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Ways of Preserving Democracy

ISSUE:  Spring 1939

The Defence of Democracy. By F. Elwyn Jones. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company. $2.50. America and the Strife of Europe. By J, Fred Rippy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. $2.00. The Prospects of American Democracy. By George S. Counts. New York: The John Day Company. $3.00. Roads to a New America. By David Cushman Coyle, Boston: Little, Brown and Company. $2.75.

A s Thomas Mann wrote in “The Coming Victory of Democracy,” “America is aware that the time has come for democracy to take stock of itself.” Challenged abroad, here in its native home, democracy must reexamine and rejuvenate itself. This necessity has made democracy a current “best seller.” Browse through the book shops or leaf through the publishers’ announcements and you find a host of titles playing on this theme, and it is well that this should be, for since Mr. Mann wrote his notable lecture the storm clouds over democracy have perceptibly darkened over Munich, Prague, and even London. At home they have not lightened. Before it is too late, some popular understanding of the principles of democracy should be developed. If it is not, America, too, may trade the virtues of democracy for the novelty of Fascism.

To avert this possibility the American people may be shaken from their lethargy by stirring and fearsome accounts of the consequences upon human freedom of the spread of Fascism. The Dies Committee is currently doing its best to save the country by this technique. This effort is also made by F. Elwyn Jones, a young English labor attorney, in “The Defence of Democracy.” The intense feeling with which Mr. Jones writes of the growth of Fascism in Europe and its threat to democracy would have been even greater had he written after Munich.

There is little opposition to this world-wide, persistent Fascist aggression. Within the dictatorship countries no opposition is permitted to exist. The dictators maintain as their necessary stock in trade an aggressive front that claims success and continuous victories over democracy and ruthlessly stamps out contrary views. Within the democracies there exists, Mr. Jones contends, a strange unwillingness to fight for the system they value. The accuracy of this observation is debatable. Only democracies have civil liberties. By its very nature democracy must entertain the expression of conflicting ideologies. To this degree it is defenseless against even the doubt that is inspired about existing institutions. Doubtless this author is correct, however, when he insists that: “The power of the democratic states to avoid war does not depend on armaments. It depends on our recovering the capacity to appear formidable, which is a quality of will and demeanor.”

Somewhat contradictory is the conclusion of J. Fred Rippy, in “America and the Strife of Europe,” that the American people’s desire for freedom from European strife has been frequently threatened by our ideal of democracy and the zealousness of some of our leaders to follow the cause of democracy in other parts of the world. Our democratic fervor has been at times, it is true, intermingled with such less worthy virtues as the desire for profit and, indeed, even pure and simple imperalism. Nevertheless, Dr. Rippy is able to demonstrate the historical fact that strife in Europe has been persistently viewed with alarm—even when with sympathy. This author’s product reflects the result of arduous and original research in the diplomatic activities of this country during the past century. Of especial excellence is his description of three American idealists who actively campaigned for peace: Theodore Roosevelt, William Jennings Bryan, and Woodrow Wilson.

But Americans are not ready to fight when they do not recognize the dangers that assail their institutions. And few Americans recognize the dangers that George S. Counts depicts, in “Prospects of American Democracy,” as undermining democracy at home. This is not to say that American democracy is not jeopardized by the concentration of economic power which he describes; with that viewpoint many will agree and others disagree. Perhaps his statement will be most informative to those inclined to disagree. To them he describes with real courage and admirable clarity the crisis of American democracy. This crisis he ascribes to “the closing of the geographical frontiers of the earth and the rise of industrial civilization,” which together have fostered the development of a capitalist aristocracy opposed to democratic ideals.

“In all probability the present generation and the generation immediately to follow,” according to Professor Counts, “will be called upon to decide whether democracy is to survive and, if so, in what form.” Certain American assets make more probable the salvation of democracy here than in any other capitalist country. The vast resources of this country, its security from external attack, the popular inheritance of a democratic sense, all form a bulwark protecting political democracy against the ambitions of a predatory aristocracy. Yet, all this is not enough. “Although the American people may be fully committed to democratic values . . . ,” this author writes, “they have little grasp of the nature of the crisis confronting them.”

David Cushman Coyle, will, if left alone to ply his trade uninterruptedly, make vast inroads on this lack of understanding, as witness his volume, “Roads to a New America.” He belongs to the Stuart Chase school of writers on economic themes. Their motto is: “Public ignorance of economics is so profound that it will suffice to say little that is new or substantial; but say it dramatically, startlingly, and entertainingly!” Much that Mr. Coyle says in this volume he has previously said in his numerous magazine articles during recent years. First, he depicts in sprightly fashion the general characteristics of the American social economy, the extent to which it is inhabited by democracy, freedom, and justice, and its natural physical resources. Turning to the use of these resources he paints in vivid word-scenes the economic change of recent decades that have made unemployment a stalking enemy, made a mockery of thrift, and challenged capitalism.

For the lay reader this book contains a clear, intelligible statement of the fundamental economic changes of recent decades and their significances. It does not deal with the effects of these changes upon our democratic institutions in as profound a manner as does Professor Counts’s volume. Yet it does a good job of challenging customarily held beliefs which have been made obsolete by the emergence of an industrial civilization. Mr. Coyle, it is said, has picked up his thesis where James Truslow Adams left off in “The Epic of America.” He deals with the realization of the American dream which Mr. Adams outlined. Indeed, the academic economists may contend upon completing this volume, the reader enjoys that sense of having moved swiftly through a pleasant and slightly—only slightly—exaggerated dream to a happy ending, but he retains nothing more substantial than is left by the usual nocturnal dream. To them it may be pointed out that Mr. Coyle will be successful in reaching many ears the academician never influences and that, in doing so, he will contribute more to the essential understanding that will preserve democracy.


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