The Gardens of Democracy

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Gardens of Democracy by Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer.

The Gardens of Democracy aspires to inform the views of adult readers on the subject of civics. The central theme of the book is a change of paradigm from a mechanistic, top-down model of government, to a horticultural, networked model. According to the authors, reforms should follow from these realizations. However, their explanations for the current mismatch between understanding and practice seem a little over-gentle (if not naive), and their presentation does not address the means by which such reforms might be realized.

For example, they remark that the “American frontier” produced an ethic of independence rather than interdependence (33-4), when historical data do not really support this notion. Instead, the personal independence associated with the frontier is a product of its representation in 20th-century mass media, which were concerned to cultivate individualism. Our modern ideology of individualism was not an accidental feature of the essential rationality of Enlightenment thought, as the authors seem to suppose, but rather an engineered feature of mass society, to cultivate a uniform, atomized population, theoretically more susceptible to top-down control.

Another instance is where they discuss the negative effects of Wal-Mart stores on the small towns where they were first located (48). What they omit to address is the fact that Wal-Mart expected these effects, and were able to enter an effectively competition-free market in small towns that other big-box discount retailers had avoided, knowing that the business would be unsustainable. Looking for a competitive edge, Wal-Mart decided to treat the economies of these small towns as a consumable resource.

The book contains a fair amount of the sort of both-siderism common to elite political discourse in the US, which in this case may be simply a rhetorical tactic in order to get a hearing from those who identify with the conservative portions of the political spectrum. Although this book was published in 2011, parts of it read like they could be literature for the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. “Letting over a third of the nation’s wealth ‘clot’ among just 1 percent of our people—as we will do if the next 30 years are like the last 30—is national suicide. Progressive taxation is the only way for a society to create the virtuous circle of ever-increasing shared prosperity” (148).

Perhaps the most important prescriptive elements in the book are in the short section on “Reclaiming Democracy” (150-2), which the authors note are a prerequisite for any of the other reforms that they hope to see in American government and citizen participation. None of these reforms (fairer redistricting, political finance reform, addressing “revolving door” corruption, filibuster reform, greater access to voting) are new ideas, but none of them have had the remotest traction in the current political environment. I fear that the exhortation of this book is unlikely to provoke the necessary action to see any of them realized, without reinforcement from tumbrels and guillotines.

For all that, the book is a quick read with some legitimate food for thought. [via]