A Democracy of Hamburgers
The Americans: The Democratic Experience by Daniel J. Boorstin '34 Random House, 717 pp., $10.00
DEMOCRACY, AN IDEAL conceived of by the ancient Greeks and expanded upon by political philosophers ever since, remains an inspiring notion to this very day. So it is somewhat paradoxical that the United States, which considers itself the epitome of democracy, has become the dramatically uninspired nation it is. Somehow, something went wrong in the American translation of the ideal into reality.
In the third and final volume of The Americans, Daniel Boorstin chronicles the making of the American democratic experience and the unmaking of the democratic paragon. It is a sad book with an all too tragic tale to tell.
Boorstin is a social historian, and politics is conspicuous in his work by its absence. Perhaps it is silly to try to discuss democracy without reference to political institutions, but social historians--and Boorstin must be counted among the most influential of these--have made a convincing case that American political institutions have evolved as they did because of the social and economic influences exerted upon them.
The most striking feature of Boorstin's interpretation of the American democratic experience is his understanding that the experience was not shaped so much by human will as it was by physical circumstance. According to Boorstin's account, the institutions that developed in this country were molded more by the physical conditions in which Americans found themselves--the vast expanse of land, the challange of an untamed wilderness and the presence of exploitable natural resources--than by their rational desires and good intentions.
BY REASONING in this way, Boorstin explains that Americans could not join into a selfconscious political community in search of high ideals. There was too much space between people, and too much to be accomplished for this sort of arrangement to work. Instead Americans had to settle for a different sense of community. They could unite only in their common desire for wealth and prosperity, and they could feel their unity only by sharing similar consumer products.
The result of all this, says Boorstin, is that the United States became a democracy not of people but of things. He claims that America displayed an honest desire for equality and democracy. But unable to satisfy that desire in any other way, they settled for a social system that ensured equality for each citizen in the sense that everyone would be eating the same McDonald's hamburgers and drinking Coca-Cola.
It may well be deceptive to call equality of consumption "democracy"--especially when so many Americans don't possess the means to share in the consumption of most goods. But in any case, it is Boorstin's considered opinion that the application of the democratic ideal to the American condition resulted in the proliferation of low quality franchise operations, the institutionalization of mediocrity and not much else.
Boorstin's book is full of genuinely entertaining stories of the people and products which went into the making of our democracy of things. A whole chapter of the book is devoted to the inventor of the automatic cash-register.
MOST OF THE STORIES are obscure ones, and with them Boorstin manages to make the 600 pages of his text fun to read. There is no question about Boorstin's writing talent--the treatment of his carefully researched material is thoroughly amusing and compelling.
But the historian must be judged on criteria beyond creative-writing ability. He must display some sort of comprehensive understanding of and sympathy for historical process. If he is to be compared with Turner and Beard (as Boorstin is), the historian must offer a convincing explanation for why something happened as well as showing that something did happen in a certain way. Boorstin's quality as an historian consistently fails to equal his quality as a writer.
Boorstin's tale of democracy gone astray and the defiling of the ideal has the ring of truth to it. He is always persuasive in his demonstration of these failings. His ability to show the historical roots of America's present uninspired attitude toward democracy is worthy of the highest praise. But the reader has a right to expect more from the historian than an explanation which holds that what happened happened because physical circumstance did not allow otherwise.
Just as democracy, if it is to be of any use, must be a democracy not of things but of people, history must be a history of people and their motivations rather than of their physical limitations. One can imagine thousands of different patterns of development given a certain set of physical limitations, and Boorstin's failure to recognize a whole set of human influences upon American development is a major one.
BOORSTIN EXAMINES, FOR instance, the growth of Coca-Cola and Ford without examining the economic class which directed their growth. Ford Motor Company did not develop the way it did because it had to, but because there was a profit to be made from its developing that way. Americans did not settle for low quality of franchise hamburger-stand fare because they wanted it or because it was the only way for them to associate with each other from coast to coast. Instead, an entrepreneurial class discovered it was a profitable way of marketing food and the rest of the nation was largely at the mercy of this class.
Just as physical limitations cannot explain all of American social history, neither can the simple notion of the profit motive. But at least the theory of the profit motive recognizes that certain people in America were in a position to make clear decisions about the direction American society was to take and that these people were responsible for American society's eventual course. Boorstin's failure as an historian is his failure to make that recognition a central part of his understanding of history.
The question remains why Americans put up with the perversion of the democratic ideal, who or whatever is responsible for that perversion. For Boorstin, the answer is sheer inertia. Not living up to the ideal was simply easier than living up to it. Americans had more important things to do than to worry about abstract notions like democracy. It was the moment's profit and not the ideal that counted.
AGAIN, BOORSTIN APPEARS to be right in his interpertation but short on his explanation. But perhaps there is no clear way to explain Americans' failure to pursue whole-heatedly the ideal of democracy; all one can do is to excuse this failure with reference to "human nature."
In that human nature is educable, one would do well to keep the lessons of the American democratic experiences, as Boorstin draws them, in mind. We have taken something beautiful and turned it into a hamburger stand for sheer lack of determination to do otherwise. We have forgotten what democracy was supposed to be about, forgotten that it is a means to a self-realized humanity, and accepted an ugly parody of it in its place.
Boorstin concludes his trilogy--which was 25 years in the works--by saying that the American sense of mission has dwindled into an unwilling sense of momentum. We, he concludes, have lost our grasp over things while things continue to exert their influence on us. It is time to turn this around. It is time to abandon our democracy of things and to concentrate our attention on finally becoming a democracy of people in hopes of attaining true human freedom.