Democratic Vistas: Reflections on the Atlantic World
A New Research Focus at Forschungskolleg Humanwissenschaften Bad Homburg / Goethe-Universität Frankfurt
»Today, ahead, though dimly yet, we see, in vistas, a copious, sane, gigantic offspring,« the poet and journalist Walt Whitman wrote in the opening paragraph of his 1871 essay Democratic Vistas. Democracy, Whitman contended, denoted a political and social order oriented to the future. It was an orientation that befitted the United States of America, a country without much of a past. What little of a past it did have was stained by slavery and four years of staggering bloodshed among its citizens. And yet, Whitman insisted, though discernible only dimly, American democracy promised to bring forth »gigantic offspring.« That promise, however, came at the price of peril: »The United States are destined either to surmount the gorgeous history of Feudalism, or else prove the most tremendous failure of time.« The nature of democracy, Whitman recognized, lies in its contingency. Democracies have no foundation but their own poetic self-making. They exist in a radically open future. Democracy is an experiment in the pursuit of freedom, equality, and happiness. Yet experiments, by necessity, can go wrong. The specter of tyranny is, and must remain, the underside of making and remaking the collective self.
Whitman made the strategic decision to »use the words America and Democracy as convertible terms.« When, some fifty years later, »the Atlantic World« came into being as a new concept, it, too, was imagined as convertible with »democracy.« The »Atlantic World« was the coinage of the influential American journalist and political thinker Walter Lippmann (who later also originated the phrase »Cold War«). Writing on the eve of the United States’ entry into World War I, Lippmann conjured a transatlantic community committed to democracy and freedom. To Lippmann, it was the »deepest needs« and »deepest purposes« of this community that dictated American national interest. Hence, US forces needed to enter the war so as to »fight for … the common interest of the western world, for the integrity of the Atlantic Powers.«
During the Cold War, »the integrity of the Atlantic Powers« (which now encompassed West Germany) became a multidimensional agenda that shed much of its idealism. It revolved around American and Western European security interests and the tethering of the idea of freedom to market capitalism. If deemed necessary, the United States had few qualms about waging war, instigating regime changes, and suppressing liberation movements that subscribed to alternative notions of freedom. The United States did so in the name of the very ideals that held together the Atlantic Alliance. And yet, in the Atlantic World the ideals of democracy, equality, and freedom were not reduced to hypocritical justifications of violence and domination. A cultural sphere as much as political region, the Atlantic World created and recreated aesthetic forms of expression committed to equality, freedom, and self-realization. In short, the Atlantic World continues to disclose ever new democratic vistas. On frequencies low and high, the Atlantic World remains a normative community in which the ideals articulated in the democratic revolutions of the 18th century continue to exert authority.
Or so we thought. Until, during the last decade, the Atlantic World and its shared vocabulary of values encountered challenges from within. Antipluralist populist movements have sprung up on both sides of the Atlantic and managed to succeed in the electoral process. Illiberal and ethno-nationalist, these movements’ leaders have positioned themselves against the very idea of value-based, cooperative, and multilateral institutions that have characterized the Atlantic West. Waging polarizing culture wars within and across their national borders, they are attempting to redefine the Atlantic World by tearing down existing multilateral institutions in favor of transactional bilateralisms that throw over board what they regard as the hifalutin conceits of old. It behooves us to remember Whitman’s warning that democracy may yet »prove the most tremendous failure of time.«
But illiberal populists are not the only ones who call into question the cold war constellation of the transatlantic West. Academic humanists and political activists alike have challenged the conception of the Atlantic World as an ensemble of liberal capitalist democracies of the North Atlantic region. Scholars of Atlantic History and Atlantic Studies have reframed the region’s geographic scope: today they chart a world of circulation for which trajectories of North and South are, at a minimum, as crucial as the more traditional East-West axis. In redrawing the geography of the Atlantic World, they have also abandoned the teleology that traditionally subtended the narrative of the Atlantic World. No longer reiterating implicit assumptions about progress and the eventual triumph of liberal democracy (and capitalism), scholars of the Atlantic World today explore how circuits of exchange have been embedded in disparities of power, violent conflict, and resistance to resolution. Focusing on unmitigated political passions rather than the slow but unstoppable progress of rationality, these newer approaches to the Atlantic World may in fact help to enlarge the intellectual tools necessary for coming to terms with the illiberal onslaught on transatlantic democracy.
The new research focus »Democratic Vistas: Reflections on the Atlantic World«
Our new research focus »Democratic Vistas: Reflections on the Atlantic World« starts from the assumption that the Atlantic World, with its redrawn boundaries and trajectories, continues to provide spaces for experimentation in democracy. Democracies in the Atlantic World are multifaceted and their success and survival ought not to be imagined as preordained. Given the stress tests that established forms of liberal democracy have had to submit themselves to in recent years, democratic experimentation in a Whitmanian spirit warrants renewed interest, attention, debate, and study.
