Review of Flattering the Demos: Fiction and Democratic Education

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Flattering the Demos: Fiction and Democratic Education.  Marlene K. Sokolon and Travis D. Smith, eds. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2018.


This edited compilation by Marlene Sokolon and Travis Smith makes important contributions to the field of political science teaching. Concerned to understand better how the study of fiction through multiple genres can inform and shape democratic education, the editors begin these investigations with some observations about the current state of university curricula. In particular, they comment on how, “over the last several decades, there has been increasing pressure to steer students away from studying literature and other forms of narrative storytelling toward STEM-related . . .  disciplines” (1). Sokolon and Smith bid readers to question this rejection of literature and liberal arts education, as well as to consider the effects that these educational trajectories have had upon “fostering thoughtful and informed democratic citizens” (1). In their efforts to bring together a quorum of authors in this compilation, they state that their core purpose “is to explore and contribute to the growing interest in the importance of fictional sources to important questions of political thought and the role of storytelling in the political imagination of democratic citizenship” (5). Sokolon and Smith bring together a rich selection of authors. They have grouped the eight chapters contained in this book into four consecutive pairs that form thematic sections. In order of appearance, these sections are: “Historical Explanations”; “Technology and Heroism”; “Demos in America”; and “The Consequences of Interpretation.”

Section One begins with an essay by Sokolon entitled, “Revenge of the Poets: Euripides and the Education of the Demos.” This chapter examines the pedagogical character of ancient Greek theater, and of Euripides’ Suppliant Women in particular. Sokolon centers in upon the manner in which dramatic storytelling brings both life and depth to political and philosophic questions for the education of a mass audience. Rather than leading festival goers towards easy, formulaic, or over-simple solutions for political questions, dramatic performances like those of Euripides intentionally expose audiences to “complicated interpretive ambiguity” (12). Sokolon takes as her case study how, in the Suppliant Women, ancient audiences are led to consider grand political questions, such as “What is the best regime?” Speaking as the champion of democracy in the Suppliant Women, Theseus reflects “common arguments of the intellectual atmosphere brought forward by supporters of democratic government during the time of the play” (14), whereas the herald’s speech criticizes the lottery system used in Athenian democratic practices and lauds the benefits of a city led by “one-man rule” or tyranny.

However, Sokolon points out that a provocative ambiguity is simultaneously layered into this debate due to the dramatic irony of “identifying a king with support for democracy and a common man – a herald—as the champion of tyranny” (17). Sokolon’s well-crafted analysis focuses on the pedagogical virtues of a dramatic approach to fostering political questions because of how spectators would tackle “the incongruity of Theseus’ words and actions” (20). She writes that, “It is in the nature of tragedy, as with other forms of storytelling, to raise but never provide definitive answers to these and the many other troubling questions raised by the play” (23). This manner of education is shown to be ideal for democratic citizenship in ancient Greece, and the example entices Sokolon’s readers to wonder about how helpful such dramatic or literary adventures might be in the modern-day context of education.

The second contribution to Section One is Derval Ryan’s essay, “Of Villains and Victims: Guilt and Bad Conscience in Richard III.” Ryan explores the meanings of “bad conscience” and “guilt” in Shakespeare’s play as, in many respects, prefiguring and dramatizing Nietzsche’s psychological enucleation of those concepts in On the Genealogy of Morality. Having explained these two terms, Ryan moves on to consider the way in which Nietzsche’s insights about them might unfold within the context of an interpersonal relationship such as the one of victim and perpetrator that is brought to the fore in Shakespeare’s Richard III. In particular, Ryan looks to Shakespeare’s play as a means to understand the repercussions of this relation in real-world political situations. In the course of her analysis, Ryan investigates the manner in which Richard is led to confront the pangs of his conscience as a kind of “irritating impediment” that checks him in the realization of his desires (37). Ryan links the provocation of Richard’s conscience to his ineffectuality and eventual downfall in the play, but she observes that Richard’s gnawing conscience is “not spontaneous” ; rather, it is brought on by his victims — mainly women — “who call conscience down upon him to weaken him before battle.” In this regard, Shakespeare makes conscience “a tool of the disempowered and victimized” (38).

However, “the function of guilt and ‘bad conscience’ in Richard III is further complicated because “it is deployed not only by the women in the play, but also by Richard himself as the villain” (42). In short, Ryan’s contribution to Section One of this compilation demonstrates how Shakespearean drama might be used to understand not only Nietzschean concepts about guilt and bad conscience; her work also provokes readers to question the extent to which Shakespeare’s work might teach us valuable lessons about the ways that real political change in the pursuit of justice might unfold for disempowered and victimized populations, as well as how these self-same methods of “performative victimhood” might be abused as tools “of persuasive rhetoric before an assembly of citizens” (43).

