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3. Modern Democracy


In the traumatic aftermath of World War One, many questioned whether man's civilization had revealed a dooming weakness, and if one of its greatest achievements—democracy—was only a fragile ideal. Did the war to make the world "safe for democracy" expose a world unfit for democracy? And what about America? For 130 years the republic had survived chronic growing pains and a murderous civil war, but was it, too, displaying signs of dissolution and rot? Voter apathy, corruption in city politics, the "tyranny of the fifty-one percent," the suppression of black voting in the South—American democracy seemed worn, cracked, and vulnerable.

Collected commentary on modern faith PDF file

On the other hand, women had just received the right to vote, commercial radio brought public debate into citizens' living rooms, elections proceeded like clockwork, and no dictator like Stalin or Mussolini loomed on the American horizon. Which posed a greater danger to the republic—selfish politicians and a disengaged citizenry, or doomsaying cynics and pessimists? The commentary presented here samples the ardent scrutiny of "modern democracy" in postwar America. Selections can be divided among students for research and classroom discussion. (12 pp.)

See also in this collection: Radio (and democracy, in the contemporary commentary).

Discussion Questions

  1. Overall, what were the most serious concerns and criticisms of American democracy expressed in the commentary?
  2. To what factors were these problems ascribed? How much fault was assigned to politicians? to the citizens? to the nature of democracy itself?
  3. To what extent was the disillusionment with democracy a result of postwar cynicism and self-doubt, according to some commentators?
  4. What defenses and reassurances of American democracy were emphasized in the commentary?
  5. To what factors were these ascribed?
  6. Judging from the commentary, how strong or how vulnerable was American democracy in the years after World War One?
  7. To direct your analysis of the commentary, complete the chart below, entering one or two items in each cell. Some cells have been completed with paraphrases. As an extra challenge, add an extra column, e.g., Comparison with the 21st Century, Remedies for Negative Aspects, What George Washington [or another Founding Father] Would Say, etc.
    Majority Rule    Rule by the fifty-one percent may become a "mob-ocracy." C. H. Bretherton, et al.   
    "the People" / the "Common Man" The American people cherish democracy and will not give it up to a dictator. C. Y. Rice.      
    Right to Vote    Many citizens do not exercise their right to vote. S. Spring   
    Voters' Selection of Leaders       Create an "Aristo-Democracy" of wise and trained leaders. H. Carey
    Equality / Equality of Opportunity         
  8. Take the "practical test" offered by the editors of the Forum in the 1928 definition contest and critique the eight assumptions of Democracy. Why would only "simon-pure" believers in democracy believe that all eight assumptions exist in practice?
  9. Who, according to the Forum, is a "negative Democrat" (Democrat meaning a supporter of democracy)?
  10. Critique the five winning definitions of democracy. On what criteria do you think the editors selected the winners?
  11. Paraphrase L. A. Hollenbeck's insightful definition of democracy in the Forum contest. What extremes does democracy balance when it is stable and vigorous?
  12. Why was democracy a "delusion," according to Alfonso Pezet? How did politicians abuse the notion of "the People"?
  13. Why did some commentators dismiss majority rule as "mob-ocracy" or the "Tyranny of the Fifty-One Per Cent"? What did they offer as remedies?
  14. Why did the 1925 Scopes "Monkey Trial" expose the danger of majority rule, according to Walter Lippmann?
  15. Evaluate "Aristo-Democracy," the remedy for "mob rule" recommended by Henry Carey and echoed by Will Durant and others. Are there hybrid forms of government in the world today?
  16. According to Samuel Spring, what would be the plusses and minuses of compulsory voting?
  17. What concerns did historian Charles Eliot express about the expansion of the right to vote? Did he support or oppose the expansion of suffrage?
  18. How did the two African American writers, Walter White and W. E. B. Du Bois, address the disenfranchisement of southern blacks that prevailed despite the 14th and 15th Amendments? How did White employ fiction to deliver his message? How did Du Bois employ data?
  19. To what extent did city bosses and their political machines subvert democracy, according to some commentators? What did Congressman Tom McKeown mean by saying that "the political machine is not the root of the trouble . . . but rather the fruit of the trouble"?
  20. How did David Houston summarize the pessimists' view of American democracy? What was his "answer to the pessimists"?
  21. Number 1-6 the correct paraphrases of the six "indictments" of democracy made by Rev. William Inge, an English clergyman, as summarized by Glenn Frank in 1925. To what extent did Inge's "indictments," made largely in response to the failure of new democracies in Europe, reflect similar issues in American democracy? [Answers]
    William Inge's "indictments" of democracy: paraphrases
    Number the paraphrases 1-6; two are not Inge statements.
       a. Democracy is vulnerable to the extremes of reaction. Both too much and too little response from the people are dangerous.
       b. People are more easily misled by jargon, promises, and speechifying than persuaded by truth or logical argument.
       c. Due to its nature as "government by the people," democracies will always be led by human emotion more than detached analysis.
       d. Democracy can only survive in unindustrialized nations, small and isolated nations, or in stable colonies of democratic European nations.
       e. In troubled times, people may vote away their democracy to a dictator or a powerful group.
       f. Democracies must have homogenous populations to survive. Diverse peoples cannot unify in democratic action.
       g. Democracy can become undemocratic by suppressing minority opinion and tolerating special-interest influence.
       h. Dominant and forceful special-interest groups will always erode the stability of democracies.
  22. How would these significant Americans have responded to Inge's "indictments"?
  23. Which of Inge's indictments is similar to Will Durant's charge that American democracy suffered from a "reign of mediocrity"?
  24. How did the mayors of seven American cities respond to Durant's charge? to his recommendation that political candidates be trained in the "art and science of administration"?
  25. How did Forum readers respond to the debate between Durant and the city mayors on the question "Has democracy broken down?"
  26. Write a dialogue with Durant, one of the city mayors, and two of the men who responded to the Forum debate. Title the dialogue "Has Democracy Broken Down?" or "Is Democracy a Failure?" Decide the setting for the dialogue—a radio broadcast studio, a public assembly hall, a college political science class, etc. Perhaps include audience Q&A in the dialogue. Decide how you will conclude the dialogue—an agreement, an argument, a call for further debate, a challenging question from the audience, a surprise appearance of a Founding Father, etc.
  27. How did the Englishman W. L. George explain that, contrary to appearances, American democracy was not all graft and corruption? For what achievement did he praise American judges?
  28. Project and discuss the political cartoons in the slideshow on this page. How do they reflect the opinions and perspectives in the commentary? Who is being serenaded by "clique rule"? Why does the taxpayer shout "ain't politics grand" in glee? What quandary does "Miss Democracy" [the Democratic Party] face in choosing a standard bearer? Why did cartoonist Carey Orr depict the rival political parties as "rival Santas" instead of, say, rival football teams or rival auto salesmen?
  29. In an essay of four to six paragraphs, summarize the wide-ranging diagnoses of the health of American democracy in the 1920s. Title your essay with a question (?) or exclamation (!). Introduce it with one of the statements below, or choose another statement that captures the gist of your essay.

