‘It was your American statesmen and poets such as Lincoln and Whitman who proclaimed to the world democratic thought and feeling, and the democratic way of life, in imperishable words,’ German novelist and Nobel Prize winner Thomas Mann stated in 1938. He arrived in New York for a coast to coast lecture tour entitled The Coming Victory of Democracy, inspired by Walt Whitman. More than hundred years before Mann’s arrival in America Alexis de Tocqueville wrote his brilliant study Democracy in America. His observations on the nature of a democratic society were, however, more sober than the euphoric evocations of the American bard and the German novelist. Without the burden of tradition, authorities and social classes, American society would be pragmatic, utilitarian, individualistic, materialistic.
What is the state of democracy today in the USA? Why do many Americans consider their political system ‘broke’? What are the consequences of this, now and in the future? What remains of Walt Whitman and Thomas Mann’s idea that literature and a liberal education are the soul of a true democracy? And when watching the news today, how should we understand the undercurrent of racism in American society; the religious fundamentalism; the massive amounts of money as part of the elections; the role of anti-politics ‘politicians’ in the election of the American president; the many broken dreams?!