Jedediah Purdy’s democratic vision

This formidable yet accessible book should be homework for every thoughtful American. 

Jedediah Purdy, who teaches law at Duke University, is a new voice to me. This is a shame, because I would have liked his wise counsel during the political crisis that we have faced in this country over the last several years.

Purdy is a true democrat. He believes in political and economic democracy against all competitors. He has arrived at this conviction through close study of the history of Western political thought and practice, which he dips into and out of here with fluency and originality of vision. Rarely have I seen figures like Thomas Hobbes, Adam Smith, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Alexis de Tocqueville, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Frie­drich Hayek discussed with so much interest and nuance.

One of the most interesting aspects of Purdy’s historical account is his frank documentation of the antidemocratic dimensions of the American Constitution—most notably the Electoral College and the Senate, but also how gravely difficult the founders intentionally made it to amend the Constitution. For Purdy, the Constitution itself is one of the greatest obstacles to democracy in America. This is quite a claim.