijphart, 1984).   The problem with this definitional fallacy is that it would not be logical to define the term by looking at countries considered democracies when we have no criteria for defining or measuring democracy (Beetham, 1994).   Even a study of ancient Greece illustrates that not all people were able to rule.   Out of 250,000 individuals who lived in ancient Greece, approximately 30,000 were allowed to be citizens, as women, slaves, and metics were not allowed to be citizens.   Out of those who were citizens, only approximately 5,000 attended the meetings where issues were discussed and decisions were made (Cartledge, 2001).   This, by any definition, is not rule by the people.

A more accurate approach might be to define democracy based on a number of basic principles that are embodied in the idea of rule by the people (Saward, 1994).   Using this approach, Beetham (1992) defines two basic principles.   The first principle is popular control, which assumes that people should have a say on the issues that affect them.   The second principle is political equality, which assumes that all people have an equal ability and right to have a say on the various issues that affect them and to have their opinions taken into account when the decisions are made (Beetham).

Taking the above as a baseline, the United States has been violating these basic principles since its founding.   The second sentence of the Declaration of Independence, a document based on principles of democracy, states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”   In reality, millions of women, slaves, and Native Americans were not considered to be equal and could not participate in the democratic process (U.S. Census Bureau, n.d.).   These antidemocratic practices were not limited to the early years of the United States.   In fact, a review of the literature shows a long history of scholars discussing antidemocratic trends in the United States, especially in the 20th century (Cannon, 1922/1969; Cram, 1936/1969; Ireland, 1918/1969; Ivie, 1964/1969; Skinner, 1956/1969; Smith 1942/1969).   This fact is troubling because it illustrates the crisis that democracy finds itself at in the United States.

Cornel West, a professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, wrote Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism (2004), which examines the declining democratic liveliness and traditions in the United States.   In the book, West argues that the biggest threats to democracy in the United States are three dominant antidemocratic dogmas of free market fundamentalism, aggressive militarism, and escalating authoritarianism.   West also identifies other factors that have led to a decline of democratic energies and traditions in the United States.   Specifically, he discusses the growth of three forms of political nihilisms, which are evangelical nihilism, paternalistic nihilism, and sentimental nihilism.   West then discusses three forces that can renew the democratic spirit of the United States, which are Socratic commitment to questioning, prophetic commitment to justice, and the tragicomic commitment to hope.

The purpose of this paper is to review West’s (2004) book, Democracy Matters, within the context of the ongoing debate over the United States and democracy.   This review includes an analysis of the purpose and primary arguments that West presents in his book, and a discussion of the implications and limitations of the book.

Purpose and Arguments

West’s purpose for writing Democracy Matters was to make the reader aware of the declining levels of democracy in the United States and the major factors that have contributed to the decline.   In an interview with Amy Goodwin (2004), West explains that the reason he wrote the book was due to the “pervasive sleepwalking that’s now taking place in this country,” and he hopes that the result is a “democratic awakening.”  

West wants the reader to understand that democracy is more then just the act of voting and that it is something that has to be fought for in order for it to be preserved.   Although he wants the reader to put on their democratic armor and to fight for democracy, he is also honest with the reader.   West understands that the fight may not be won; but as he indicates in Democracy Matters, if the fight is lost, the fighters will be remembered as those who “went down swinging like Ella Fitzgerald and Muhammad Ali–with style, grace, and a smile that signifies that the seeds of democracy matters will flower and flourish somewhere and somehow and remember our gallant efforts” (p. 218).

West argues that there are different forms of dogmas and nihilisms currently present in the United States that are antidemocratic.   He specifically focuses on what he feels are three of the dominant antidemocratic dogmas of free market fundamentalism, aggressive militarism, and escalating authoritarianism.   He then discusses the growth of evangelical nihilism, paternalistic nihilism, and sentimental nihilism, which have all led to declining democratic energies.   West concludes by providing the reader with hope by discussing the Socratic commitment to questioning, the prophetic commitment to justice, and the tragicomic commitment to hope, which are all weapons for those wishing to fight for democracy.   The three combined create a “democratic armor” (p. 217).   The following sections provide a discussion of West’s primary arguments relating to the three antidemocratic dogmas, the growth of the three forms of nihilisms, and the three forces that can revive the democratic tradition and spirit in the United States.