The first essay in Section Two is Kimberly Hurd Hale’s, “Only Human: Free Will and Choice in Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot.” Hale begins her chapter by stating her intent to examine “the dangers that automation and social engineering pose to the human spirit” (51). Alongside of her analysis of Asimov’s short story compilation, Hale introduces readers to a domain of speculative literature known as transhumanism, which is defined as “the movement that advocates using science and technology to guide the next steps of human evolution,” and in which speculative writers take seriously the prospect of “allowing robotics to play a significant role in that next step” (52). Hale offers us a broad-sweeping introduction to the views of transhumanists and their so-called “bio-liberal” expectations. The ramifications of these sorts of technological aspirations and dreams upon our moral and ethical considerations and development are brought to light by Hale’s analysis with careful reference to Asimov’s famous “Three Laws of Robotics.”

Hale’s discussion of these Laws gives birth to further critical considerations concerning the manner in which the allure of robotics and artificial intelligence might shape or even one day usurp our participation in the specifically human spheres of politics and religion. Hale next extends her investigations by showing how faith in a technological idea of a “universal reason” that is “free of human subjectivity” might lead us to suppose that we can dispense with any concerns for the development of wisdom or “philosophy” simply by entrusting ourselves to a surrogate machinery of science and innovation that is envisaged by transhumanist dreamers as somehow transcending “the flawed subjectivity of human perception and reason” (58-59). The remainder of Hale’s chapter offers readers an analysis of the various short stories contained in Isaac Asimov’s classic science fiction collection I, Robot. Hale examines each tale in order to ferret out the problems of self-understanding conveyed in our technological faith which may result in “the gradual loss of humanity’s capacity for a politics guided by the principles of classical liberalism” (64). Essentially, Hale’s extended considerations of science fiction storytelling challenge readers to think deeply about our faith in technology through examining the dangerous implications of the tales we tell ourselves about ourselves. Her chapter bids us to wonder how “the lessons of I, Robot can be applied to any force, ideology, or movement that threatens democratic rule” (66).

The last chapter in Section Two is “Comedy and Comic Books,” by Travis D. Smith. In his humorous exposition of this topic, Smith would have his readers consider how the stories told in comedy and comic books connect with our modern self-understanding. Pointing out that superheroes are a “distinctively modern invention,” Smith begins his chapter with the observation that the “hero inside all of us” motif in comic books “is too romantic, too optimistic, and too egalitarian” (69). However, although these sentiments in comic books align well with the optimistic egalitarianism of modernity, Smith also points out that superheroism is “at odds with modern culture and conventions in the way it transcends the norms of commercial society.” In particular, superheroes do not do what they do for profit, but because “virtue is its own reward” (72). Similarly, stories about heroism are “troublesome for our egalitarian ideological commitments” inasmuch as “modernity is premised on there being some sense in which human beings are fundamentally equal” (73), whereas the superiority of superheroes renders them most emphatically not equal.

Hence, the popularity of superheroes suggests that they “are the democratization of an aristocratic ideal that may point a democratic person in the direction of a nobler way of life, making what is fine and virtuous attractive to us in a fashion that remains friendly to our commitments to liberty and equality” (76). Smith’s extended analysis of the superhero trope is grounded in a larger investigation of American identity.  Being an American invention, superheroes share America’s optimistic outlook and “can-do” attitude, as well as American skepticism regarding the ability of government “to solve all of our problems through law, regulations, and their competent and non-corrupt enforcement” (78). Smith remarks how superheroes likewise reflect America’s self-conception as a world leader and protector, along with their “dangerous love affair with technology,” and in particular, “the technological mindset that supposes that every problem has a solution, and that the combination of ingenuity, grit, and firepower will always find a way” (78).

Finally, Smith connects his discussion of comic book heroism to larger ruminations concerning the meaning and the allure of comedy in the modern world. In his view, “Modern peoples are … addicted to comedy.” Comedy is “a narrative structure in which, despite a series of ridiculous mishaps, all goes well. Against all odds” (83). In comedy – and comic books in particular – the good guy always saves the day. How does this sort of storytelling and how do these sorts of expectations mould human behaviour in America? Smith’s elucidation of comic book storytelling makes a valuable contribution to this compilation because it helps readers to consider what such tales reveal about the conflicting elements of our modern self-understanding, including our “liberal democratic morality,” our faith in technology, and our “tragicomic worldview” (84).

