The Eleventh (and Final) Essay in a Series on Democracy
Few citizens regard American society as healthy today. And few have a fix for the deepening problems we face. Useful solutions will not emerge until several of the theoretical assumptions underlying today’s political system are re-examined.
Here’s a list of three assumptions that – when questioned – can help you to re-orient your thinking ……
Trend One: The Deification of Democracy
Today’s common mantras call for vague concepts like “saving our democracy,” “protecting our democracy,” or “preserving our democracy.” These shrill cries share an approach: they place one particular idea on a pedestal.
This view of democracy differs starkly from the view taken by America’s founder’s. Figures like Franklin and Adams disparaged it. They would have agreed with Winston Churchill’s far more forgiving assessment: “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
Gradually, through America’s recent history, the political class has taken the opposite approach. Democracy has become deified.
Ironically, this trend was accompanied by a concurrent reduction in the level of control that citizens have over their own lives. A dangerous and propagandistic centralization of power has occurred each time democracy has become more direct. Centralized power, in itself, is necessary to some degree, and can often be a benign force in society. But today’s excessive levels of centralization are feeding a growing authoritarian dysfunction in America.
To reverse the trend toward top down control, the concept of democracy will need to be approached with a more skeptical attitude.
Trend Two: Process versus Principle
The founders placed democracy within their constitutional form of government because it stood the best chance of preserving the beliefs they held dear. But democracy differs, in its basic nature, from the other “founding ideals” …… important ideas like justice, rights, liberty, equality, peace, and freedom.
Those ideals are principles. Democracy is a process. Democracy is useful only in its potential for preserving those principles.
When the process is valued more than the principles, however, a political system devolves into dysfunction. Hence, the situation we’re experiencing in early twenty-first century America.
Trend Three: A Disregard for Scale
Most media pundits look at every development through a national lens: events in remote parts of the country are interpreted as: “Here’s what we need to fix in America.” Somehow, the solution to each these “problems” is always to give more control to bureaucrats and politicians in Washington, technocrats in Silicon Valley, or top-down commercial corporations in New York City and elsewhere.
The strictly national approach is not what Ben Franklin envisioned when he described America’s new government as “a republic.” The original framework empowered states, localities, and individuals to the same extent as it empowered national interests. Any discussion of democracy without taking into account this sharing of power between a variety of scales will lead to authoritarian attempts at controlling citizens’ lives.