Three Antidemocratic Dogmas

Cornel West believes that numerous factors threaten the democratic experiment in the United States.   He contends that the major threats are three antidemocratic dogmas that have existed and have grown to dominate the American empire.   The antidemocratic dogmas of free market fundamentalism, aggressive militarism, and escalating authoritarianism are at the center of West’s argument that democracy in the United States is at a crossroads.   West believes that the three antidemocratic dogmas did not come to rise naturally in the United States; instead, they were endorsed and furthered by different influential powers.

Free market fundamentalism.   Cornel West argues that the first of the three antidemocratic dogmas is free market fundamentalism.   At the core of its belief is the idea that a market that is completely unrestricted is what should be desired and achieved in the United States.   West contends that the rise of this belief has resulted in a “callous corporate-dominated political economy” (p. 3), where instead of valuing and allowing democratic questioning of the market and the different market players, those with the most political influence are consistently given the ability to survive no matter their questionable practices.   He further observes that this dogma creates resentment between the different classes because of the large differences in wealth distribution.   He believes that free market fundamentalism has led to individuals being apathetic to the democratic process, since the only ones who are rewarded are “false prophets” (p. 4).   Ultimately, West argues that free market fundamentalism has led to a shift in attention “from schools to prisons, from workers’ conditions to profit margins, from health clinics to high-tech facial surgeries, from civic associations to pornographic Internet sites, and from children’s care to strip clubs” (pp. 4-5).

West is not the only scholar who believes that free market fundamentalism is a threat to democracy.   Other scholars have also expressed that free market fundamentalism, which is also referred to as neoliberalism, is a major factor in the declining democratic energies in the United States and other countries (Barber, 2000; Macleod, 2006; Miller, 2002; Minati, 2004; Reich, 2007; Xing, 2001).   In discussing free markets as an antidemocratic trend, Reich argues that free markets are diminishing the power held by the people because the common good takes a back seat to the bottom line.   Reich further asserts that due to the need to be able to compete on both the national and global levels, corporations have spent a significant amount of money on lobbying efforts and sometimes even bribes and kickbacks, ultimately looking to have laws in their favor to allow for an advantage over competitors.   This race for political influence, according to Reich, has left the needs of the average citizen out of the process.   Macleod contends that the very basic principles that support democracy would require the market to be arranged in ways that are contradictory to the view of neoliberals.   Xing concludes that the free market has resulted in the rise of economic inequality among the classes in the United States.   Xing further believes that democracy is defined and has been weakened by the free market, “leaving political outcomes to be bought and sold” (p. 92).

In contrast, Mandelbaum (2007) believes that the establishment of free markets is the best way to foster democracy.   He argues that the promotion of free markets is an indirect promotion of democracy, even if immediate results are not observed.   He further asserts that after approximately a generation, the worth of free markets has led to the establishment of democracies in countries of Asia, southern Europe, and most of Latin America.   However, Macleod (2006) cautions readers that democracy can be interpreted in a variety of ways allowing for individuals to state that free markets promote democracy.   He conveys that free markets promote democracy only when democracy is defined using the “least demanding–narrowly procedural–democratic ideals” (p. 157).

