Lessons from our history might help us heal our democracy

The most basic faith that informed our view democracy from the start of our nation, our faith that “all are created equal”, contained two kinds of equality. First, was the idea that each of us deserves an equal chance to flourish and develop our potential to its fullest extent. Second was the idea that everyone has the capacity to make a significant and unique contribution to our shared common life and, especially, that we can all participate as equals in the shared task of maintaining our democracy. For most of our history, we managed to maintain our commitment to both of these ideas of equality.

Then, around the beginning of the 20th Century, we began to turn away from this belief in and our commitment to the two aspects of equality. This is when we started to sow the seeds for today’s crisis. Our understanding of equality in our democracy shifted towards a focus on everyone’s opportunity to flourish and away from everyone’s capacity to participate in the work and direction of a nation that creates this opportunity to flourish. Our two-sided view of equality was challenged by two reinforcing ideologies. First, the ideology of science and scientific knowledge, with its belief that only trained experts had the ability to manage our society, and, second, the new idea that average citizens, driven by emotion and lacking training, did not have the ability to manage society. There was strong opposition to this departure from our historical view of equality, but with our citizens divided by racism, nativism, and sexism and unable to resist, the broader view of equality was doomed. We then spent about a century until today building a nation based on this narrow view of equality.

We are now living with the results of this turn from our earlier conception of equality. We have created a culture that looks to entrepreneurs, managers, and technologists for answers to our problems. We need only look at who is rewarded in our current culture: our “talented individuals,” successful managers and politicians, stars, sports talents, celebrities, wealthy investors, leading scientists. Our consumer culture and media are overwhelmingly dominated by the rich, successful, and talented. We now see our talented individuals as the source of governance and management in all aspects of our life. There may be disagreements among our elites about how to guide our nation. Our free market and corporate managers look to capitalist enterprises to solve our problems; our liberal elites look to government to manage private enterprise and create policies and programs to spread the wealth. But this difference is really beside the point from the perspective of our democratic heritage expressed in “all are created equal.” We no longer have faith in the capacity of our citizens to participate meaningfully in governance and management. The vast majority of our citizens are now relegated to voting once every couple of years to decide who will run the country for them and professional politicians work with vast sums of money to try to even our voting.

There are three reasons that our abandonment of our original idea of equality was and is a mistake of historical significance. First, taking power away from citizens and concentrating it in our talented and scientifically trained leaders led inevitably, perhaps even unintentionally, to the use of that power to reward the talented and to maintain their position. We now have a new aristocracy, the 10% of us who have now rigged the system to ensure that their children will inherit their position of power and reward. As a result, we now have growing inequality and anger and resentment in communities that feel left out and left behind. In allowing this to happen, we ignored one of the main lessons from the long history of democracy: the lesson that the only real way to prevent the rise of an aristocracy and ultimately a tyranny, is to keep power in the hands of citizens since only they have the ability and the interest to understand and resist attempts to concentrate power in the hands of an elite.

Second, our view of the limited capacity of citizens to participate in the work of our nation has made us passive responders to government initiatives and passive employees of corporations. This has cut us off from the ideas, the energy and experience of that can only come from engaged and empowered citizens. This loss has made the great achievements of a united democracy impossible, and just when we need them. 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.”

Third, and perhaps most relevant to the understanding of our current crisis, taking away the opportunity for citizens to participate in the work and management of our society, undercuts our very ability to maintain our democracy. Citizens disrespected and cut off from participation do not have the opportunity to develop the skills and knowledge necessary to maintain a democracy. They are left disconnected from each other and open to division and manipulation. Without active and empowered citizens, we can neither accomplish great things nor can we maintain our greatest accomplishment as a nation: the creation and maintenance of a democracy. Everyone, elites and citizens alike, suffers the same loss of capacity to maintain democracy because no one gets the opportunity to develop the special skills and knowledge they need to maintain democracy. Practicing democracy is what creates democratic citizens. When we stopped practicing democracy, those democratic skills and norms inevitably withered away in everyone.

If we want to learn from our history and maintain a democratic government and a democratic way of life, we will need to restore our faith that, as equals, we all have both the opportunity to reach our full potential and the opportunity participate meaningfully in the maintenance and management of our democratic society. This combination cannot be broken, both are needed to make the miracle of democracy possible. Our task today to escape from the crisis in our democracy is to restore our faith in both aspects of our belief that “all are created equal” and rebuild the norms and practices that make this fuller democracy possible. This work to rebuild a fuller democracy will be, just as our founding revolution, a democratic and not a class revolution. Almost all of our current “expert” elites would rather live in a democratic society with less inequality and more civility. Their expertise will still be valued in the democracy we create. Instead of working for the powerful, they will provide their skills and knowledge to citizens to help all of us work together to find the wisdom we need to guide the nation.

The work to build a new democracy today will be no more difficult than it was for our founders. We have all the resources and methods we need to rebuild a better politics. Experiments with putting citizens back to the center of our politics have been going on around the world and down in our neighborhoods and cities for some time. The work will not be easy and it will take time. We will have to overturn and reform all the practices and institutions that we have built for the past century to create our current meritocracy. We will have to find and develop creative new ways that fit today’s world to return citizens to the center of the decisions and work of the nation. That will be difficult but nothing we can do would be more meaningful and rewarding.

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