Framing Questions

  • How was modernity defined in the Twenties? What did "becoming modern" mean to the nation as a whole? to people in their personal lives?
  • What aspects of modernity were welcomed, resisted, or unrecognized in the Twenties? Why?
  • How were the social and political divisions of the period reflected in the debates over modernity?
  • In what ways is the decade's experience with modernity familiar and resonant today?


Collected commentary
12 pp.

Supplemental Sites

Democracy, overviews Robert D. Kaplan, "Was Democracy Just a Moment?" The Atlantic, December 1997

William V. Shannon, "The Political Machine: Rise and Fall of the Bosses," American Heritage, June 1969

Vote: The Machinery of Democracy, online exhibition (Smithsonian)

African Americans and American Politics, online exhibition (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library)

Boardwalk Empire, HBO series based on Atlantic City boss "Nucky" Thompson (Wikipedia)

– Clifford K. Berryman, "Ain't Politics Grand?" political cartoon, October 18, 1924 (detail). Courtesy of the National Archives, Center for Legislative Archives, Berryman Political Cartoon Collection, NWL-46-BERRYMAN-E072.
– Charles Kuhn, "His Favorite," political cartoon, Indianapolis News, October 22, 1929. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Printed Ephemera Collection, item in Portfolio 19, Folder 32.
– Carey Orr, "The Rival Santas," political cartoon, Chicago Tribune, December 12, 1926. Reproduced by permission.
– John T. McCutcheon, "As She Looks for Her Standard Bearer," political cartoon, Chicago Tribune, June 2, 1924. Reproduced by permission.
Popular Science, November 1920, cover depicting new gear-and-lever voting machine (detail). National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, in online exhibition at Permission request submitted.
– "Better government," broadside published by the Arlington County [Virginia] Civic Federation, 1930. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Printed Ephemera Collection, Portfolio 188, Folder 6.

Answers to discussion question #21: a-3; b-2; c-6; d-not an Inge statement; e-1; f-not an Inge statement; g-4; h-5. 

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