Aggressive militarism.   West believes that aggressive militarism is another existing antidemocratic dogma.   According to West (2004), this dogma affects the actions of the United States internationally and domestically.   The consequences of this dogma have been changes in foreign policy resulting in preemptive and unilateral strikes, the repudiation of the United Nations and its rules, and the death of thousands of U.S. soldiers and hundreds of thousands of other innocent individuals caught in the way of this regime.   Domestically, according to West, this dogma has resulted in the expansion of powers for the police, the prison-industrial complex, and men.   This expansion of power has promoted a belief of “crime as a monstrous enemy to crush … rather than as an ugly behavior to change” (p. 6).   West argues that the decision of what or who is moral and right is not a democratic one, made by individuals and the international community; instead, it is a decision made by the one who has the “most and biggest weapons” (p. 5).

The beliefs of many scholars coincide with the argument by West that aggressive militarism is an antidemocratic dogma (Cassidy, 1990; Cuomo, 2004; Naím, 2004; Perry, 2006; Sullivan, 2007; Sundhaussen, 1998; Wrona, 2006).   Saundhaussen contends that the military is by its very definition antidemocratic.   He puts forward that the essence of democracy is based on individual freedom, while the military is based on strict discipline and the application of rigorous hierarchy; thus, making the two incompatible.   While the United States has used aggressive militarism as a tool in an attempt to bring democracy to the Arab and Muslim states, Sullivan asserts that evidence suggests that the democratization of the Arab and Muslim states cannot occur through military interactions with the United States.   In fact according to him, the only way to democratize the Arab and Muslim states is through economic, cultural, and personal interactions with the United States.   The North American Congress on Latin America (1998) finds that the quest for aggressive military in the United States has led to military-style intervention on crimes domestically.   In addition, the report notes that any person or group found to be rebellious to the neoliberal mission, including immigrant and welfare recipients, has been stereotyped as internal enemies worthy of military-style intervention.

Escalating authoritarianism. The final major antidemocratic dogma presented by West is the dogma of escalating authoritarianism.   He argues that fear of outsiders and each other has led to the rise of this dogma, ultimately resulting in citizens allowing politicians and judges to pass and sustain the Patriot Act, which limited the civil liberties of citizens.   The dogma of escalating authoritarianism, West further postulates, has also led to a diminishing level of the dialogue in the United States.   A shift in the media to a profit-based-news has resulted in the focus being shifted away from what is important for citizens to know and, from the questioning of the politicians or authorities, to a focus on sound bites and entertainment news.   In addition, West maintains that a similar depression of dialogue has occurred in schools and institutions of higher education.   Overall, this silencing of individuals has resulted, according to West, in the “classic triumph of authoritarianism over the kind of questioning, compassion, and hope requisite for any democratic experiment” (p. 7).

West’s belief that escalating authoritarianism is weakening the democratic energies within the United States has been noted by other scholars (Agozino, 2003; Hilsum, 2007; Joynt & Poe, 2004; Melby, 2006; Phelan, 1969).   Even in the late 1960s, Phelan examined the antidemocratic trends in the United States due to increasing authoritarianism.   He argues that the election of President Nixon and his plans for the 1972 reelection campaign were a movement toward authoritarianism and a movement away from traditional constitutional democracy that was present in the United States.   Hilsum maintains that terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism create less of a threat to democracy than do administrations that are authoritarian.   Furthermore, Zakaria (2007) argues that although President George W. Bush has attached his name to democracy more than any other president in the United States, his authoritarian and “arrogant” views and approaches have turned most of the world off from the idea of achieving democracy.   Ultimately, Zakaria believes that evidence suggests that in 2006, there was a worldwide setback to democracy.   Finally, Melby argues that authoritarianism is antidemocratic because it requires the masses, because they are seen as inept and unable to govern themselves and decide what their values and beliefs are, to be subjugated to the power of the few who are selected.   This lack of confidence in the abilities of the demos, according to Melby, is a direct contradiction to the prescriptions of democracy.

Some scholars are critical of West’s belief that escalating authoritarianism is occurring in the United States and that it is an antidemocratic dogma.   In fact, some believe that the fight for diversity and political correctness is actually an authoritarian form of dialogue suppression, which in turn is a threat to democracy.   Fonte (1995) argues that when leaders in colleges and universities speak of oppression, patriarchy, institutional racism, and marginalization, they are removing the legitimacy of democracy.   However, West cautions against such narrowly scrutinized views of authoritarianism.   He believes that the idea of political correctness is not the “major culprit” (p. 7).   Instead, West believes that individuals need to examine all authoritarian forces to have a broader understanding of this dogma.

