Heather Hardy tearing up the violin with us!
With the saxy Alex Flores sitting in!
Sometimes in the muck of modernity, or the crazyquilt of postmodernity, we long for a benevolent dictator, or the romantic notion of a loving, parental monarch from centuries past. When the debate gets ugly, it’s easy to forget that the debate is in fact sacred stuff.
We grew up. We are no longer the children of a king or queen. The language of the enlightenment and later thinkers, such as Kant, Spinoza, and Mill, whose ideals both fueled and were fueled by the American Revolution and subsequent democratic revolutions, was full of references to a new sense of, and need for, a feeling of “maturity.” Sapere aude! Dare to think for yourself!
During a presidential election season I think we have emotional flashbacks to the days when the decision was out of our hands, when the dear leader would show up, chosen by God, for better or for worse. Thousands of years of monarchy and nobility are still in our DNA memory, and there’s a lingering fondness for daddy, who protected us, made our decisions for us, provided for us. I think there’s a good reason “Hamilton” has been turned into a popular musical recently – he loved aristocracy and royalty and argued to keep remnants of it in our Constitution, and even died in the noble, violent style of the ancienne regime. In times of uncertainty and upheaval especially, we long to run to the old familiar lap.
This secret love of the monarch underlies our passion over the presidential race, and our relative apathy and low voter turnout during mid-term elections. (Even the term mid-term elections implies that the presidential is the only really important election, the point of reference.) Of the three official branches of our government, Americans statistically have the lowest confidence in the Legislative, probably because Congress resembles us. They don’t wear long black robes, they are not solitary heroes who will singlehandedly save us; they are grunts who do a dirty job with consistently imperfect results. The halls of Congress are even jokingly called a “sausage factory;” we don’t really want to know what happens there, and we love to complain bitterly about the outcomes.
In fact, relative to many younger parliamentary democracies, our Constitution gives an excessive amount of power to the President, precisely because in the eighteenth century even our most progressive Founders, with no contemporary democratic role models to work from, had a hard time thinking outside of the box of monarchy. Arguably the stature and magnetism of George Washington himself (often referred to later as His Excellency, or His Highness the President,) within the Philadelphia State House influenced the Constitutional Convention to create an office with his benevolent leadership in mind. (We still only elect tall guys. Well, that may be changing.)
As I said, we’ve grown up. Maybe a little fast. Humanity’s gradual yet sweeping embrace of democracy as an ideal and as a system of government is, I believe, an adolescence in our spiritual growth – the societal-level version of the throwing-off of parental authority and the acceptance of personal responsibility for one’s choices. Of course it’s messy! So much of the horror and turmoil of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was basically our species using its limited mental, emotional, spiritual, and linguistic tools to deal with the beginnings of a radical, global paradigm shift.
But democracy was, is, and continues to be our trajectory. (Yes, I’m unabashedly teleological in my belief in our spiritual evolution. But it’s not a belief in anything as simplistic as “destiny.” We are making the choices here. That’s the exciting part.) Democracy is not a finite system – there is no such thing as a perfected one. We strive for a more perfect Union – not a perfect one. The discussion of inclusivity is one example of the gray areas that democratic discourse reveals: who should be allowed to vote, or hold office? If people in prison are affected by public policy, should they be allowed to vote? If people in Mexico are affected by U.S. foreign policy, should they be allowed to vote in our elections? What about children? It was once seriously thought, by educated men, that women and people of color were not qualified to vote. Imagine that! Was that even a democracy? Well, yes, a less perfect one. Democracy’s trajectory is towards more and more inclusion, but where do we draw the line, and when do we re-draw it, and how do we keep our system flexible enough that we can re-draw the lines when we’ve learned better? Democracy, by its very nature, demands that we admit we can’t know all the answers, and that we still try to find them. It’s exciting stuff, if you’re ok with the unknown and can remember to breathe.
The life blood of democracy is the open mind. Here is the kernel I mean to get at today, if I can find the words for it…
I don’t like debate. It makes me really uncomfortable, and there always seems to be some aggressive loudmouth who wants to dominate the conversation or prove something at the expense of the discourse. The point of view of the quiet and the deep is almost always bulldozed over by the noisy mob. Our democratic culture has a love/hate relationship with public debate. There is in fact a sub-discipline in democratic theory that idealizes what it calls the “agonistic” nature of deliberative, or town-hall, democracy. I’m sorry, but a conceptual model of democracy with the word “agony” in its root is just a hard sell. (OK, my interpretation of agonistic democracy is a little reductive, but please bear with me…)
What people need is to be heard.
