“A just society is one in which human beings are ‘empowered,’ they are able to use and develop their essentially human capacities. It is a society organized to transcend alienation.” (C.B. MacPherson)Joining together with others to fashion a community life makes us real.
And we will do it. One way or another, we will do it. If we don’t learn and maintain the democratic arts of hospitality to the stranger, of cherishing the voice that will tell us something we could not have imagined for ourselves, if we don’t have communities that feel safe and also encourage us to be bold enough to relish the challenging voice that stretches us, then we will instead build insular communities dedicated to protection, craving the safety we cannot quite achieve. One way or another we will join together with others to make our lives real. If we don’t do it in democratic community, we’ll do it in totalitarian community.
“Our interdependence as members of the human species requires us to belong – if not to free associations, then to totalistic collectivities.” (Benjamin Barber)
“The genius of totalitarian leadership lies in its profound awareness that human personality cannot tolerate moral isolation. It lies, further, it its knowledge that absolute and relentless power will be acceptable only when it comes to seem the only available form of community and membership.” (Robert Nisbet)Yes, democracy is the most effective means of organizing consensus among diverse people. Yes, democracy preserves stability, and balances competing interests. But that is to see democracy just as a tool, an instrument. It misses the more fundamental significance of democracy as an end in itself, an ethical ideal. Democracy’s real significance is its larger ethical meaning as a way of life, “a form of moral and spiritual association,” with democratic government as but one of its manifestations.
Of late, things haven’t been looking so good for the public sphere as a form of moral and spiritual association. It’s been 30 years since Alasdair MacIntyre wrote that “this time the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers, they have already been governing us for quite some time.” In those 30 years, it seems things have gotten worse: more polarized, more divisive, less cooperative, less empowering. It’s become harder to see democratic public engagement in the building of our shared world as the meaning of life and the ground upon which life’s meaning is co-created because the public sphere now seems attenuated and shrill, fraught and futile.
“Democracy in America is a series of narrow escapes, and we may be running out of luck....We have fallen under the spell of money, faction, and fear, and the great American experience in creating a different future together ha been subjugated to individual cunning in the pursuit of wealth and power – and to the claims of empire with it ravenous demands and stuporous distractions. A sense of political impotence pervades the country – a mass resignation defined by [the historian Lawrence Goodwyn as ‘believing in the dogma of “democracy” on a superficial public level but not believing it privately.' Hope no longer seems the operative dynamic of America, and without hope we lose the talent and drive to cooperate in the shaping of our destiny.” (Bill Moyers)Every age has had its problems. Ours include seemingly unending wars abroad, the rising percentage of all wealth held by the top 10 percent, and the top 1 percent, high levels of unemployment, the power of big money and large corporations, the degeneration of our schools, endemic racism in our law enforcement and criminal justice systems, the collapse our infrastructure and, indeed, the collapse of our environment. Meanwhile the general public seems unable to figure out how to stop sliding further and further into powerlessness as privatization sweeps over more and more of what we used to regard as the commons: nursing homes and hospitals, prisons, schools, and other institutions we used to see as appropriately managed by governments and non-profit agencies because they provide public goods and meet public needs. Private military contractors are taking on more functions that used to belong to the public’s army, and private security firms are eclipsing public police forces.
We have big problems, and everywhere is the creeping disempowerment of our ability to collectively address them.
“We suffer from a fragmentation of community that leaves us isolated from one another. We suffer, ironically, from our indifference to those among us who suffer. And we suffer as well from a hopeless sense that our personal and collective destinies are no longer in our hands.” (Parker Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy 19)Saving democracy and saving ourselves requires a renewal of the democratic “habits of the heart” to use the phrase of the early 19th-century insightful observer of the American scene, Alexis de Tocqueville. We’ve seen for generations now that plugging a democratic constitution into a third-world country with a history of dictatorship is meaningless. Where the people lack the habits of the heart to sustain democratic institutions, a constitution is just empty words on paper.
Next: The five most essential "habits of the heart" for democracy.
* * *
This is part 3 of 4 of "Democracy and the Meaning of Life"
Part 1: Neither Skinner Nor Benedict
Part 2: Balancing Interests vs Creating Selves
Part 4: Five Habits of the Heart