Capitalism and Western Civilization: Democracy

William H. Young

Today’s American academy would transform capitalism: through democracy or “democratic engagement,” the aim is to turn corporations to an ethic of social responsibility to achieve “social justice.” Caryn McTighe Musil, senior vice president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, summarizes that agenda in “Reconfiguring Civic Engagement on Campus” (Diversity & Democracy, Fall 2011): “Flowing from democracy are the twin terms ‘social responsibility’ and ‘social justice,’ which…suggest both agency and public policy action.” Peter Wood correctly argues in Better Citizens that this latest diversion of higher education is “promoting a progressive ideology.”

Herbert Croly’s ghost must be smiling, for the academy’s ideology channels his ultimate objective for progressivism—the “full realization of the democratic ideal” in a post-Madisonian America—which he described in Progressive Democracy (1915). Most Americans have never heard of Croly, a leading intellectual light of the Progressive Era and a founder of The New Republic magazine. Contemporary discussion of Croly’s philosophy of progressivism has focused on his celebrated first book The Promise of American Life (1909). But the academy’s desire to bring “social responsibility” and “social justice” to America comports neatly with Croly’s vision in Progressive Democracy, as the final stage of progressivism.

Croly saw the American Constitution as being fundamentally at odds with progressive democracy, which he defined as unmediated, direct democracy with “effective measures…to make of it an economic and social democracy” as well. Croly was an American Rousseau, seeking agreement on a “collective or popular will” of society:

A democracy differs from other forms of government in that it does not and cannot distinguish the welfare of the state from the welfare of the individual citizen…the faith which a progressive democracy needs…becomes effective through the agency of a social ideal, which differs from and is independent of any collection of individual ideals.

Croly considered that “democracy must make for social righteousness,” which today’s academy calls social responsibility. He saw an intimate connection between democracy and social justice:

The American nation is no longer to be instructed as to its duty by the Law… It is to receive its instruction as the result of…collective action and…realize…by virtue of the active exercise of popular political authority its ideal of social justice….The people are made whole by virtue of the consecration of their collective efforts to the realization of an ideal of social justice.

Similarly, the academy seeks social justice through democracy.

Croly also argued that

the first thing which must be set aside is the method of representation….The representatives are not to represent districts or organized parties…or the leadership of one class. They represent salient and significant... phases of public opinion which have sufficient energy and conscience to demand some vehicle of expression.

The academy reflects this in espousing proportional representation for designated minority groups to be achieved through “democratic engagement.”

Croly believed further that

harmony between industrial and social interest could no longer be automatically created merely by stimulating individual economic enterprise within the limits of a few self-executing rules laid down in advance by society. Any such harmony, if it were to be attained, must be patiently contrived by the discriminating exercise of the national will.

He sought industrial self-government in which workers would join employers in running businesses. The academy seeks to turn capitalism to the ideal of social responsibility by applying a collective will of society through democratic engagement.

Croly’s progressive democracy is a political fantasy. However, the academy’s progressivism still aims to achieve his goal to “redirect corporate power to social ends.” So we learn from professor Seth Pollack, CSU Monterey Bay, in “Civic Literacy Across the Curriculum” (Diversity & Democracy, Fall 2011): every business student must take a Community Economic Development course, which explores the overriding question, “How can business balance the triple bottom lines of profit, people, and planet?” Pollack notes that such courses give students “a foundation in issues of social group identity, social justice, and social responsibility….These elements become even more critical as departments begin to engage more deeply with injustice and inequality experienced by communities.” 

Ironically, from the past influence of the academy, as well as pressure from the federal government, many corporations already make offerings to social responsibility—diversity in hiring and promotions, contributions to charities, community development programs, and, above all, political and environmental correctness. In Friday Frogs Legs, Ashley Thorne reported that the first line of the 2008 rankings of colleges by DiversityInc, read: “We’re disappointed. Colleges and universities are nowhere near the level of private industry in implementing or measuring diversity management.” DiversityInc defines diversity management as “the proactive management of race/culture, gender, orientation, disability and age to ensure equal outcome in relationships with its employees, customers, investors, and suppliers.” 

David Brooks observed in Bobos in Paradise (2000): 

Practically every company now portrays itself as a social movement, complete with apostate goals…a high social mission….The dirtiest word in the corporate lexicon is mainstream….What’s happened is simple enough. The Bobos [ affluent bourgeois bohemians] have invaded the business world, and they have brought their counterculture mental framework with them to the old conference rooms of the bourgeoisie.

John Fonte described the widespread diversity training given in business in “Why There Is A Culture War” (Policy Review, December 2000–January 2001):

The employees of America’s major corporations take many of the same sensitivity training programs as America’s college students, often from the same ‘diversity facilitators.’ Frederick Lynch, the author of the Diversity Machine, reported ‘diversity training’ is rampant among the Fortune 500. Even more significantly, on issues of group preferences vs. individual opportunity, major corporate leaders tend to put their money and influence behind group rights instead of individual rights….Private corporations are also more supportive of another form of group rights—gay rights—than are government agencies at any level….Whether these decisions favoring gay (read: group) rights were motivated by ideology, economic calculation, or opportunistic attempt to appear ‘progressive,’ they typify American businesses’ response to the culture war.

Businesses have already become more socially and politically correct, reflecting postmodern multiculturalism. But that carries no weight in the academy, which has not leavened its opposition to capitalism. Instead, the emphasis now falls on inequality. The U. S. Department of Education report, A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future (January 2012), would mobilize the academy “to eliminate persistent inequalities, especially those…determined by income and race.” To do so, it seeks to “reinvent and reinvigorate higher education, our economy, and our democracy.” It would imbue colleges and universities with a greater “overall capacity to spur local and global economic vitality, social and political well-being, and collective action to address public problems.” It would have the academy “engage the majority of Americans with the challenges we face as a diverse democracy.”

Like Croly, a Task Force of the American Political Science Association, in American Democracy in an Age of Rising Inequality (2004), bemoans the lack of adequate progress towards “realizing American ideals of democracy.” The “very richest 1 percent” and “privileged professionals, managers, and business owners” have

especially since the mid-1970s…pulled away from not only the poor but also the middle class…Rising economic inequality will solidify longstanding disparities in political voice and influence…Our government is becoming less democratic, responsive mainly to the privileged….We challenge our fellow citizens to…expand participation and make our government responsive to the many, rather than just the few.

The academy would engender a collective will and employ “democratic engagement” to create public pressure on government and business to eliminate inequality and realize Croly’s democratic ideal of social justice. But a liberal education inculcating knowledge of Western civilization as NAS has sought—and not progressive political activism—should be the primary purpose of the academy.

Next week’s article will examine shareholder capitalism and stakeholder capitalism, or corporatism.


This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).

Image: "Election MG 3455" by Rama // CC BY-SA

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