Antidemocratic Political Nihilisms

Along with the three antidemocratic dogmas, West discusses three forms of nihilisms that are becoming increasingly present and forceful in the United States.   According to West, the evangelical, paternalistic, and sentimental forms of nihilism are found across party lines and are additional threats to democratic energies domestically and abroad.  

West compares an evangelical nihilist to Thrasymachus from Plato’s Republic, who believes that “might makes right” (p. 30).   West explains that evangelical nihilists are militant, power hungry, and accept nonconforming opinions.   These individuals, like those within the Bush administration, actually believe that power determines what is right; because if they were not right, they would not be able to become so powerful.  

Paternalistic nihilists, according to West, could be compared to the Grand Inquisitor from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, who believes that a corrupt system is the best that one can hope for, and that individuals must work within it and hope for the best.   These individuals, like elites within the Democratic Party, join a corrupt system, strive for more power, and lie to the public, with the ultimate belief that they are, at least, working for some interests of the people.  

According to West, political nihilism has moved past the politics of the two-party system in the United States, which provides one more choice than communist Russia to the media.   This development has brought about sentimental nihilism, resulting in the news organizations to move from a political watchdog role to providing entertainment news.   A sentimental nihilist, according to West, could be best compared to Mr. and Mrs. Baldwin from Tony Morrison’s Beloved.   The sentimental nihilists, those who provide this type of news, go around the truth or even lie to provide market-driven emotional stories that target those whom advertisers seek: middle- and upper-class white Americans.  

Some scholars concur with West that political nihilism is on the rise in the United States and that these nihilisms are antidemocratic (Bufacchi, 2001; Novak, 1994).   A number of scholars have presented arguments that evangelical nihilism is on the rise and that it is affecting the democratic energies of the United States (Bhatia, 2007; Blitz, 2003; George, 2005; Gilbert, 1992; Postel, 2003; Rockmore, 2006; Swazo, 2004; Tucker & Hendrickson, 2004; Wells, 1995).   George notes that the Bush administration and neoconservative elites actually believe that they have both the right and the obligation to lie to the American public so that they will remain in power and continue to make what they feel are the right decisions for the country.   George further explains that these nihilists use maximum force in the face of anything that threatens their opinion.   Rockmore believes that the philosophy driving the Bush administration is that the United States can do as it pleases, without the approval of other countries, because it is the only remaining superpower in the world, which is a justification in itself.   Rockmore states that the foreign policy of President Bill Clinton was to be cooperative whenever possible and go-it-alone when no other choice exists.   On the other hand, according to Rockmore, the policy of George Bush is go-it-alone whenever possible and cooperative when no other choice exists. Finally, according to Gilbert, the might-makes-right philosophy morally separates national interests from democracy and the wellbeing of individuals.

Scholars have also presented evidence, concurring with West’s beliefs, which suggest the rise and antidemocratic effects of paternalistic nihilism (Brown, 2003; Goodin, 1993; Riemer, 1957; Smiley, 1989).   Brown argues that individuals in the Democratic Party, in an attempt to bring back the support of the American public, have begun working within the system instead of trying to change the system.   Brown continues by stating that elites within the party, such as Richard Gephardt and John Kerry, are positioning themselves as individuals who want to preserve current policies, instead of revolutionizing them.   These Democratic elites now argue that those partisans in the Republican Party are outside the norm because they are trying to revolutionize the current system.   These actions, according to Brown, have normalized the neoconservative rhetoric that anything liberal or left is outside the mainstream, and should be feared.   Brown concludes that the willingness to work within the parameters created by neoconservatives leads to the end of democracy.  

