Friday, January 28, 2011


While the definitions of democracy for Butler and Marcuse may differ slightly, it seems that both have a negative view of the state of our democracy. As we discussed in class, Marcuse sees America’s political system, which would certainly be described democratic by many, as being nothing more than a starved shadow of true democracy. In his text Marcuse describes a study done about the election of 1952 in which the authors set up an operational definition of democracy. The general idea of this definition is that democracy can be defined as a system in which two parties or candidates compete for public positions by trying to win over the opinions of the electorate. The election must be fair in that both parties must honestly try to win, or at least to better their chances in this election as well as future elections. Marcuse’s question, however, is whether or not true democracy can be defined simply by the party lines of two competing candidates. This establishes a trend which mandates that the electorate must decide between what is put in front of them, and must disregard any thoughts of their own about what they would value in a public official if these thoughts do not fit neatly into one of the two party’s thoughts. As Marcuse states, this means, “The established parties themselves, their policies, and their machinations are not questioned as far as the vital issues are concerned…” (118)

Marcuse, however, would describe democracy in a way that “defines the historical intent of democracy.” (117) In democracy it should be “the electorate which imposes its directives on the representatives.” (117) It should also be the case that the electorate is “free because it is free from indoctrination and manipulation.” (117) Certainly an electorate that is forced to pick from two parties whose policies do not consistently reflect the opinions and desires of the majority of Americans cannot be said to be a free electorate. Marcuse notes that the historical definition of democracy cannot be realistically applied to a modern “democracy;” I don not believe, however, that this changes his opinion of the definition of true democracy. This simply means that Marcuse does not view modern democracies as true democracies, and sees the word democracy as misapplied.

I believe Butler would accept a simpler definition of democracy, but one that maintains the importance of a free electorate. In Parable of the Sower Butler describes the death of American politics more than she describes what the political system would ideally look like, but I believe that to Butler it would be extremely important that the voices of the electorate are heard and that the general well-being of the population is looked after. When it was brought up that Emory believed a law had been passed that allowed her employers to hold her in debt slavery, Bankole remarks that “Its hard to know what to believe. I suppose the politicians may have passed a law that could be used to support debt slavery.” (292) Obviously, any law that supports any kind of slavery is not in the best interests of the electorate. I believe Butler uses this example to show what the end of democracy looks like, and thus shows us that she views the freedom of the electorate as extremely important. Without this freedom, citizens of democracies can become literal slaves to a system that looks after the interests of the few wealthy as opposed to the oppressed many.

When looked at through the eyes of these two authors, our democracy seems inadequate and headed down a dangerous path. It is clear that Marcuse believes that the two-party system leads to an anemic version of true democracy, and while we may call our political system a world model for a modern democracy, a closer analysis shows that we can be as easily manipulated by our system as citizens of an authoritarian system can be by their dictator. I do not think that Marcuse provides a clear solution to the problem of the two-party system, although he does clearly state that the ideal democracy is an impractical system for society such as the modern Western society. This makes his ideal less applicable to our society than Butler’s, as he himself states that it would be extremely difficult for our society to reach the ideal.

Butler’s ideal democracy seems more attainable based on the standards she sets in the novel. When she discusses the election at the beginning of the book she seems to make a comment on the language and actions of politicians through Lauren’s father: “He didn’t vote for anyone. He said politicians turned his stomach.” (27) Butler also describes the winning candidates plan for America’s future: He hopes to get laws changed, suspend ‘overly restrictive’ minimum wage, environment, and worker protection laws for those employers willing to take on homeless employees and provide them with training and adequate room and board.” (27) I think many people have experienced the same feelings as Lauren and her father experience when they discuss the elections. There is a general feeling that politicians are dishonest, and that their plans for the future are overly vague just so that they can get elected.

The fact that Butler describes her ideal democracy through a democracy that resembles our present political system certainly makes it more applicable to our society. I can easily see the importance of a free electorate when I look at the electorate of 2027 and see that it has lost its freedom to literal slavery, and then look at our own political system and can already see how politicians often value the rights of corporations over the rights of individuals. I can also see the importance of a democracy that looks after the general well being of its citizens when I look at Lauren’s world, which is riddled with drug addicts and homeless dying of starvation and infection, and then look at our society, which still does not support all of its citizens through an affordable health care system.

Although Marcuse’s definition seems philosophically sound, and it is somewhat frightening to imagine our current democracy developing into the “democracy” that is represented in Parable of the Sower, I believe that the definition of democracy that Butler provides in her novel is more applicable to the United States. A cautious look at the world Butler has created might even prevent us from creating a similar type of democracy for ourselves.


  1. I think that you deliberately tackled a difficult topic, and that you did very well in your initial discussion of both authors. Your discussion of Marcuse's views on democracy are clear and insightful enough that I'll probably make everyone in the class read it, as a way of continuing our discussion from last week. You have some great lines, too - Marcuse as understanding our democracy as a "starved shadow" of true democracy, and Butler as writing about the "death of American politics." These are lines which I wish I'd written (as someone who has published work on both Marcuse and Butler).

    That being said, I think your handle on Marcuse's understanding of democracy is much better than your handle on Butler's. I'm not at all clear on what you'd see as her ideal democracy, and I do think you make some clear intellectual errors in your discussion of Butler. For instance "Obviously, any law that supports any kind of slavery is not in the best interests of the electorate." This line is obviously wrong, in an important way: if the electorate consists of slaveholders, or potential slaveholders, the law supporting slavery might well be in their interest. It all depends on how we define "interest" and "electorate"; the interests and needs of certain minorities are, obviously, often completely ignored or overridden (and I'm not just talking about the U.S. - one might just as easily write about indigenous populations in Mexico, Peru, or Brazil).

    Weirdly, figuring out Butler's views on democracy is probably harder than figuring out Marcuse's - so I like this essay a lot, while also finding your discussion of Butler incomplete and flawed.

  2. I think you should choose this paper for the revision, because it could become much better. I would like to see more of an expansion on the dictatorship metaphor as more of an explanation of how our democracy appears like one.
    As Adam said, the "ideal" democracy statement was confusing, so try to rework that section to more accurately describe Butler's ideal, and why you know it's what she wants. Afterwards you connect this to the general population's distrust of politicians. Be careful with over-generalizations, but I do think this one is valid if you rework it a bit. Also, what about politicians leads to a sense of distrust, and why is that important in a discussion of true democracy?
    One more note, you say "she seems to make a comment on..." I've gotten myself into trouble with vague statements like this. Instead of saying that she makes a comment, tell us what her comment is and why it's important.
    Anyway, good luck with the revision. I think you've got a good start! :)