Democracy and America’s War on Terror, by Robert L. Ivie

Ivie, Robert L.  Democracy and America’s War on Terror.  Tuscaloosa:  University of Alabama Press, 2005.  

Reviewed by

Paul Casey

, Occidental College


The interesting thing about Robert L. Ivie’s Democracy and America’s War on Terror is the way Ivie invokes Kenneth Burke as a complication to Bush administration hubris.   Borrowing Burke’s “comic corrective,” Ivie shows how Bush’s war on evil lacks humility in its construction of easy either/or distinctions.  Burke, Ivie tells readers, knew that “any terminology is suspect to the extent that it does not allow for the progressive criticism of itself.”  Progressive criticism is the exact cure Ivie believes “will be made all the more feasible by engaging a divisive world in the rhetorical idiom of democracy.”  Seeing the Other not as sheer enemy but as “consubstantial rival” might offer a way out of the quite dangerous game of good versus evil currently we are currently playing. 

Ivie locates current American hegemony within a historical framework stretching back to America’s constitutional formation.  The problem, he argues, resides in the formation of a representative government, a republic, based upon a fundamental mistrust of the people.  Ivie links the distaste for real democracy to James Madison, whose aversion to popular rule he expresses in terms associated with disease.  As Ivie notes,

Disease as a charter or model of a distempered people deconstructed the democratic discourse of citizen self-rule and reconstituted the public as an unthinking, irrational mob whose emotions are preyed upon by demagogues, a common herd that lacks sufficient virtue to consider the good of the community. (68)

Ivie’s thesis turns on this disease model, using it to account for reactionary thinking regarding the war on terror.  This model of internal distemper is turned upon the Other, currently figured as the Islamic terrorist.

Ivie cites a dissociation of rhetoric from reason as a major factor in the loss of democracy.  He says Athens was a model of participatory, representative democracy (unless one was unfortunate enough to be a slave or female), where rhetoric was a way of determining good arguments from bad, rather than as a form of trickery.  In Chapter 2, Ivie notes, “all citizens possessed the right to speak on the issues brought before the assembly if they could secure the attention of fellow assemblymen, who readily heckled boring or otherwise objectionable speakers” (52).  The normal, everyday course of political life included mass deliberation, very different from what Ivie terms “the fiction of representation” (69) America faces today.

Democracy is a politically left of center book, as an entire chapter engages in a scathing critique of America’s modern history of aggressive crusading for democracy.  Since World War II placed the United States on the winning side of the war against fascism, Ivie suggests (relying on a wide array of political writers, including Noam Chomsky and Gaddis Smith) that America’s posture has been one of “anti-imperialist imperialism” (107).  The disease metaphor controlling Ivie’s book throughout also runs as a thread through the Presidencies of Truman, Eisenhower, Carter, Bush Sr., Clinton, and the current Bush administration.  Of particular note is his profile of Jimmy Carter, a President whose “rhetorical signature was religious imagery, often thoroughly secularized . . . His goal was to persuade the Soviets, whom he knew to be evil, to repent and convert to the ways of freedom—a goal he maintained until it became apparent they were beyond repentance and still continuing their evil ways” (108). 

Not mentioned in Ivie’s book is Carter’s similar stance on Iran.  The author says Carter used power “on behalf of a moral agenda” (109), and nowhere was this more apparent and disastrous than in late 1970’s Iran.  In one of the most significant foreign policy blunders of the modern era, Carter allowed, and even aided in, the collapse of the pro-western Shah.  Some even link the rise of Islamic fundamentalism throughout the Middle East to Carter’s selling out of the secular Shah for his “Christian-warrior” philosophy.

The approach favored by Ivie is a Burkean one in the sense that Burke’s rhetoric of identification, finding places where perceived enemies’ interests overlap, is preferable to the current rhetoric of good and evil.  As Ivie demonstrates in his book, Bush’s “axis of evil” rhetoric is only the most recent manifestation of a distempered demos attitude of representative-style government, where the Other is a construction based upon internal fears of mob rule.   In the end, Ivie’s book offers much in the way of demonstrating the field of rhetoric’s viability and vitality as political critique, stemming as it does from our earliest reckonings of true democracy.