Many scholars have focused their attention on antidemocratic issues within the media resulting in a focus on market-driven entertainment news versus performing their social duty of being a political watchdog, a shift that West coined as sentimental nihilism (Berry & Hume, 2005; Calhoun, 2007; Keane, 1992; McChesney, 2004; Prior, 2005; Sparks, 2007).   Calhoun argues that aggressive militarism in the United States has had antidemocratic effects due to assistance of this new form of corporate profit-driven media.   Prior argues that changes in the media have led to less political participation from those individuals who choose not to search for the information necessary to make informed choices, and instead turn to entertainment news.   Finally, McChesney asserts that the corporate media, which is supported and continued through policies in the United States, has caused numerous problems threatening a healthy democracy in the United States.

Traditions that Fuel Democratic Energies

West presents in his work the chilly state of democracy in the United States; however, he does offer perspective on how the country’s democratic energies can be restored.   West envisions a democratic armor that is comprised of three traditions of a Socratic commitment to questioning, a prophetic commitment to justice, and a tragicomic commitment to hope.   When combined, West argues that these three traditions provide the best fighting chance against those who seek to diminish the democratic energies of the United States.  

According to West, the Socratic commitment to questioning is a Greek innovation that holds at its core the questioning of the self, other, and authority, along with questioning of values, opinions, beliefs, and actions of all three.   Socratic commitment to questioning manifests itself in brave and bold dialogue, and is needed to combat the lies of elites and those who hold power.   The Jewish prophetic commitment to justice, according to West, is needed to combat nihilism toward the effects of the imperialistic actions of the United States.   Prophetic commitment to justice is summarized by a stance against oppression, a highlighting of wrongdoings, and condemnation of imperialistic and xenophobic actions.   The final element of the armor, the tragicomic commitment to hope, according to West, is needed to fight to blind acceptance of the status quo and the mainstream.   The tragicomic commitment to hope, which is seen in the Black creation of the blues and different literary works, holds at its core a “righteous indignation with a smile and deep inner pain without bitterness or revenge” (p. 19).  

West is not alone in his view that the traditions of the Socratic commitment to questioning, the prophetic commitment to justice, and the tragicomic commitment to hope can revive democratic energies and traditions in the United States.   Dyson (2005) argues that without Socratic inquiry, there can be “little basis for informed truth telling” (p. 7) by the elites and authority.   Johnson (1990) contends that individuals who seek justice, respect for human rights, ethics, morality, virtue, and freedom create an environment in which a democratic political community can exist.   Similar to values of the prophetic commitment to justice, Barber (2001) asserts that values of liberty, equality, and social justice are needed in a democracy.   Finally, similar to West’s view on the tragicomic commitment to hope, Daniels (1985) notes that different interpretation of the tragicomic commitment to hope, like the blues music and experience, provide strength to individuals to prevail over disenchantment.   Daniels adds that experiences of the oppressed in America, like those felt by Blacks, usually begin with optimistic expectations and conclude with disappointments.   Finally, Daniels explains that hope provides the ability to understand and overcome the experiences through the arrival of a solution.


In his discussion of the three antidemocratic dogmas and three rising political nihilisms, West mentions the implications of not taking any action while we are at the current crossroads.   West believes that the divide in the United States, due to the split on many important issues, has left individuals feeling as if they lived in two different countries.   He also doubts that a new president will provide the necessary change needed to fill emptiness felt by the American people due to their democratic desires.   In addition, West observes that the antidemocratic dogmas and rising political nihilisms have resulted in a need to forge new Jewish and Islamic democratic identities, a crisis in the identities of Christians in America, and a need to engage with youth culture, among many other consequences.

