OPINIONSrnTrouble in the Cityrnby Kenneth R. Craycraft, Jr.rn”In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. Werncastrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”rn—C.S. LewisrnDemocracy on Trialrnby Jean Bethke ElshtainrnNew York: Basic Books;rn153 pp., $20.00rnRecently named Laura SpelmanrnRockefeller Professor of Social andrnPolitical Ethics at the University ofrnChicago, Jean Bethke Elshtain has arnkeen eye that sees through the haze ofrnfashionable ideologies. In many waysrnDemocracy on Trial, a series of speechesrndelivered in 1993, is a testament to herrnclarity and acuity. Elshtain’s thesis is notrnnew—that democracy is, at best, a tentativernand cautious political endeavor—rnbut she has identified some of the morernpernicious maladies that infect America’srndemocratic experiment. Among thernmore important diagnoses are the tendencyrnof Americans to confuse wantsrnwith rights, the problem of political “totalism,”rnin which every human relationshiprnis reduced to politics, and grouprnenvy and resentment as our chief politicalrnparadigm. When these (and other)rnproblems are manifest at once, Elshtainrnthinks, the temptation to despair overrnthe lost possibility of civil society is arnpowerful one.rnAlexis de Tocqueville’s apprehensionrnthat America was inclined toward subversivernindividualism is well justified. AsrnElshtain explains, Tocqueville’s fear wasrnthat “the individualism of an acquisitiverncommercial republic would engenderrnnew forms of social and political domination.”rnThe individualist ethos at thernheart of American democracy tends to-rnKenneth R. Craycraft, ]r., is chairman ofrnthe theology department at St. Mary’srnUniversity in San Antonio, Texas.rnward the removal of those natural socialrnwebs which hold communities intact,rnleaving individuals without the thicklyrnembodied contexts necessary for authenticrnmoral life. “Into this power vacuum,”rnElshtain observes, “will likely move arntop-heavy, ever more centralized state.rnOr we will hunker down in defensivern’lifestyle enclaves,’ forbidding othersrnentry.”rnThe second reaction destroys therndefining contexts that make authenticrnfreedom possible, removing the obligationrnto preserve and protect the freedomrnof the other. Absent these obligations,rnmodern democratic man tends to translaternhis wants and desires into rights andrnentitlements, meaning claims againstrnother isolated rights-bearers. Withoutrnan abiding notion that individual freedomrnmust be tempered and delimited byrnthe demands of social interaction, everyrnhuman whim becomes a divine right.rnThis is especially (though not uniquely)rnseen on the political left, which sees “anyrnrestriction of individual ‘freedom’ orrn’lifestyle option'” as “an unacceptablerndiminution of rights and free expression.”rnIt soon follows, then, that everyrn”lifestyle option,” being as it is a politicalrnexpression of right, collapses the privaterninto the political. Elshtain sees this tendencyrnarising with the radical feminismrnof the I970’s, in which “the personal isrnpolitical. Nothing personal was exemptrnfrom political definition, direction, andrnmanipulation—not sexual intimacy, notrnlove, not parenting.” But political “totalism,”rnwhich absorbs the private into itself,rnalso effectively eliminates authenticrnpolitics. “If there are no distinctions betweenrn. . . personal and political, it followsrnthat there can be no differentiatedrnactivity or set of institutions that are genuinelyrnpolitical,” notes Elshtain. Andrn”when genuine politics ceases to exist,rnwhat rushes in to take its place is pervasivernforce, coercion and manipulation,”rnsince authentic politics is rooted in reason,rnand reason has yielded to caprice.rnThe tendency expresses itself alternatelyrnin what Elshtain calls the “politicsrnof displacement” (what Charles Taylorrnhas recently called the “politics of authenticity”)rnand the “politics of difference.”rnIn the case of the former, it isrnnot enough to win toleration of one’srnJULY 1996/27rnrnrn