Section Three begins with Bruce Peabody’s, “Explaining the Paranoid Style in American Politics: System Disjuncture and Narratives of Fiction.” Peabody remarks that “paranoia bubbles up more or less continuously in American political life as a by-product of two entrenched, opposed, and abrading belief systems.” He identifies these systems as “a revered and ideologically pure ‘constitutional system’” on the one hand, and “a messy, compromised and perverted ‘Washington system’” on the other (87-88). Peabody relies on the foundational work of Richard Hofstadter, who “described the paranoid style as a historically recurring attitude of ‘heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy’ that afflicted otherwise ‘normal’ Americans” (88).

However, unlike Hofstadter who claimed that the paranoid mentality tends to affect only “a modest minority of the population” (90), Peabody asserts that “in America, it is always a paranoid time” (91). Peabody contends that paranoid narratives help to resolve the “collective cognitive dissonance” (92) that many Americans feel, who “simultaneously love democracy . . . but hate democratic procedures and governance in practice” (94). Peabody remarks how paranoid narratives span the political spectrum; both Conservative opposition to “big government” and progressive concerns about the role of “big business” can draw upon such stories (98), and some portion of ruling elites will be inclined to use paranoid thinking as a resource. Indeed, in words that are well-suited descriptors of our own politically-turbulent times, Peabody writes that “[p]aranoia can be a bridge . . . between a leader and a skeptical electorate, an especially enticing option during periods of lower institutional trust” (98). Finally, Peabody links his analysis of paranoia in America to the broader literary questions underlying this compilation by investigating the films Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and JFK (1991) as instructional examples of how the paranoid narrative impulse is expressed in popular culture and visual-dramatic displays.

The second essay in Section Three is James Beneda’s, “A Band of Brothers Against Terrorism: The Citizen-Soldier Ideal in Post-9/11 US Military Mobilization.” Beneda considers “this concept – the ‘band of brothers’ – as the defining element of American patriotic heroism at the start of its post-9/11 wars” (112). A veteran of Iraq himself, Beneda sees “band of brothers” storytelling as integral to the recruitment strategies used during the aftermath of 9/11, as well as in the self-understanding of soldiers from his own generation. Beneda’s chapter critically interrogates this powerful image of self-sacrifice, seeking to understand it as “the connection between wartime experiences of [his own] generation of veterans and the cultural politics of the time” (112). In his view, “The wars we end up fighting, or at least our understanding of them, depend on our culture of war” (117).

Beneda’s writing offers readers a careful exposition of how war culture in America has been influenced by the “band of brothers” trope. Having identified its origins in Shakespeare’s Henry V, Beneda remarks that “the phrase ‘band of brothers’ has since become deeply embedded in the military” (121), early in the history of the Union through Washington’s reference to it in his Farewell Orders to the Continental Army, and then most poignantly during WWII, where “unlikely groups of men” found closest friendships in the “[u]niquely American potential for equality of status,” which was an “outcome of shared experience” (118). Here, Beneda points out how historically, such collectivism has been the “foundation of the American military ethic” (125); but while American society has often drawn upon these images of brotherhood and self-sacrifice to send its soldiers to war, Beneda remarks that American cultural values have been “undeniably individualist for much of the nation’s history,” and that “[t]his was certainly the case in the years before 9/11 as neoliberal high individualism came to permeate American culture” (125). However, these neoliberal views of our political nature collide and conflict with the WWII era collectivism. Beneda’s thoughtful interrogation of our conceptions of war therefore helps readers to identify certain dissonances in the stories we tell ourselves about our involvement in war.

In his view, the “band of brothers” narrative that had such allure for him and other veterans of his generation, on careful consideration, may capture the experiential content of soldiers during WWII, but it does not accurately convey the situation of Iraq veterans, since “the conduct of the war against Iraq followed a pattern of neoliberal atomization” (125). However, Beneda admits to the persuasive power that the “band of brothers” narrative had over his own imagination, writing “My Army ‘brothers’ and I could not help but uncritically and whole-heartedly embrace this ideology” (127).  Since the time of his own tours, Beneda has identified another shift in prevailing American narratives about war. He remarks that now, “more than a decade of wartime experience has undone the “band of brothers” motif. In recent war films, Beneda points out that “we are confronted instead by the pure individuality of the soldier” (128). Beneda’s chapter, in short, warns readers to attend carefully to the times and culture in which wars are fought, and that we must be cautious about the stories that we tell.