According to West, the only way to overcome the consequences of the current state of democracy in the United States is through a fight for democracy, using as our protection a democratic armor consisting of a Socratic commitment to questioning, a prophetic commitment to justice, and a tragicomic commitment to hope.   Without this fight, democracy, according to West, will be reduced to simply a right to vote and elect public officials.   Furthermore, West argues that if nothing is done, the country will ultimately move toward imperialism.   Zakaria (2007) finds that Bush has attached his name to the fight for democracy more than any other president.   However, West notes that the Bush administration has been one of the reasons why the country’s democratic energies are at their current low levels.   According to West, current imperialist elites are false prophets who are lying to the public to make them believe that they are defenders of democracy; these lies will ultimately allow them to win this war if nothing is done.


West provides an informative discussion on democracy matters in the United States.   However, Democracy Matters does suffer from a number of limitations.   First, West does not provide the definition or characteristics of the democracy he conceptualizes.   This lack of clarification of what his conceptualization is ultimately leaves little ability for fighters of democracy to measure their success when applying the three traditions of Socratic commitment to questioning, prophetic commitment to justice, and tragicomic commitment to hope.   Scholars note a need to frame a discussion of democracy through clearly defined conceptualizations and measurement tools (Munck & Verkuilen, 2002).

Another limitation of West’s book is that West provides a framework of his argument that leads readers to imagine that he believes that there was once a democracy in the United States and that “true” democracy can be achieved.   Blaug and Schwarzmantel (2001) stated that “democracy is everywhere praised, yet nowhere achieved” (p. 1).   However, West seems to believe that there once was a democracy, and he offers no real discussion of antidemocratic practices in the history of the United States.  

A third limitation of West’s Democracy Matters is that it provides no discussion on whether democracy is the best political system, and it fails to examine the possible alternatives.   In addition, West provides no discussion of the negative consequences of democracy.   Mann (1999) explains that democracy can be linked to genocide.   He asserts that democracy creates a we the people attitude where those who disagree with the majority are considered the others or the minority.   The minority or the others in democracies have been subjected to genocide in different countries, and Mann argues that history could and has repeated itself.

A final limitation of West’s arguments in Democracy Matters is his lack of focus on education.   He provides no discussion on how formal education in the United States has allowed for the rise of the three antidemocratic dogmas and the three rising political nihilisms, and how education can also be a double-edged sword used to combat antidemocratic dogmas and rising political nihilisms.   Meier (2006) argues that education in the United States does not teach students about democracy and in fact makes most students apathetic toward democratic issues, ultimately undermining democracy.   Scholars, however, have found that changes in the education system and pedagogy, like a focus on service learning, can ultimately be a strong weapon for the fight against antidemocratic dogmas and rising political nihilisms (Battistoni, 1997; Mendel-Reyes, 1998).


Cornel West’s Democracy Matters is a well-presented examination of the declining democratic liveliness and traditions in the United States.   His arguments of the increasingly present three antidemocratic dogmas and the rise of three forms of political nihilisms are well supported by other scholars.   Furthermore, his proposition of the three commitments that could reignite the democratic energies in the United States and provide armor for the fight against false prophets and imperialist elites who have benefited from the antidemocratic dogmas and political nihilisms provide hope for his readers and are also well established by history and other scholars.   Overall, the reader is left with an understanding that we are at a crossroads, and that action is needed as the battle has already started.

The state of democracy has real implications for individuals domestically and abroad.   West properly explains how the rise of imperialism has had real consequences for Arab and Muslim states, Israel, Christians in America, and youth in America, among many other groups and individuals.   Imperialist elites have had recent victories, but West hopes that his book will awaken the sleepwalkers and drive them to the battleground.

Although Democracy Matters suffers from limitations, West still provides important information and offers a great piece of literature for individuals of all ages.   He calls for individuals to devote themselves to the duty and service of fighting for democracy.   He requests individuals to stop participating in a democracy of cynicism and start participating in democracy of hope.   Ultimately, those who read the book will feel the same passion, energy, urgency, and hope that West does and will seek to question authority, fight for justice, and have hope in the face of hardship, difficulty, and uncertainty resulting in a day when democratic energies in the United States will once again be alive and well.


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