The discussions of our research group will focus on at least four areas – open to expansion and adjustment – and may consider questions such as the following:
Varieties of Democratic Experience
What are the democratic ways of life inside and outside of liberal democracy? Which are the philosophical languages that are particularly helpful for framing, as William James might have put it in Varieties of Religious Experience, »democratic feelings and democratic impulses«? How can Whitman’s conviction that democracy must »grow its own forms of arts, poems, schools, theology« be turned into a heuristic lens for studying democratic experimentation? Can we recognize elective affinities of doing democracy across the Atlantic World? Can we discern specific democratic practices, domestically and internationally, of addressing global challenges? What can liberal democracies learn from the challenges posed by competing imaginaries of popular sovereignty? How have democracies responded to attacks by forces of illiberalism?
Atlantic Democracy in the Anthropocene
The planetary problems associated with the concept of the anthropocene reach far beyond the capacities of individual nation states and they may yet overburden humanity’s problem-solving capacity as such. What can we expect from an Atlantic world of democracies in the quest for multilateral responses? How can Atlantic multilateralism promote and successfully implement global governance regimes that address climate change and other planetary challenges more effectively than what we have seen so far? What are the ways in which »security« must be rethought in order to be able to address the ramifications and challenges of the anthropocene from within an Atlantic framework? And, on a theoretical note, does the concept of the anthropocene lend itself to democratic intervention at all, given that it postulates a fait accompli that stands in tension with democracy’s orientation to open futures? What are effective ways of framing the looming environmental catastrophe in terms of democratic experimentation?
Digital Publics at the Limits of Democracy
The public sphere is a constitutive element of any form of democracy that entails deliberation and debate. Yet, the emergence of digital publics recalls John Dewey’s book title, The Public and its Problems, from 1927. For in their forms and shapes – deterritorialized, affect-driven, agreement-seeking – digital publics may be democratic without mapping onto the state institutions of democratic states. In short, the digital public is a problem for democracy. How can democratic institutions coordinate the relays between digital and non-digital publics? How can the affect worlds of digital publics be channeled into liberal democratic processes? What are the options and necessary inventions for legal regulation of digital publics? To what degree do these publics provide entry points to practices of digital surveillance? Do state institutions – such as police and the law – adapt to the dictates of the digital (e.g. in the form of algorithm-driven predictive policing and predictive law enforcement), thus following digital publics in jettisoning the guarantees of liberalism?
Democracy and Inequality
Populist challenges to liberal democracy cannot be understood without taking into consideration the stark economic disparities produced by unfettered free-market capitalism. What alternative economic orders can we extrapolate from the history of the Atlantic World? How can democracy – and more specifically liberal democracy – become harnessed to the project of economic justice? Can we – must we – reimagine the Atlantic World under the aegis of newly envisioned forms of democratic socialism? How can agendas of redistributive justice be framed in a transnational perspective that remains committed to openness, exchange, and cooperation? Partially overlapping with economic disparity, other forms of inequality also need to be addressed in reconceiving a democratic Atlantic World. How, for instance, can an Atlantic perspective allow us to effectively address problems of environmental justice and respond to the unequal provision of sustainable living conditions on a global scale?
List of participants
Heads of Program
Johannes Völz (American Studies)
Gunther Hellmann (International Relations)
Barbara Alge (Musicology)
Beatrice Brunhöber (Law)
Christoph Burchard (Law)
Nicole Deitelhoff (Peace Research, International Relations)
Heinz Drügh (German Studies)
Thomas Duve (Legal History)
Astrid Erll (Anglophone Literatures and Cultures)
Andreas Fahrmeir (Modern History)
Rainer Forst (Political Theory and Philosophy)
Achim Geisenhanslüke (Comparative Literature)
Vinzenz Hediger (Film and Media Studies)
Vera King (Social psychology)
Antje Krause-Wahl (Art History)
Sophie Loidolt (Philosophy; TU Darmstadt)
Matthias Lutz-Bachmann (Philosophy)
Pavan Malreddy (Anglophone Literatures and Cultures)
Ruth Mayer (American Studies; University of Hannover)
Darrel Moellendorf (Political Theory, Philosophy)
Hanna Pfeifer (Political Science)
Juliane Rebentisch (Philosophy, Aesthetics; HfG Offenbach/IfS)
Martin Saar (Philosophy)
Thomas Schmidt (Philosophy of Religion)
Till van Rahden (Modern History; Université de Montréal/FKH Senior Fellow)
Greta Wagner (Sociology; TU Darmstadt)
Christian Wiese (Jewish Philosophy of Religion)