We live in an era of democratic contradiction. As the Cold War recedes into history and the apparent triumph of liberal democracy spreads around the globe, the domestic state of democracy within the United States continues to erode. Rather than a nation where citizens feel empowered in their common governance, the US has become a land of where the vast majority of citizens hate their leaders yet never vote. Massive anti-incumbency sentiments and resentment toward representative government parallel the rise of grassroots militia movements and media demagogues. Clearly something has gone wrong with democracy in the US–or more precisely with the way democracy is understood and exercised.
Nowhere are these difficulties more pronounced than in battles over cultural issues. Debates about canonical values, revisionist curricula, artistic censorship, and freedom of expression have moved from the margins of public debate to its center. Increasingly, people across the political spectrum recognize the strategic role of the arts and humanities in shaping human identities and influencing politics. At a historical moment lacking in superpower conflicts, ideological debate has become internalized as it did in the 1950s. Once again battles that were waged with guns and bullets are now fought with ideas and symbols. And once again access to the debate is a crucial issue, as attempts are made to exclude voices that would contest the status quo.
This book is premised on the regrettable fact that the US has nothing even approaching an egalitarian realm of public communication and civic ritual. Although identity politics and the so-called “culture wars” have done much to expand the national conversation about pluralism and values, these issues have also induced heightened levels of divisiveness and antagonism. As television and computers have made more information available to people than ever before, the electorate finds itself increasingly uninformed and confused. And while democracy is a word that politicians and media personalities bandy about with great alacrity, its usefulness has become all but exhausted by divergent interests it has come to serve.