This episode discusses the work of the influential American political thinker, Sheldon Wolin. Wolin is one of the foremost theorists of radical democracy. His insights are also extremely helpful in naming the contemporary forces and dynamics that undermine and subvert democracy - all in the name of being democratic. Like other figures discussed in this series he writes in a compelling way, drawing on a diverse range of sources including historical examples, the Bible, and contemporary culture to explain his ideas. His work has been important in helping to frame and make sense of on the ground democratic organizing. While giving an overview of his life and work, the key text of Wolin’s I focus on is his essay “Contract and Birthright” from his essay collection entitled The Presence of the Past.
I discuss Sheldon Wolin with Laura Grattan, a political theorist at Wellesely College. Laura's scholarship is shaped by nearly a decade of community organizing with Durham C.A.N., an IAF affiliate in North Carolina.
Laura Grattan is Jane Bishop '51 Associate Professor of Political Science at Wellesley College. She researches and teaches political theory, with a focus on grassroots organizing and movements for racial and economic justice. Her books include Populism’s Power: Radical Grassroots Democracy in America, which analyzes populist rhetoric and organizing in historical and contemporary social movements (including the nineteenth-century People’s Party, the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, and DREAM Act and UndocuQueer organizing). Her new project investigates movements such as the Movement for Black Lives, prison abolition, and #Not1More Deportation and the ways they generate alternatives to the colorblind ideology and practices that have produced and sustained the carceral state in the U.S. She is also co-editor of Deliberation and the Work of Higher Education: Innovations for the Classroom, Campus, and Community, which explores issues and practices of civic engagement among college students. At Wellesley, she co-directs the Project on Public Leadership and Action, an initiative led by faculty who are committed to action-oriented and public facing research that builds civic agency among students and in the surrounding community.
Resources for Going Deeper
Sheldon Wolin, ‘Contract and Birthright,’ in Presence of the Past: Essays on the State and the Constitution (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1990), 137-150.
Sheldon Wolin, Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought - Expanded Edition (Princeton University Press, 2004)