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Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism
Cornel West
New York: The Penguin Press, 2004.
$24.95, 229 pages, 1-594-20029-7.

Chris Bell
University of Illinois at Chicago


[W]e must remember that the basis of democratic leadership is ordinary citizens’ desire to take their country back from the hands of plutocratic and imperial elites. This desire is predicated on an awakening among the populace from the seductive lies and comforting illusions that sedate them and a moral channeling of new political energy that constitutes a formidable threat to the status quo. This is what happened in the 1860s, 1890s, 1930s, and 1960s in American history. Just as it looked as if we were about to lose the American democratic experiment—in the face of civil war, imperial greed, economic depression, and racial upheaval—in each of these periods a democratic awakening and activistic energy emerged to keep our democratic project afloat. We must work and hope for such an awakening again. [23]

Democracy Matters is the sequel to Cornel West’s path-breaking text Race Matters. In the ten years since the publication of Race Matters, American culture, in West’s view, has located itself more and more in an imperialist positioning. Although there are pockets of resistance actively striving to counter this portentous positioning, the vast majority of Americans support this phenomenon, allowing it to define them. Democracy Matters is a clarion call, advocating the swift rescue of the prophetic democratic project that gave birth to this country and that might very well be America’s/Americans’ best hope.

West sets out his argument quite clearly in the first chapter, “Democracy Matters Are Frightening in Our Time.” The capitalist ideology that has structured, perhaps pervaded, American society for so long is a critical focus of attention:

How ironic that in America we’ve moved so quickly from Martin Luther King’s “Let Freedom Ring!” to “Bling! Bling!” [a hip hop expression that connotes vast richesse; the term is drawn from the sound of coins clinking together]—as if freedom were reducible to simply having material toys, as dictated by free-market fundamentalism. [5]
Can any empire resist the temptation to become drunk with the wine of world power or become intoxicated with the hubris and greed of imperial possibilities? Has not every major empire pursued quixotic dreams of global domination—of shaping the world in its image and for its interest—that resulted in internal decay and doom? [8]

By way of countering this materialist obsession, West advocates for an appreciation of the cultural diversity that gave rise to the American democratic experiment. He contends, “The greatest intellectual, moral, political, and spiritual resources in America that may renew the soul and preserve the future of American democracy reside in [its] multiracial, rich democratic heritage” [22]. West’s critique is of interest, primarily due to its potentiality, and it helps that throughout the text he writes with the fervor of an individual who feels as if there is something to lose. Indeed, the reader cannot help but identify with this sentiment that something of great value is at stake. Nonetheless, West’s pronouncements occasionally have the effect of being more jarring than he might have intended. A case in point is the following excerpt:

America has a long tradition of excoriating, painful, and powerful critiques of the arrested development of our democracy—critiques of the ravages of our imperial expansionist genocide of the Native Americans; of the crushing of the lives of workers by the callous machinery of capitalist excesses; of the wholesale subjugation of women, gays, and lesbians; and most especially and centrally of the deeply antidemocratic and dehumanizing hypocrisies of white supremacy. [13-14]

This assertion, particularly the superlative phrase “most especially and centrally,” immediately gives the reader pause, causing him to wonder if West really means to suggest that the dehumanizing hypocrisy of whites over the racialized subaltern somehow trumps the genocide of countless Native Americans—certainly a curious conceit to say the least.

In the following chapter, “Nihilism in America,” West laments America’s lack of substantive critical self-consciousness:

The American democratic experiment is unique in human history not because we are God’s chosen people to lead the world, nor because we are always a force for good in the world, but because of our refusal to acknowledge the deeply racist and imperial roots of our democratic project. We are exceptional because of our denial of the antidemocratic foundation stones of American democracy. No other democratic nation revels so blatantly in such self-deceptive innocence, such self-paralyzing reluctance to confront the night-side of its own history. This sentimental flight from history—or adolescent escape from painful truths about ourselves—means that even as we grow old, grow big, and grow powerful, we have yet to grow up. [41]

As an example of the myopic view of imperialist America, West considers how influential the media is in the country, identifying the news not as news per se, but as entertainment. Of particular concern for West is the frequent (mis)use of statistics: “Most significantly, the obsessive touting of dubious statistics and sound bites by mainstream pundits points citizens away from a true reckoning with the institutional causes of social misery” [39]. This is a valid point that is almost delegitimized a few pages later when West cites a dizzying series of statistics without informing his reader where the numbers are culled from:

Americans must realize that America truly has become an empire—a military giant, a financial haven, a political and cultural colossus in the world. The U.S. military budget accounts for over 40 percent of the world’s total military spending. It is six times the size of the military spending of the number two nation (Russia) and more than that of the next twenty-three nations combined. [58-59]

Criticizing the media for its tendency to do something that he does shortly thereafter (how do we know that West’s statistics are any less dubious than the media’s?) is undeniably hypocritical. Additionally, the reader remains unnerved by the inclusion of the aforementioned statistics without any attribution.

