14 January 2010

Article: Thoreau's Critique of Democracy

The article "Thoreau's Critique of Democracy" by Leigh Kathryn Jenco ("Review of Politics", 65 [3], summer 2003: pp. 355-81) received the 2003 Best Paper Award from the Foundations of Political Theory section of the American Political Science Association (APSA) for the best presentation on a section panel at APSA's 2002 annual meeting.

Abstract: "Most commentators see Henry David Thoreau's political essays as an endorsement of liberal democracy, but this essay holds that Thoreau's critique of majoritarianism and his model of civil disobedience may intend something much more radical: when his criticisms of representative democracy are articulated in more formal terms of political and moral obligation, it becomes clear that the theory and practice of democracy fundamentally conflict with Thoreau's conviction in moral autonomy and conscientious action. His critical examination of the way in which a democratic state threatens the commitments that facilitate and give meaning to the practice of morality intends to reorient the focus of politics, away from institutions and toward the people such institutions were ostensibly in place to serve. His critique stands as a warning that becoming complacent about democracy will inhibit the search for better (perhaps more liberal) ways to organize political life."

The article has been reprinted recently in "A Political Companion to Henry David Thoreau", ed. Jack Turner (University Press of Kentucky, July 2009: pp. 68-96).

The entire article (as published in the book) can be read at this link:


Some excerpts: "Thoreau's numerous and overt criticisms of democracy, and his exhortations to transcend it, are grounded in a deontological moral philosophy that renders impossible the mediation of justice through democratic institutions. This is overlooked even by those commentators who interpret Thoreau's disgust with government and majority rule a bit more literally. [...]

"Thoreau does embrace the liberal values he has come to symbolize for many – free expression, civil disobedience, the liberty to follow one's conscience – but he provokes questions about the extent to which these values should or even can survive embedded within a democratic matrix. [...]

"Thoreau's characterization of all voting as a betting game betrays a profound disgust with the participatory requirements constitutive of liberal democracy. [...] 'A minority is powerless when it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then.' Its influence is completely undermined when it agrees to abide by the outcome of a vote. [...] Thoreau strikes at the very core principles of democracy, realizing that the sacrifice of an individual's moral interests to the vagaries of representation and voting is moral tyranny. [...]

"Thoreau is actually making the surprising observation that, like monarchy or aristocracy, democracy too is a system in which one is unavoidably governed by others, and it is this realization that drives him to a nearly anarchic (but to him, more genuine) form of 'self-rule.' That such a vision seems utopian does not mean it should not be taken seriously as a criticism of the assumption that democracy is the best we can do. [...]

"Thoreau's political writings are valuable for the very reason that they help us recognize the trade-offs between liberal freedoms and democratic commitments – moral costs that lie well concealed beneath a mask of practicality."

Leigh Kathryn Jenco is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the National University of Singapore.

1 comment:

  1. Thoreau talks of capitalism and how it, in practice, causes unethical actions and immoral behavior. Immoral behavior being anti-social consideration of other people. Not democracy, I'd say this author has imagination, but I think they rather lack it. I pity them.