Here we are. Now what? After an expectedly tumultuous 2017, when various civil liberties and protections have been spirited away, stolen in the night, brazenly ripped from our freedom clutching fingers, who are we and where do we go from here? This post simultaneously represents the end of the “Death of Democracy” series and the turn from explicit descriptions of socio-political situations toward explorations of intra-personal, psycho-social elements that form our experience of EveryDayLife.
The preamble for this series appeared in August with the presentation of Tim Snyder’s book On Tyranny. Dr. Snyder warned that as we have seen modern democracies fall at the hands of authoritarian movements and as we find ourselves in a growing climate of oppressive authoritarianism, we must remain vigilante regarding the United States and what we have come to define as its democratic principles.
Beginning the series proper, “Death of Democracy – Part I” focused on the Revolution of 1800 and featured an article by Lee Drutman. Mr. Drutman’s article considered division within the U.S. as it has manifested in the nature, purpose, efficacy and feasibility of our political parties. Divisions we experience today are not at all new. These divisions began at the inception of the country. In the late 1700s, a ragtag collection of colonies situated on the North American continent pulled themselves together to face the British Empire, their formidable parent nation. Only four years later, in 1800, as the fledgling United States of America, these same colonies had to face each other. Confronted by burgeoning but differing ideas about the nature of individual freedom, questions about race, class and gender, a bifurcated economic system based both on a (slave-based) agrarian versus (ostensibly a free market) manufacturing economy, and racked with dissension regarding Federalism and populism, this newly formed coalition of people managed to elect a new president—Thomas Jefferson—and avoid what some believed to be an inevitable civil war. Drutman’s conclusion: “We need political parties. But their rabid partisanship could destroy American democracy”.
Image by alexander parms
Part II of this series extended the precedent of compromise depicted during the presidential election of 1800, considering whether our current democracy can continue to function adequately in light of the apparent inability of the American people and the U.S. Congress to embrace such compromise. As predicted by George Washington in 1796, in the absence of the ability to govern collectively, we become susceptible to authoritarian rule. Such uncharacteristically closed governance could arise not only at the hands of those who opportunistically seize power, but also as a result of public acceptance of such rule in a desperate attempt to maintain societal stability.
“… many Americans are open to “alternatives” to democracy. In 1995, for example, one in 16 Americans supported Army rule; in 2014, that number increased to one in six. According to another survey cited at the conference, 18 percent of Americans think a military-led government is a ‘fairly good’ idea.” (see Amanda Taub‘s Nov. 2016 article “How stable are democracies“).
The third installment of the Death of Democracy series initiated the journey into the rabbit hole, into the sometimes hidden nature of ourselves. The third post called “Morality that Divides Us”, focused on morality, that is, the sense of “right” and “wrong” that underlies most of our beliefs, attitudes and behaviors (including political decisions). Couched in a somewhat skeptical presentation of Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory (MFT), Death of Democracy III suggested (as does Mr. Haidt) that we want to be separate, that we actually gain pleasure from our divisive tribalism. The post goes further to suggest that we appear to want to hold onto artificial us-vs-them constructions despite the loss of the social inclusion necessary for democracy to exist. Perhaps the only way we can transcend identity politics is to re-forge our identities based on the moral roots of humanity as a whole rather than the collective profile and ideologies of our adopted in-groups.
In the final consideration of democracy’s demise, the December 16th post challenges the very definition of “democracy”. Using a 1997 article by Fareed Zakaria as a focal point, that post considered Zakaria’s notion that while most definitions of “democracy” include some element of free elections, what appears to be waning in the United States and around the world is what we might call “constitutional liberalism”—our expectation of personal freedom combined with the social contract with the government to insure our protection. Beliefs (“moral” positions) about these joint components—freedom and safety—appear to form the basis of much of the division we currently experience. To this duo, we might add an additional component which both magnifies and clarifies our personal and tribal views on these two ideas. The third element is “responsibility”. Whose responsibility is it to preserve freedom? Who insures our safety? Who determines the overall experience of everyday life for each of us? Answers to such questions resonant within numerous societal categories (i.e., economy, war and military action, taxes, social welfare, immigration, etc.). Each response brings us—in a manner not unlike the colonists in 1800—face to face with each other. Confronted thus with the face of each neighbor, who do we see? Do we see a member of an inclusive society, a true neighbor? Is this collective worthy of the moniker “We, the People”? Do we even consider each person looking back at us a part of the collective we call the “human race”? Furthermore, as we face the ancient and far too contemporary question “Am I my sibling’s (brother’s) keeper”, how do we answer?
