Part Seven in a Series on Democracy.
There exists a set of beliefs that almost every citizen holds to be self-evident, and America’s faith in them remains strong, whether our political position leans liberal or conservative. These “foundational ideals” – like justice, liberty, democracy, freedom, equality, and rights – are complex and amorphous. Yet they work together to energize our society.
A sharp and unacknowledged distinction divides these concepts. Democracy is a process; the other beliefs are principles. The two parts are then governed by a hierarchy: process must follow behind principles. Unfortunately, our society’s gradual deification of democracy has subverted this natural hierarchy …… leading to today’s dysfunction.
Politics is the core mechanism of democracy, of course. It sorts into three stages: (1) Conflict arises. (2) Collective discourse develops to address that conflict. (3) Then, if the process is sound, decisions emerge. As new conflicts are generated, the three stages repeat.
It’s no coincidence that these stages are addressed by the political circle. The terms politics, democracy, and political circle function like synonyms. They describe the same process ……
It should be noted that Benjamin Franklin’s term for this process – republic – is also a synonym for the circle, and it parallels democracy ……
The American republic was structured as a process of conflict-definition, discourse-engagement, and decision-making. It includes elements of democracy. But it includes other safeguards also.
So …… what does the republic attempt to protect? The framer’s spoke often about the foundational human ideals of justice, equality, liberty, rights, and the like. The republic’s structure safeguarded those founding ideals.
Various regions of the political circle have attempted to guard specific principles, claiming them as their own. For example, “libertarians” in the lower right quadrant attempt to uphold “liberty”. More recently, the newly-invigorated lower left has championed “freedom” and “rights” as it battles first amendment infringement.
Perhaps the foundational principles do self-organize into some ordered form on the circle. It’s more likely, however, that they don’t reside on that structure at all. Instead, they all sit at the center …… combining their complex, idealistic, energetic, self-contradictory, and amorphous characteristics. No specific political position can lay claim to them there.
We can think of these principles as resembling a large campfire, whose intense interactions generate large amounts of energy. None of us can get too close their heat. Instead, we encircle it, paying close attention …… while remaining linked to our neighbors who also surround it.
But an important question has been missing from mainstream discussions of politics: What causes us to sort into specific positions around the circle?
The answer is that an underlying structure – or set of calculations – informs where each individual places themself around this fire. Each citizen views the founding ideals from a different vantage point because each citizen answers two fundamental questions in his or her own way ……
…… What values do I believe our society should uphold?
…… What form of power is the best path to those values?
These commingled questions bring order to our discussions. They lead to decisions about the American republic’s foundational principles.