The most rewarding chapter by far is the third, “The Deep Democratic Tradition in America,” wherein West reveals why democracy (still) matters, an idea that is bolstered by his belief that democracy is more an action verb than a noun [68]. For all intents and purposes, this tenet is one of the foremost theoretical underpinnings of Democracy Matters. It is one thing for Americans to feel as if they have little or no agency in creating their democratic traditions, viewing that process of creation as completely out of their hands. It is an entirely different thing—and this is West’s point—to feel that the creation of democratic traditions, indeed of democracy in an overarching sense, is not only a choice for the individual, but the individual’s responsibility. As West explains:

To many, our democratic system seems so broken that they have simply lost faith that their participation could really matter. The politics of self-interest and catering to narrow special interests is so dominant that so many ask themselves, Why vote?
This disaffection stems both from the all-too-true reality of the corruptions of our system and from a deeper psychic disillusionment and disappointment. The political discourse is so formulaic, so tailored into poll-driven, focus-group-approved slogans that don’t really say anything substantive or strike at the core of our lived experience; the lack of authenticity of discourse—and the underlying lack of gravitas, of penetrating insight and wisdom on the part of politicians—is numbing. But we must keep in mind that the disgust so many feel comes from a deep desire to hear more authentic expressions of insights about our lives and more genuine commitments to improving them. [64]

Again, West’s discourse is of interest to the reader. In this instance, it is the deployment of the term “authentic” that causes the reader some consternation. One wonders who gets to decide which expressions of insight are “authentic” and which are not. Nevertheless, the reader understands and appreciates the sentiment West is trying to convey, the need to probe a little deeper in terms of the phenomenology and rhetoric of being America(n).

Later in this chapter, West continues his attack on the materialist culture that has virtually become synonymous with America. He indicates how he believes a counter-narrative to this capitalist obsession can be invoked:

Since American civilization is first and foremost a business culture—a market-driven society—its elected officials and corporate elites are preoccupied with economic growth and national prosperity. That is why it has been primarily artistic, activist, and intellectual forces from outside the political and economic establishments who have offered the most penetrating insights and energizing visions and have pushed the development of the American democratic project. [102]

The reader cannot help but agree with West in this instance, recognizing how salient the perspectives of the disenfranchised have been, and continue to be, in America. It is worth underscoring that West states “it has been primarily artistic, activist, and intellectual forces,” a cautious way of indicating his sense of the appeal of these forces without discounting those “mainstream” forces, few that there have arguably been in the teleological course of American history, that can speak with a similar insight, vision and fervor.

The next two chapters, “Forging New Jewish and Islamic Democratic Identities” and “The Crisis of Christian Identity in America,” draw on West’s vast knowledge of world religions and spiritual practices. Throughout the chapters, he troubles the notion of freedom of religion that America claims itself as advocating. This notion is a largely theoretical one for West, one that is rarely called upon or experienced in practice. This becomes problematic because of the lack of separation of church and state that has always been a reality in the US. For West, this lack of detachment is a consequential conundrum, one that has historical precedent:

Most American Constantinian Christians are unaware of their imperialistic identity because they do not see the parallel between the Roman empire that put Jesus to death and the American empire that they celebrate. As long as they can worship freely and pursue the American dream, they see the American government as a force for good and American imperialism as a desirable force for spreading that good. They proudly profess their allegiance to the flag and the cross not realizing that just as the cross was a bloody indictment of the Roman empire, it is a powerful critique of the American empire… [150]

West continues by addressing the apparent univocality of American Christians that is actually only the loud, powerful voices of Constantinian Christians in contradistinction to prophetic Christians, whose scope of inclusion is not nearly as limited as their Constantinian brethren [167]. Throughout the course of these chapters, West does not shy away from articulating his faith and belief in Christianity, although it is a particular kind of Christianity (the prophetic kind) that he finds most appealing. But as West explains, this is not the brand of Christianity that holds the most purchase in American culture today. To that end, West poignantly calls on his Christian brothers and sisters, Constantinian and prophetic alike, to remember to step outside of their own concerns and address all instances of intolerance despite their ostensible differences in structure: “We all fall short yet we must never fail to fight all forms of bigotry” [171].

Arguably, the chapter in Democracy Matters that will interest readers the most is the penultimate one, “The Necessary Engagement with Youth Culture.” It is this section wherein West articulates his faith in the variety of discourses and democratic experiments that are produced by youth today. As the title of the chapter indicates, he believes in a “necessary engagement” with these discourses and experiments because they signal the future direction of the country, if not the globe. He also explains his well-known interest in them, emphasizing how these discourses and experiments inform his ontology as a critic, professor and scholar. Midway through this explanation, West offers an extended recount of his opinions about the (in)famous debacle he was embroiled in with Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard University, that resulted in West leaving Harvard for Princeton. Although this narrative is an informative one, primarily due to the reality TV-esque behind the scenes look at Harvard politics, it also has the impression of being a voyeuristic one in that the reader feels that he is being offered a peak beyond the veneer of the Ivory Tower at one of the world’s preeminent universities yet doesn’t feel quite comfortable trusting the tour guide’s objectivity. As with other sections of the text, West writes as if there is something at stake, and there definitely is in this instance. West wants his reader to believe him as he shares his (the?) account of the events at Harvard, events that are, according to West, premised on one individual’s (West) relying on the democratic tradition in his fight against another imperialist individual (Summers).

The concluding chapter, “Putting on Our Democratic Armor,” restates many of the observations West has mentioned in previous chapters. The narrative of violence insinuated by the chapter title notwithstanding, the commentary here is as astute as elsewhere in the text.

In summary, Democracy Matters is as fresh and invigorating a text as one has grown to expect from West. His analysis is primarily sharp (albeit occasionally hypocritical as previously mentioned) and his language is engaging, which helps the reader digest the relatively serious material at hand. The lack of a bibliography is frustrating for the reader who might want to peruse the original source material that West includes throughout. Having finished Democracy Matters, the reader feels grateful to West, recognizing how valuable the text is in this cultural moment of uncertainty brought about, largely, through the undeniable power of the imperialist empire, a power that West convincingly deconstructs in the text.


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