Beyond the Illusion
Such are the questions which form the very basis of democracy and its ability to thrive in a society. Over the years, we in the United States have managed to pull off the facade of inclusion, a semblance of democracy, quite well. From the apparent emancipation of slaves, to the women’s suffrage movement to the formation of labor unions to the civil rights and women’s liberation movements, we have historically put together a quasi-convincing profile of American democracy as a free and open society. Most of us have adopted the idea that we actually play a vital role in the governing process. However, economic inequality continues to grow in the U.S. (see Sheldon Wolin’s Democracy Incorporated)–boosted dramatically by the recent tax overhaul.
Interestingly, the continued rise in inequality has been matched by increased dissatisfaction with the performance of the central government. Part of the populace experiences a growing feeling of hopelessness and disenfranchisement. These folks have largely given up, ready to be ruled by whatever form of force that manages to wrestle control of all branches of government. Another portion of us have begun to express hyper-vigilance regarding who “we” are (in other words, “identity politics”). This latter reaction, of course merely represents a more aggressive expression of disenfranchisement–an active attempt to feel whole, crystallized in a contrived “we”. Appearing in both socio-politically right and left-wing forms, this more aggressive reaction to the feeling that democracy is not operating for us all has led to a sharp increase in partisanship – into sharply, rigidly defined, mostly exclusive “we’s”. Ironically, the more we are divided, the less democracy can work. (For a more thorough description of mechanisms used to instill and maintain socio-political division as a means of controlling a population, see Noam Chomsky’s Requiem for the American Dream.)
“The angrier the electorate, the less capable we are of finding common ground on policies, or even of treating our opponents like human beings.”
~ Lilliana Mason, political scientist.
Beyond a House Divided?
While discussing the Death of Democracy series with colleagues, when we specifically focused on the problem of hyper-partisanship, one person said “they will never change because they think they can win!” Who is “they”? We will never change as long as we think “we” are right—as long as we staunchly maintain a separatist notion of “us versus them”. Democracy is not a zero-sum game—an interaction characterized by one side “winning”, based on the other side completely losing. The nature of true democracy is compromise. Democracy assumes a difference of opinion, of view point, even differences of people. Such a system provides the framework for managing differences not for obliterating them.
Despite the fact that the Republican Party has “won” majorities in both the House of Representative and the Senate, this group, until the passage of the recent tax bill, could not manage to get anything done. The divisiveness and intractability which brought Republicans to power continues to separate the party internally beyond the trenchant party opposition we have come to take for granted. Across the aisle, Democrats are not doing much better. In the most recent presidential election, the “non-Republican” portion of the electorate expressed a strong endorsement of Bernie Sanders and a more populist orientation to American politics. Despite this obvious trend, Democratic politicians continue to espouse a traditional (what some might call “neoliberal”) set of policies and behaviors which continue to alienate a large segment of the democratic (small “d”) citizenry. For some reason, these so-called representatives seem to think standing “over-against” a Republican agenda rather than truly representing the will of the People is both a sufficient and appropriate form of governance. The paradigm of rigid dissent has been set, particularly as it relate to the interactions of our political parties and the resulting effect on the general populace. The idea of democracy dies when compromise disappears.
Regardless of which party is in power, if one side is dominating the agenda with little or no room for compromise, democracy has no means of thriving. The turn toward democratic rule in 1800 could have been different—more akin to the lack of flexibility we see in the current U.S. congress. In the Revolutionary War, we initiated a pattern of change through the mechanism of violent separation. We could have continued along these lines. Political decisions by this country could have continued to segment along inflexible ideological positions, leading to civil war. This did not happen in 1800. Instead, that ragtag collection of colonies-become-states united around the essence of the Revolution—that people should not be oppressed through the tyranny of a powerful, distant and seemingly uncaring government. Instead, these nascent states organized around a process of compromise, elected a populist president and proceeded forward when they might have failed completely.
“United we stand, divided we fall. Let us not split into factions which must destroy that union upon which our existence hangs.” ~ Patrick Henry, 1799
Finding a Way to Rebind
The socio-political divide which too many of us insist on maintaining forms a weakness which, if left to fester, will undo us. Divided, we present to the purveyors of tyranny an open field in which to control our lives. This open field is represented by the lack of solidarity necessary to stand against it. Some of us have begun to increasingly speak about creating dialogue between us, regardless of political persuasion. Solidarity—our unity—is one of the building blocks of the thinking behind this blog, one of the vital components of Good we must continually seek, manifest and maintain. Solidarity is necessary against the current political backdrop and vitally important because of the following:
In 1960, only 5 percent of Republicans and 4 percent of Democrats said they would be displeased if their son or daughter married somebody with the opposing party affiliation. In 2010, 49 percent of Republicans said they would be unhappy if their son or daughter married a Democrat, and 33 percent of Democrats said they’d be unhappy if their son or daughter married a Republican. ~Lee Drutman
How do you think those statistics have changed in 2017? As the Drutman article suggests, we need political parties (or something like them). They were founded for a reason which has not gone away. A democracy thrives on differing opinions. When those differing ideas become formalized into political platforms (proposed by parties), voters have clearer ideas for whom they might vote as well as the issues for which they are voting. Unfortunately, the current two party system presents the labels “Democrat” and “Republican” as mere lingering eidolons from a previous era. The will of the People gets lost in the gaping chasm between these avowed points of view. This dichotomy only serves to pull us apart, to provide distracting beacons of opposition, thus preventing us from recognizing and scrutinizing the true Nemesis that lurks among us.