When a person is repeatedly not heard, he or she will go crazy.
The function of open debate in a democracy is not that one can argue until one finally convinces the listener of the verity of one’s opinion. We’ve seen that this almost never happens. Debate and argument generally causes each party to dig their heels even deeper into their own ideology. It’s even being proven with psychological research – our ideologies are practically hard-wired into our brains. An extended ideological debate between a liberal and a conservative ultimately ends with a “communist” and a “fascist” storming off in opposite directions.
So let’s free ourselves from the term “debate.”
The real work of democracy is in making sure that everyone is heard. Or, pragmatically, that more and more of us are heard.
Why the appeal of the Republican frontrunner? His fans say that he is saying things that need to be said. He is giving voice to their fear and anger. That’s all. A minority of our society that has been driven to extremes of negative, reactive emotion feels that it has found a spokesman. And of course the media, whose economy is driven by the sensational and the provocative, is going to amplify the squealing voices and faces of discontent (as long as it’s not the type of discontent that threatens the media outlets themselves, or their cronies.)
If you found out that your teenage son had joined a gang, would you turn your back and refuse to listen to him anymore, the moment the truth came out? Or would you make a point of sitting him down and talking to him? Would you listen when he talked to you? Would you try to find out what was wrong in his life that made him feel the need for gang membership? Even if you knew he was going to be stubborn and contrary and storm off, you would at least try, wouldn’t you? Maybe you’d encourage him to join a hardcore punk band to express himself.
This is not a prescriptive essay – I’m not going to say there is something we should do, like run out and hug a tea-bagger. (Though maybe you could buy him coffee and a donut and listen to him for a few minutes.) What I’m reaching for here is an expression of the spirit of democracy, because I think we lose sight of it in the noise and fury of election years. I’m just going to riff until I find it…
We are moving toward being a more compassionate species. Those of us with the time and luxury to reflect can imagine, for instance, a future without war and poverty. We grow as a culture and as a species the same way an individual grows toward being a more fully realized human – by stretching to consider new ways of… well… stretching and considering. This is the essence of living democracy – it’s a system that contains the very mechanisms that allow it to grow democratically. (Here the term “strict constitutionalist” is an oxymoron – a true democratic constitution is made to be re-interpreted as conditions change. RIP Mr. Scalia. Good bye.)
I guess I’m saying we can’t be groovy, enlightened people in our personal or spiritual lives, and still turning our backs on each other politically. Our problem is not that there are wackos with radically different beliefs than ourselves. It’s a bigger problem that we’re isolated from those wackos in our own bubble. The practices that erode democracy – isolation, failing education, misinformation – are more dangerous than the isolated, undereducated, misinformed people themselves.
One of the defining characteristics of the ideal democracy (which, as I’ve said, doesn’t exist per se, but needs to exist as an idea for us to strive toward) is that all voices are heard. Even fearmongers. Even strict constitutionalists. Even socialists and middle-of-the-road diplomats.
Something new needs to happen. Something new is being born. Things just wouldn’t be this weird if it wasn’t. And we’re going to birth it.
What could it be?
We fantasize sometimes about the whole system crashing and being re-tooled. Things are so science-fictiony now it seems like anything could happen. But collapse and rebuilding is an awful prospect – a lot of babies would be thrown out with that bathwater, methinks. When my mind is calm and clear it always seems to be able to come back to rest on democracy, and it feels like the sanest place – the place where we are all truly in this together (even our crazy fringy cousins,) where age-old wisdom proves solid over and over again, where human decency again shows itself to be the bottom line, and where systems (however incomplete or flawed) built by intelligent, thoughtful, hopeful people with consideration for future generations are still pretty reliable tools for moving forward with each other.
I still trust our ship of state to right itself. Now please get out and vote. And please especially get out and vote again in two years.
[This is not a scholarly essay, but some of the ideas reference the following sources:
Miracle at Philadelphia by Catherine Drinker Bowen
An Answer to the Question, What Is Enlightenment? by Immanuel Kant
The claims about American confidence in the various branches of government, and the neurology of ideology, should be Google-able. If not, my apologies.]
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