Dictionary of Political Science Biography

This biography was published in “American Political Scientists : A Dictionary” and appears courtesy of author Patrick Deneen and the Greenwood Press.

Barber, Benjamin R.(born, August 2, 1939) is a political theorist renowned for his passionate defense of “strong democracy,” a democratic theory that advances the role of robust democratic citizenship over formal constitutional mechanisms, and is particularly attentive to civic participation, civic education, and a vibrant civil society. Barber’s many books have been widely read and translated, and he is a well-known intellectual figure within and – of special importance to Barber – outside the academy, both in the United States and abroad. He writes not only as a scholar seeking to investigate varieties of democratic theory, but as a public advocate of a richer democratic life, and all of his writings, from academic studies to more popular articles in newspapers and magazines of opinion, have stressed the need to think practically about ways to foster a more democratic political life in America and abroad. His ability to bridge the worlds of theory and practice was reflected in his role as informal outside advisor to President Bill Clinton from 1994-1999.

Barber received his B.A. from Grinnell College in 1960, but was educated prior to completing his undergraduate degree at the Albert Schweitzer College in Switzerland and the London School of Economics, where he studied in part under Michael Oakeshott, with whom Barber came to share a critical eye toward philosophical systems or any theoretical approach that sought to regulate human life and political reality without regard to circumstance or particularity. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1967. His dissertation, written under the direction of Louis Hartz, was a comparative study in which he argued in favor of the virtues of Switzerland’s participatory cantons over the inadequacies of Western liberal representative democracies. From 1974 to 1983 he was editor of the journal Political Theory, and has been the recipient of Guggenheim, Fulbright, and American Council of Learned Society fellowships. He has taught at the University of Pennsylvania, Haverford College, Hunter College, Colorado College, Princeton University, the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en sciences sociales, and from 1970-2001 at Rutgers University, where in 1988 he became the Walt Whitman Professor of Political Science and founded and subsequently directed the Whitman Center for the Culture and Politics of Democracy. In 2001 he joined the faculty of the University of Maryland as Kekst Professor of Civil Society, and as a Principal of “The Democracy Collaborative.”

Barber’s undisputed major contribution to political theory is his 1984 book Strong Democracy, in which he forcefully argued on behalf of a participatory form of democracy that might correct the enervating limits on democracy established by liberal assumptions and constitutional forms. There Barber defended a form of “anti-foundational” epistemology in which no prior commitment to conceptions of justice, or constrained forms of reasoning, or assumptions of certain “truths” in politics can be allowed to limit democratic openness. Adherence to such political “fallibilism” led Barber to lodge a strenuous defense of the practice of democracy that alone is capable of providing a continually consensual forum for deciding the basic issues of human life, including that most fundamental political issue, how we will continue to arrange our mutual existence together. Barber is aware of critics of this form of anti-foundationalism, especially those employing liberal arguments of the sort inspired by James Madison and John Rawls who fear rampant tyranny of an undisciplined and oppressive democratic majority. Barber does not view exclusive reliance upon constitutional mechanisms that limit democratic decision-making as either desirable from a democratic perspective, or even as ultimately viable in the absence of a civic dedication to democratic mores, including democratic rights – rights that are accorded not a priori, but as a consequence of shared democratic commitments. Thus, without calling for the rejection of constitutional forms, Barber instead emphasizes the need for a civic education in democratic responsibility, for strong democratic practices that serve as an apprenticeship for liberty, and for the opening of all political questions to extensive discussion and ultimately responsible and reflective democratic decision-making. For Barber, all of these practices contribute to the creation of a yet-unseen strong democratic citizenry, a group of individuals who exhibit mutual “empathy” without evincing a craving for collectivism, and in whom the “imagination” is cultivated to include perspectives and concerns beyond those one might regard as immediately one’s narrow interests in the absence of a vibrant democratic colloquy. Combining the anti-foundational consensualism of Rousseau with the commitment to civic education of Jefferson, bringing together Dewey’s pragmatic rejection of “the quest for certainty” with Whitman’s calls for a national and even international expansion of “democratic vistas,” Barber has above all sought to replace a prevailing liberal distrust and even cynicism toward the possibilities of democracy with a renewed “democratic faith” in the self-governing capacities of a an active, informed and engaged citizenry.

Barber’s recent work has focused on two distinct, but connected areas: democracy in the international arena, and the role of civil society in providing a sphere of support for democracy. In Jihad vs. McWorld, Barber warned that the contemporary trends toward globalization (or “McWorld”), on the one hand, and ethnic tribalism (“Jihad”), on the other, while apparently opposite, are in fact connected by a growing antipathy toward the nation-state, and a distaste for the modern democratic forms that have originated in those settings. Barber argues strenuously that the globalization of markets is not the equivalent of, a substitute for, or the necessary harbinger of the realization of political democracy. He rejects the viability of a form of world democracy, suggesting there are physical and cultural boundaries within which participatory forms of democracy can be achieved, but simultaneously rejects calls for a more localized and intimate setting for democracy – such as those modeled on the Athenian city-state – a form for which Barber has significant distrust given the pathologies of repression and the limits for self-development that such small localities entail. Barber has argued in favor of an international version of the U. S. “Articles of Confederation,” an loose confederacy that preserves democracy within nation-states, expects a high level of participation within those confederate nations on national and international issues, and, informed by discussion at the national level, seeks consensus between constituent nations. To ensure such participation within large national settings, in addition to recommending technological means for overcoming the vast distances and for connecting the enormous populations of modern nation-states, Barber rests his hopes for strong democracy on the fostering of a strong civil society within and beyond the nation-state. His conception of a strong democratic civil society includes the creation of public spaces for informal daily interaction and formal political practices; programs of voluntary civil service in which citizens work toward the betterment of their communities while simultaneously exposing them to a variety of other people with whom they might not regularly concert; and through the public support of democratic forms of art, which shares with democracy the aim of cultivating civic imagination and empathy.

Patrick J. Deneen, Princeton University

Selected Works

1974   The Death of Communal Liberty: A History of Freedom in a Swiss Mountain Canton. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

1981   The Artist and Political Vision (co-edited with M. J. McGrath). New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 2001.

1981   Marriage Voices: A Novel. New York: Summit.

1984   Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age. Berkeley: University of California Press.

1985   “How Swiss is Rousseau?” Political Theory 13(1985): 475-95.

1988   The Conquest of Politics: Liberal Philosophy in Democratic Times. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

1992   An Aristocracy of Everyone: The Politics of Education and the Future of America. New York: Ballantine Books.

1995   Jihad versus McWorld. New York: Times Books.

1998   A Place for Us: How to Make Society Civil and Democracy Strong. New York: Hill and Wang.

1998    A Passion for Democracy: American Essays. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

2001   The Truth of Power: Intellectual Affairs in the Clinton White House. New York: W. W. Norton.