The first essay in the final section of this book is Alexandra Manoliu’s, “Political TV Series, Or, A Case of Unflattering the Demos: A New Setting for Cultivation Theory.” Manoliu’s stated purpose in this chapter is to “explore the concerns that television raises for democratic citizenship” (135). She relies on “cultivation theory” as a means of exploring what beliefs that television is “cultivating” about the real world through its screen depictions, and she makes the case that contemporary political dramas like House of Cards serve not to flatter but to “unflatter” the demos on a daily basis.  In Manoliu’s view, “the image people have of the democratic system is tarnished more and more” by such political television series, which are creating much cynicism about politics (137). Comparing recent depictions of politics in House of Cards to The West Wing during the 1990s, Manoliu remarks that, “We are witnessing a radical change in the way stories about politics are told by television series.” Namely, we are moving “from the traditional happy ending to an anxiety-laden one from a hero figure to an anti-hero to outright bad guys as the main characters” (138). This development leads her to wonder, “Who is to blame for this drastic change in the cultural model?” (141). Readers are enticed to wonder about this too, and also to consider how formerly popular narratives with a “utopian vision” of political leadership like The West Wing now have a contrary effect on today’s viewers, driving them away from politics instead of providing hope (142). The unflattering stories we tell ourselves today about political leadership are indeed “a complex phenomenon” (144-145).

The final chapter in Section Four is Steven Orr’s, “The Problem with a Pitiable Rump: On Impropriety and Political Philosophy.” This essay interrogates and attempts to unpack the claims made by certain esteemed political theorists that political philosophy is either dead or in decline, as well as their narrow views about what is the “appropriate” form for the writing of political philosophy. Orr observes how critics who have bewailed political philosophy’s demise speak about the loss of its “comprehensive quality” (149), as well as about how philosophical education has been replaced by historical study or political training (150). Indeed, here one might recall the sincerity of the editors in their Introduction when they speak about the disappearance of liberal arts education. In a similar vein, Orr recalls Leo Strauss’ declaration that the discipline of political philosophy “now exists solely as ‘a matter for burial'” (151).

However, Orr approaches such claims optimistically, not unlike Paul McCartney, who once famously misquoted Mark Twain to address stories about his own death in the press. Orr likewise contends correctly that rumors of philosophy’s death have been greatly exaggerated; indeed, philosophy cannot die; it may be halted or more difficult to pursue, “but it cannot ever be eliminated,” for “[a]s long as human beings exist . . . political philosophy will be alive, in possibility if not in practice” (151). Orr’s contribution therefore sounds a positive note for readers who are concerned to take up the theoretical writings of political thinkers. Although he is not entirely persuaded “that our current situation is particularly more dire” than at other times in history, Orr next investigates the possibility that what is meant by “the death of political philosophy” is ” not the loss of a fundamental component of human experience, but rather the demise of the institutionalized practice and study of political philosophy” (156).

Alternatively, such a “death” might also be reframed as a failure of scholarship in the time period. However, in Orr’s view, “There has been no greater error in the discipline of political philosophy than the consecration of the treatise as the form in which political philosophy occurs” (160). Orr considers how “works of fiction” – say, Platonic dialogues, or Machiavelli’s plays – are most certainly masterful works of political philosophy (161). Orr’s closing contribution to this compilation invites readers to consider the value of opening wide their own reading lists in political thought, and most especially to consider a broader array of literature and textual possibilities for the insights they provide into the nature of political reality. Most astutely, Orr ends his essay by remarking: “If we accept . . . that ‘one of the surest hallmarks of a philosophical question … is that we are puzzled from the very outside, that there is no automatic technique, no universally recognized expertise for dealing with such a question,’ then the absurdity of relying solely on the treatise as a means of engaging with those questions becomes apparent” (162).

Sokolon and Smith’s Flattering the Demos is an enchanting read. The editors have taken great care to bring together a quorum of thoughtful authors who offer readers a wide range of approaches that challenge our attitudes towards literature and democratic education. Their collective voices invite readers to revisit a variety of genres, including tragi-comic dramatic plays, comic books and/or graphic novels, short stories, science fiction, film and television miniseries, both old and new. Obviously, in any compilation it is easy enough to find deficiencies or missing elements. One might, for instance, envision a more thorough book on this excellent and fruitful topic that would include some analysis of the role that stories play in the fragmentation of society engendered by identity politics; one might also expect to see some inclusion of the value and peculiar quality of “oral storytelling” among Indigenous peoples; fruitful investigations of how “the digital age” has affected both our storytelling and the manner in which we listen and attend to stories could have been valuable; likewise, although a rich diversity of prose forms are investigated in this volume, little attention has been given to the power of poetry or music in the telling of stories and in the education of the demos. Nevertheless, it is a very difficult thing to edit a book and to assemble a group of committed authors; Sokolon and Smith have made a fine contribution to the field of democratic education in this volume.


Elizabeth Amato’s review is here as well as an excerpt of the book.

Sean Steel

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Sean Steel is an Associate Editor of VoegelinView and a Sessional Instructor at the University of Calgary and a public school teacher. He is author of The Pursuit of Wisdom and Happiness in Education (SUNY, 2015) and Teacher Education and the Pursuit of Wisdom (Peter Lang, 2017).