In her new book, Contesting Conformity: Democracy and the Paradox of Political Belonging
(Oxford University Press, 2020), political theorist Jennie C. Ikuta
traces the idea of nonconformity and how this often-lauded idea can be a significant challenge for modern democracy, especially in the United States. The United States is often associated with the ideals of democracy, freedom, and individual liberty. These concepts are usually looped together, by citizens and theorists, and yet while we often consider individual liberty as a vital part of democracy, Ikuta’s analysis highlights the tension or danger for democracy from this individual liberty in the form of nonconformity.
We often think of nonconformity as an asset, as a way of thinking or working that leads to creative outcomes, unexpected outcomes, unknowable outcomes. And Ikuta outlines how nonconformity is often approached in education, in business, even in culture and politics. But in examining this idealized position of nonconformity, especially in American society, Ikuta compels us to consider how this way of thinking and acting operates within a political system that is, by design, based on distinguishing the will of the people, and how that will guides policy, decisions, laws, and essentially the form of society. In thinking about American democracy, and modern democracy more broadly, Ikuta considers the foundational role of relational equality, where people see each other as political equals within society.
Fundamentally, Contesting Conformity
is asking about what conditions and restrictions are necessary on nonconformity within a democracy and how this interacts within the structure of relational equality. How is nonconformity compatible with democracy? For this question—which is the basis of the research, Ikuta turns to Alexis de Tocqueville, John Stuart Mill, and Frederick Nietzsche, since each of these theorists discusses both nonconformity and democracy, though they do not come to the same conclusions. Tocqueville, Mill, and Nietzsche were worried about the role and impact of conformity in mass democracy, though each considers distinct dimensions about conformity and nonconformity in this context. Each thinker is trying to determine whether and how to constrain nonconformity – since the effort to limit or temper this aspect of individualism also comes up against the promise of freedom. Ikuta carefully explores each theorist on the question of nonconformity, examining not only their analysis of this concept in context, but also the recommended solution or means to manage nonconformity within democracy. Ultimately, Contesting Conformity concludes that nonconformity can be beneficial for democracy, but not without conditions or restrictions.
Adam Liebell-McLean assisted with this podcast.
Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. She is co-editor of the award winning book, Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics
(University Press of Kentucky, 2012), as well as co-editor of Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America
(Bloomsbury Academic, 2015).