Did our abandonment of democracy contribute to today’s crisis?

It is pretty simple story, but one that very few in Washington can tell. It is the story that can be told and understood in neighborhoods across the nation where citizens can talk to each other, but it gets little coverage in our national media. It is a story that needs to be told because it can help to explain how we got to the current crisis in our democracy and because it can help us find a way past this crisis. Here is how it goes: in the beginning of the twentieth century, we took a sharp turn in the history of our democracy. This is the time when we began to lose faith in our democratic aspirations, our belief in government “by the people”. This is the time when we modified our belief in our Declaration’s radical claim that “all men (and women) are created equal” by adding a crucial limit to the end of this bold claim: equal “except for governing.” We began, instead, to believe that a democracy of engaged citizens was out of place in our increasingly large and complex world. We began to look to experts, professionals, and scientists to provide us with the answers we needed to shape our nation. And our experts and professionals doubled down on this shift by studying us and proving that that average citizens were uninformed, driven by passions, and could never be a source of the ideas and the wisdom we needed to guide our nation. This view of politics soon came to dominate and our idea of democracy shrank from government “by the people” to government “for the people”. Soon citizens were relegated to voting every couple of years to choose who would make decisions for them. Political scientists called this “democratic elitism” and it became the shared foundation for both of our political parties. From the start, there was strong opposition to this elitist challenge to our democratic aspirations but the deep and unfinished business of racism and nativism in our nation kept us divided and doomed this resistance. For some time, despite this turn from our democratic heritage, the new kind of politics worked pretty well and we were able to do some great things with this new approach: we defeated fascism and communism, established Medicare and Social Security, landed a man on the moon, and we grew our economy and prospered. Maybe our national consensus survived enough long enough to get these things done despite the new limits we placed on our democratic values.

But then something happened that began to take this story of our democracy in a new direction. Our new professionals, managers, and experts created a mass culture that justified their power and position and they began to use that power and position to prosper while the majority of us did not. Inequality increased dramatically and whole sections of our nation suffered deep and long-term losses in the new global economy. Too many of us felt powerless in the face of global forces that our prospering elites unleashed. To make matters worse, communities that did not prosper were labeled as backward and incapable of adapting to the modern world, partly because they held on to a different conception of community and democracy.

Then came the next and inevitable steps in this story. Towards of end of 20th century, some professional politicians realized that, with the right approach, the growing income and power disparities, our persistent racism, and the lack of respect suffered by many communities could be turned to anger against and resentment of urban elites, hardened into deep divisions, and  used as a means to gain power. Now we are living in and experiencing the final chapter of this story of our turn from democracy. We are suffering the full consequences of the decisions made many years ago. We are a now nation deeply divided and no longer able to find the common ground we need to address our nation’s challenges. We are a nation whose weakened democratic institutions and traditions are now seriously threatened by an authoritarian leaning President.

Telling this story could make a difference if it encourages us to reconsider some of the basic and hard-earned lessons from the long history of democracy. Maybe the first lesson to remember is the simple and obvious realization that power corrupts. How were we blinded by the value of the new science and knowledge and unable to see that relinquishing power and authority to the holders of these skills would inevitably end up with them using this power to their advantage? How did our experts and managers and inventors convince us that we should abandon our democratic heritage and reward their special talents with power? This is not a new story, just the latest in the long line of claims to privilege that the idea of democracy has always challenged –claims by philosopher kings, priests, warriors, kings, aristocrats, and the wealthy to a special claim on privilege and power. It is one of the fundamental insights of democracy that the best bulwark to any kind of tyranny is to vest power in the hands of those who will most feel the results of a tyranny, citizens. How could we have thrown that lesson to the wind?

And how could we have limited the basic democratic insight of our declaration that “all men (and women) are created equal”? This is the exactly the insight that we abandoned when we began to privilege the contribution of experts over the unique contribution that each one of us can make to public life. John Dewey, who was a witness and opponent to our turn from democracy got it right when he said, “In social and moral matters, equality does not mean mathematical equivalence. It means rather the inapplicability of considerations of greater and less, superior and inferior. It means that no matter how great the quantitative differences of ability, strength, position, wealth, such differences are negligible in comparison with something else –the fact of individuality, the manifestation of something irreplaceable.”

When we privileged our experts, we began to lose the irreplaceable contributions that all of us have to offer to our public life. And we lost the kind of community that is only possible in a democracy where everyone is treated with respect and encouraged to reach their full and unique potential and to use their talents to contribute to our public life. These kinds of democratic communities, whenever they have appeared in history, have always been marked by great periods of creativity, energy, and accomplishment. This is exactly what Tocqueville saw in our still limited democracy many years ago when he wrote, “Democracy does not give people the most skillful government, but what it does even the most skillful government is powerless to achieve: it spreads throughout society a restless activity, a superabundant strength, an energy that never exists without it, and which, if circumstances are even slightly favorable, can accomplish miracles.” We need these kinds of miracles today to meet our challenges. And we will need to return to our democratic heritage to be able to find those miracles.

Finally, we have to realize that the state of the world does not determine the possibility of democracy. The claim that the complexity of the modern world makes democracy outdated is a self-serving myth created by professionals. Sure, when the story of our turn from democracy was first posed at the beginning of the last century, there were a lot of problems with our democracy. Our cities were growing with waves of new immigrants from Europe and from our own south, most of whom never had the opportunity to experience democracy. There was corruption and there were severe problems caused by the rapid growth of our cities and factories. But the decision to turn from our democratic ideals and concentrate power in the hands of experts to address these concerns showed a basic misunderstanding of democracy. Democratic citizens are not born; they are made. Democracy and democratic practices create democracy. People learn democracy by doing democracy. Our nation had grown and urbanized but we did not grow and adapt the institutions and create the practices that would give citizens the chance to practice democracy and become democratic citizens in a new and very different world. We could have put our energy into creating the practices that would have made citizens out of our immigrants. But we did not have faith in the capacity of our new immigrants. Funny how elitism and racism often seem to go hand in hand.

To get out of this crisis, heal the divisions, tap again into the vast untapped resources of our citizens, and restore our ability to work together, we will need to begin the task of rebuilding our democracy. We cannot overcome the divisions and the mistrust in our nation if we don’t create opportunities for people to work together and get to know each other. You cannot give people the respect they need by doing things for them. We have to restore our democratic faith in the belief that real citizen participation in making decisions and real citizen participation in implementing decisions will produce the ideas and energy we need to move forward. Our experts and professionals and their hard-won specialized knowledge will still play a major role in our democracy, but it will be to inform citizens, not make the decisions for them.

Creating the practices and institutions that could give citizens meaningful involvement in the work of our towns, cities and our nation is possible. In fact, the work to create these new kinds of democratic practices is well underway across the world. You may not have heard about all this work, but it is there. It just isn’t recognized because it doesn’t fit with the dominant “democracy is out of date” political narrative. Just take a look and you will see it taking shape somewhere in your town or city.

And now the amazing news. If we can learn from the story of our turn from democracy and if can relearn the lessons of democracy, we will realize that we now have an unprecedented opportunity to write a new chapter in our nation’s story of democracy. Because of the hard work and sacrifices of so many of our citizens who have fought and are continuing to fight today to ensure that everyone is included in our community, we now have, for the first time ever, the ability to create the kind of democracy that our founders could only dream of. If we succeed we will restore our commitment to our belief in government “by the people” and to our declaration’s bold claim that “All men (and women) are created equal” and create the world’s first truly diverse, truly inclusive democracy. That would give us the capacity to do most anything. That would be a gift to the world and to our children worth fighting for.

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