Democracy: Not Quiet and Orderly, but Exciting

Daring Democracy, part 1
“A majority of Americans apparently have come to think of democracy as a matter of consensus and parades, as if it were somehow easy, quiet, orderly, and safe.” (Lewis Lapham, 2016)
Easy, quiet, orderly, and safe. Perhaps that sounds really good – right now. Perhaps after a stressful week, you crave the sanctuary of easy, quiet, orderly, and safe. Sometimes I crave that, too.

But I’m not going to offer easy, quiet, orderly, and safe today. Let me tell you why. You see: there’s another way to turn around anxiety stress. And that is to turn it into excitement.

Democracy isn’t easy, quiet, orderly, or even safe. What it is, is exciting.

Turning stressful anxiety into invigorating excitement is often as simple as just saying so. There’s a study about that; let me tell you about it. Professor Alison Brooks put volunteers into various nerve-racking situations including: singing karaoke in front of strangers; public speaking; doing ‘IQ-test’ arithmetic problems under time pressure. But before each activity, they spoke out loud a single sentence to themselves:
“I feel anxious,”
“I feel calm,” or
“I feel excited.”
Those who said “I feel calm,” got no effect at all, either on performance or self-confidence. Those who said, “I feel anxious” did worse. Both their self-confidence and their performance was lower. Those who said, “I feel excited,” “not only felt more self-confident but also performed better, objectively measured, at all the tasks — singing, public speaking, even arithmetic. Saying “I am excited” switches the mindset from threat to opportunity – which “increases dopamine activity, which focuses your attention and sharpens you mentally.” (Robertson 2017)

So let our sanctuary – a sanctuary which, per our vision statement, we hope to make a “sanctuary without walls” – be a place of excitement – a respite from stressful threat and a gathering ground for life and verve and challenge, not sleepy complacency. In that spirit, let us engage this exciting prospect: democracy.

In their book, Daring Democracy, which is one of two Unitarian Universalist Common Reads this year – a book for all UUs to read and talk about together -- Frances Moore Lappe and Adam Eichen, expose and document an “anti-democracy” movement, funded by big money, that co-opts democratic ideals and leaves so many in the US feeling lonely and powerless. The Anti-Democracy ideology narrows the freedoms of democracy to consumption – the freedom to shop.

As Unitarian Universalists, we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Yet the current degraded state of democracy undermines worth and dignity.

As Unitarian Universalists, we affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of democratic process. Yet we find our political institutions denying rights of conscience and limiting access to democratic process.

As Unitarian Universalists, we affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence. Yet the structures of government seem to mock our sacred interconnectedness.

"Democracy,” said John Dewey, “is the name of a way of life of free and enriching communion." The needs of democracy are the needs of life. As Terry Tempest Williams put it:
"Can we be equitable? Can we be generous? Can we listen with our whole beings, not just our minds, and offer our attention rather than our opinions? And do we have enough resolve in our hearts to act courageously, relentlessly, without giving up –ever – trusting our fellow citizens to join with us in our determined pursuit of a living democracy.”
You may have noticed, we kinda need each other. We need each other to become and to be what we are. Recognizing this, a number of theologians now conceive of hell not as a place, not as an afterlife condition, but as alienation. Hell, they say, is disconnection from the social soil from which we draw essential nutrients.

Let’s look briefly at the historical development of our ideas of individual and society. The ways that past conceptions met some needs and neglected others will show us what all the needs are.

For the Medievals, nobility -- as in “exalted moral character, dignity, and admirable excellence” -- was the same thing as nobility -- as in “inherited wealth and power”. Thus feudalism was profoundly, fundamentally, and vastly unequal. It sustained itself as long as it did because it was clear about where everyone belonged, where everyone fit in. The miseries of serfdom were bearable – or, at any rate, were borne – because they were aspects of a clear and coherent moral order of things.

With the slow rise of the mercantile classes, Western political thought began moving toward a modern conception of individuals. By 1776, Thomas Jefferson, implementing the political theory John Locke’s Treatises of Government had expressed 100 years before, grounded the colonies’ claim to independence in an assertion that individuals were all created equal. They had inalienable rights. They had interests that counted.

On this new conception, you’ve got your interests, and I’ve got mine, and the political problem is that your pursuit of happiness is liable to interfere with mine. To solve that problem, governments, said Jefferson, “are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” for the purpose of balancing and co-ordinating individual interests. The government’s task was to get these atoms of individual interest to curb the urge to kill each other and set aside enough of their short-term interests to be able to cooperate for their own greater long-term interest.

This John Locke theory of the individual, and thus of the role of government, gave us equality, at least in principle, at least for white male property owners, but it left us without belongingness, ripe for alienation. It failed to see how deeply our need for each other goes.

NEXT: How deeply our need for each other goes.

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This is part 1 of 3 of "Daring Democracy"
See also
Part 2: Democracy: The Spiritual Need
Part 3: The Workshops of Democracy

Above text is excerpted and slightly revised from sermon delivered on 2018 Mar 25:

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