Democracy in the United States, if not dead, is dying. Ironically, its demise comes at the hands of the implementation of our current political system. Conceptually, while the system could work, as it is currently enacted by Congress, it does not work, not for common people. In their current form, our political parties have largely lost their value. Many people know this; most of us feel the truth of it. The vacuum created by these recalcitrant political entities has left The People high and dry, still needing the guiding principles political parties should provide. This vacuum has been filled by a relatively crude, visceral, emotionally-loaded set of concepts around which we rally. Sadly, the mechanism for bridging the gap between such disparity—what we called “democracy”—has disappeared. A revolution similar to that which occurred in 1800 can no longer happen in 2017 nor beyond. Perhaps such possibly has been lost to us forever. When the idea of selective “unity” becomes a set of labels destroying the cohesion of the country, we need to rethink our relation to the contrivances we call political parties. We need a new principle of organization to ameliorate rather than exacerbate our differences.
Such a “new system” is not a trivial undertaking. Many recognize the need for such change and yet few have proposed viable means of achieving such a shift. Various structural, legal and procedural ideas have been floated, from hard, in the trenches proposals from groups like Justice Democrats, spin-offs organizations from the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders, including Our Revolution (who focus on local and state elections) and Brand New Congress (who focus on recruitment of Republican congressional candidates) plus Wolf PAC (devoted to expunging corporate influence from the electoral process) to much more idealistic proposals from individual advocates such as Naomi Klein. None have fully taken hold—not yet.
Ms. Klein proposes that either we act to change our life experience or our life experience will be changed by others, probably in a manner we will not like very much. (see Ms. Klein’s book This Changes Everything (Amazon) , PDF version & book review). She boldly states that our current situation represents…
… the logical endpoint of a great many dangerous stories our culture has been telling for a very long time. That greed is good. That the market rules. That money is what matters in life. That white men are better than the rest. That the natural world is there for us to pillage. That the vulnerable deserve their fate and the super-rich deserve their golden towers. That anything public or commonly held is sinister and not worth protecting. That we are surrounded by danger and should only look after our own. And that there is no alternative. ~Naomi Klein
By contrast, Ms. Klein suggests that there is an alternative—that we change ourselves.
Perhaps we need to pause and consider the seat of the true problem—us. Perhaps we each need to start with that one person with whom we can have the most leverage—ourselves. Consider the possibility of various forms of personal change and healing already in use by thousands of individuals around the world. Synergies between ideas and processes—such as Victor Frankl’s logotherapy, parental models (nurturant and strict father) presented by George Lakoff, ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), general “mindfulness” perspectives and meditative practices to name only a few—present to us a huge field of possibilities we could tap to heal ourselves. Each individually or together could help to provide useful answers or at least direction for change. Regardless where we begin, regardless what we do, we cannot change if we do not step onto the path.
The proposal presented here is rudimentary, but a start none the less. Suppose we each begin with personal responsibility, each of us taking one small step to disengage from projecting our fear onto those “others” such that we can come to grips with our own culpability in this sad, socio-political mess. Next, we must stop assuming Someoneelse—Anyoneelse—is going to improve our lives. We have to throw off the cognitive and attitudinal shackles that convince us of our individual and collective inefficacy. Expressing such an audacious belief in personal capability, we effectively renounce hierarchy as a viable conduit of social organization. Each of us possesses power within our life spaces, within our individual spheres of influence—power that can be focused and applied to change within ourselves and those around us. Of course, we will need new forms and structures. We at seekingGood are actively exploring systematic alternatives for individual and collective change, change that can redefine us. You might also possess clues to our liberation toward enhancement of each individual that could lead to the genuine embodiment of what we idealistically call “We, the People”. We are in this together. As ideas arise, they will be shared here. We are seekingGood.
For Further Research
Thank you for an interesting piece. I’d agree that we need to start to think about how we change ourselves, as Tolstoy said “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” Personally I have found this very hard. I had years as a member of various left-leaning parties and it is difficult to think outside the party line. However, this is going to be necessary of we are to see things change.
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