American Democracy Redux

May 4, 2017
HDS professor Cornel West
Professor Cornel West speaking during HDS bicentennial events on April 29. / Photo: Gordon Hardy

Langdell Hall on the campus of Harvard Law School overflowed with more than 250 students on the first day of Professor Cornel West and Professor Roberto Unger’s “American Democracy” class.

It was nearly 20 years ago when the two legendary professors initially co-taught the course, and it served as a welcome re-introduction for West, who in January returned to Harvard Divinity School and to Harvard after holding a professorship at Union Theological Seminary.

Although always a respected public figure, West has grown significantly in the public eye in the time since his departure from Harvard in 2002.

He has delivered lectures across the nation, published groundbreaking books, such as Democracy Matters, acted in films such as The Matrix trilogy, been a featured commentator on television shows, such as Real Time with Bill Maher, and most recently, promoted his support for Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign.

The enrollment for “American Democracy”—which was moved to Lowell Hall to accommodate the large attendance—attests to West’s popularity as a public intellectual, and Harvard students were buzzing with excitement upon learning of his return.

“My first encounter with Dr. West’s writing was when I read Democracy Matters as an undergraduate three years ago,” said Anthony John, MTS ’18. “I simply could not miss the opportunity to take a course with him upon his return to Harvard.”

West, too, is also pleased to back in Cambridge.

“It’s a blessing to be back at Harvard,” he said. “Truly a blessing.”

Asked why he wanted to offer this class at such a polemic time in American society, West explained: “The goal is always to try to unsettle students. You want critical engagement. You want to un-house them. You want to get them to undergo Socratic self-examination.”

The course has certainly made good on that promise.

The content of the lectures primarily addressed the United States’ current dependence on institutions (for example, the market economy) and how a reluctance to alter these institutions results in sustaining broad inequality across ethnic, gender, and class lines, which in turn leads to meager democratic engagement. For West, this inequality and democratic despotism results in poor “soul formation” in many Americans.

“I’m thoroughly convinced that both democratic processes and democratic ends and aims go hand-in-hand with that striving for spiritual and moral excellence,” West said. “And so in that sense it’s a fundamental vocation to be committed to democratization here and around the world. The question is: How can we be honest about it? What kind of intellectual integrity can we bring to bear an understanding of how it emerged, how it sustains itself, and, at present, how it’s in deep decline?”

West focused most of his lectures on lessons from past American movements, whose figures represented fields from the arts to politics. He discussed Herman Melville, President Franklin Roosevelt, and James Baldwin, among many others.

The reading list, too, relied heavily on lessons from the past, such as conservative political scientist Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, an analysis on the economic divide between professional and working class whites; Unger’s The Left Alternative, a study drawing from the mistakes of progressives worldwide to form a new progressive agenda; and, most significantly, Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic Democracy In America.

“It’s amazing how a French aristocrat could come here in the 1830s and put pen to paper and write such powerful, insightful, pressing, and prophetic words, so that almost 200 years later, we still go back,” West said of de Tocqueville. “And of course Coming Apart is a very important text that all of us have to come to terms with.”

For both West and Unger, an understanding of the past better allows one to understand the present and future.

“The course has to do with the genealogical moment—the conditions under which U.S. democracy emerged,” West explained. “There is the moment of prognosis tied to diagnosis, so you get an analysis of where we are at the moment.”

Now that the semester is coming to an end, what is perhaps most intriguing is how students think about the course now and why they initially wanted to take the class.

“I took the class in part out of a sense of despair and disorientation after the 2016 presidential election,” explained Ian Ramsey-North, MTS ’18. “I was looking for answers.”

Although the professors provided their own solutions to better the state of democracy, many students continue to wrestle with the possibility of such alternatives with the reality of the current political situation. While it can be frustrating to search for answers and find none that satisfy, students are eager to share in this struggle, and they are expressing their ideas through their final papers.

“I hope to obtain a deeper sense of what it means to be a democratic citizen in an ever-changing socio-political context,” Anthony John explained. “As Dr. Unger has consistently remarked, ‘the constructive imagination of ordinary people’ has the capacity to change and democratize all spheres of society for the better—but only step by step.”

Ramsey-North also recognizes both the difficulty and promise in living as an active democratic citizen.

“It's not a simple issue. I hope to leave, however, with a different vocabulary and alternative frameworks with which to approach the question,” he said before pausing. “Probably one with which I’ll be wrestling with my whole life.”

—by Bo Clay, HDS correspondent