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So here’s a dramatically out-of-context excerpt from my Whitman presentation.

Whitman explains that “the democratic republican principle” is “the theory of development and perfection by voluntary standards.” So that principle is less about perfecting the institutions of government than of being “the only effectual method of surely, however slowly, training people on a large scale to voluntarily ruling and managing themselves.” And that kind of perfection is “the ultimate aim of political and all other development.” Democratic progress is “to gradually reduce the fact of governing to its minimum,” because people will be trained or habituated to ruling themselves. “What is independence,” Whitman writes, “but “freedom from all yokes and bonds except those of one’s own being?”

But Whitman doesn’t join the libertarian or the Marxist in holding that the ultimate aim of modern freedom is the withering away of the state for each person’s free, unobsessive pursuit of private goals or whims. Political life and political devotion are indispensable features in the development of self-discipline or character. “Political democracy,” he explains, “supplies a training-school for making first-class men.” Political contests are “life’s gymnasium” for “freedom’s athletes,” and they satisfy their desire for action, “irrespective of success.” There’s nothing “grander,” after all, “than a well-contested American national election.” Whitman often claims that there has to be lots for the democratic person to do to satisfy his athletic desire for action and display his greatness or have an outlet for his pride.

The withering away of the state would be the withering away of political greatness, of part of what’s intrinsic to personal identity. It’s the contest—or not just heart-enlarging affection—that each of us can’t help but crave, and political democracy’s distinctiveness is training us all to be actors on the political stage. The constant political danger, Whitman cautions, is that “savage, wolfish parties,” obeying “no law but their own will,” become so combative that they lose contact with “overarching American ideas” and “equal brotherhood.” But who can deny that contests among brothers are an indispensable feature of character development? Brotherhood surely is consistent enough with strong personal identity and considerable self-assertiveness.

Whitman doesn’t address the issue of the necessarily aristocratic character of elections. Only a few ever run and fewer still ever win, and obvious distinctions can’t help but emerge between first- and second-class politicians. Universal suffrage can’t produce, in a representative democracy, the universal sharing of offices. It’s hard to deny that the perfection of political democracy would require either a return to the participatory polis of the Greeks or the Puritans, as Tocqueville reminded us, or a withering away of all the distinctions present in the very existence of the state, as Marx predicted.

But Whitman follows the lead of the dominant American founders by pointing in the direction of a universal empire oriented around the rights all human beings share and toward the conclusion that political life in some sense is part of the activity characteristic of great personalities. Every human person, his democratic faith was, is capable of greatness, and that democratic greatness, he claims, “flourishes best under imperial republican forms.”

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