Democracy: The Spiritual Need

Daring Democracy, part 2

We need each other not merely because cooperating helps us get what we want. Oh, no. Our need is much deeper than that. We need each other in order to become individuals in the first place.

Individuals do not make society. The truth is, it’s the other way around. Societies make individuals. It is in and through our network of relationships that we are fashioned into the individuals we are.

Shared social life is not a compromise. Nor is it a tool for satisfaction of our a priori interests. Shared social life is our fulfillment.

Democracy, then, is not just the means of compromising and balancing out our various interests. It is the means through which we become who we are. It is the locus of our origin. It is the dialog that creates both us and our interests in the first place.

The problem, then, is not how to get people to set aside interests, but how to form meaningful interests; not how to leave people alone, but how to integrate them with others. Alone, isolated, we are alienated, powerless – in hell.
“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 – finding therein our belongingness, is what 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. It was Benjamin Barber who said:
“Our interdependence as members of the human species requires us to belong – if not to free associations, then to totalistic collectivities.” (Strong Democracy, 1984, p. 112)
And it was Robert Nisbet who had earlier said:
“The genius of totalitarian leadership lies in its profound awareness that human personality cannot tolerate moral isolation. It lies, further, in its knowledge that absolute and relentless power will be acceptable only when it comes to seem the only available form of community and membership.” (The Quest for Community, 1953, p. 202)
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.

What I’m saying is, Democracy goes deeper than its forms – the mechanics of voting and fair elections.

Certainly, there are things we could do to improve elections. Many of us can rattle off ideas.
Without even touching the issue of campaign finance and the corrupting influence of money in our elections, we could:
  1. Replace the electoral college with direct popular vote
  2. End the disenfranchisement of felons and ex-felons.
  3. Allow on-site, day of voting registration.
  4. Reform voter ID requirements that disproportionately disenfranchise the poor and minorities.
  5. Have election MONTH instead of election DAY, with polls open 24-hours a day for 30 days.
  6. Eliminate gerrymandering. Require that district maps be drawn so as to produce the lowest possible sum of all the district perimeters.
  7. Require that each vote produces a hard-copy paper ballot.
  8. Institute Instant Run-off Voting for every race with more than two candidates so that no one gets elected without a 50%+1 majority.
That’s just off the top of my head (well, pretty much). You might have a few more you could add.

Fixing the mechanics of elections, however, isn’t the same thing as democratic life: the larger ethical meaning of democracy as a way of life, “a form of moral and spiritual association.” Parker Palmer describes the deeper problem:
“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.” (Healing the Heart of Democracy, 2014. p. 19)
Lappe and Eichen argue that democracy is essential. Our human spiritual need is for connection, and for meaning. Meaning comes from a sense of purpose and of agency – that is, empowerment. Thus, democracy, they say, “as it enables us to meet these needs, is the realization of human dignity” They go on to say:
“Humans thrive best when the communities we create enable each of us, not just a privileged few, to experience a sense of power (that is, agency or simply knowing that our voices count), a sense that our lives have meaning beyond our own survival, and that we have satisfying connection with others. Add those together and what do you have? The essence of democracy. . . . Our deepest needs as human beings are met in the very journey for democracy itself.” (Daring Democracy, 2014, p. 162)

NEXT: The Workshops of Democracy

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This is part 2 of 3 of "Daring Democracy"
See also
Part 1: Democracy: Not Quiet and Orderly, But Exciting
Part 3: The Workshops of Democracy

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

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