Review: Democracy in Twenty-First Century America
Ronald B. Neal. Democracy in Twenty-First Century America: Race, Class, Religion, and Region. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2012. xiv + 138 pp. ISBN 978-0-88146-286-9.
In this brief but interesting book Ronald B. Neal offers a philosophical and religious meditation on the current state of democracy in early 21st century America. He concentrates on the “two Americas” that he believes were brought so dramatically into view in 2005 through the television coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. The book focuses on South Carolina as a microcosm for the South and the nation writ large.
Neal is especially interested in, and moved by, the plight of what he calls “America’s least wanted”—poor blacks in urban and rural locales who have not profited by the political and social reforms of the modern civil rights era, have not made it into the black middle class, and who have only the most grim and dire prospects for the future in terms of education, work, life, and progress. The implications for the prospering—or even the survival of—genuine democracy in America are thus profoundly troubling to Neal. The tragedy is all the more considerable because Neal rightly detects that there is now “a silent and prevailing consensus that racial and economic inequality are no longer priorities for the United States; that the political achievements of the civil rights era have been sufficient in addressing the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and a generation of racialized poverty” (xiii).
Drawing extensively on the remarkable life and thought of black religious progressive and educator Benjamin E. Mays, the author focuses on education and economic problems in South Carolina (Mays’s state and Neal’s adopted state) to call for reforming democracy and race relations along the lines of the reconstructions that followed the Civil War and World War II. Neal believes that only by fully integrating the concept of economic development and true educational and class opportunity for all based on the ethics associated with Benjamin Mays’s progressive religion and earlier traditions of the social gospel can American democracy be saved.
Given all of this, it is surprising that there is no discussion of Michael Harrington’s groundbreaking The Other America (1962)—which did so much to alert Americans to the existence of two Americas—and no reference to Thomas Jefferson’s oft-quoted dictum that education is the lifeblood of democracy.
Still, the American South is profoundly important for Neal as he believes the region is (and has been) quite distinctive and disproportionately influential in the course of American history—whether dominated by the Virginia Dynasty, the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian periods, the Civil War and Reconstruction, or the last few decades in particular. Nor has this southern influence been, especially of late, for the betterment of the country—particularly when it comes to persistent social apathy and disdain for the largely invisible poor. Much as C. Vann Woodward feared in 1951 for Dixie, Neal fears the corrosive residue of an elite-dominated worldview and mentalité. As the author perceptively understands, the “values and attitudes that dominate the South have affected American life, including attitudes toward the least advantaged members of society” (7). Democrats do not get off scot-free—especially the more conservative post-1960s Democrats of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) type. But it is clear that the Republicanization of the South is the larger culprit for Neal. In fact, in a section titled “From Dixiecrats to Southern Republicans,” Neal laments the obvious and bitter irony of the closing decades of the twentieth century: “the manner in which conservative southern politicians reinvented themselves, becoming the dominant force in American politics” (111).
Neal is to be thanked for an interesting and provocative meditation that evaluates current and recent events in the light of informed historical developments, submerged and largely forgotten religious traditions, and political and ethical theory.