Democracy is based philosophically on a belief in the fundamental goodness of human beings. Think about it: if you believe otherwise, that human beings are not basically good – i.e., prosocial, cooperative, and altruistic by nature – but rather selfish, malicious, and vengeful, then why would you support the idea of giving them the power to self-govern?
Democracy’s most vocal detractors over the centuries, including the Greek philosopher Plato, have harbored serious doubts and some deep convictions on the topic. Instead of having no government at all, which would result in a vicious anarchy, they have usually advocated for some form of aristocracy where a few brighter minds, deeper pockets, or bigger clubs run the show and keep the rabble in check.
Not in the American Experiment, however. Its early stages were characterized by a majority (though admittedly not unanimous) vote for basic human goodness.
Granted, American democracy is of the republican (representational) variety and doesn’t give ‘the people’ authority to do whatever they want – which is likely what worried Plato most. But still, in the minds of its principal framers, and eventually in the charter documents they authored as its Constitution, there was a profound confidence in human nature as endowed with certain inalienable rights and communal propensities.
Especially of late, we’ve been seeing less evidence of those supposed communal propensities, and more of what surely seems like a dark side to human nature. The “Me First” campaign of Donald Trump, spun and stitched into his slogan “Make America Great Again,” has activated different impulses in our citizens: suspicion of neighbors, retribution against enemies and those we believe have wronged us, and a readiness to use deception or even violence to get our way. What I coined as “Trumpence” back in 2016 is the resolve to do whatever it takes to put ourselves first.
In a popular sovereignty like American democracy, the elected leader is really a symptom of what’s going on in the nation.
If democracy is to work, its citizens and leaders need to be engaged in recognizing, awakening, empowering, and developing the good in ourselves and each other. If we simply stay back on our heels in shock over what our president has said or done most recently (which is probably right where he wants us), our otherwise creative and communal energies will be caught up in cycles of reaction and effectively neutralized. It’s this backward distancing from what democracy requires that I am calling the Final Recession.
The qualifier ‘final’ makes the point that, should we continue very much longer in this disengaged state, the American Experiment will be over.
So let’s takes stock of what’s falling back and away from the front lines where democracy lives or dies. I have three terms to offer for your reflection. Each one is a vital ingredient to successful democracy, and all together they comprise a complete picture reaching from our overt actions in public life, to the personal discipline of perspective-taking, and deeper into what I regard as our spiritual intelligence as a species.
Just like a plant growing up from its roots, when the vigor underground is compromised or diseased, the whole self is in danger. Our spiritual intelligence is what enables us to reach with awareness into the grounding mystery of existence, circling thence out and around us into the larger contexts of life with an experience-based understanding of our communion with it all. Because of its critical position among my three terms – and since everything higher up expresses and depends on this spiritual health within us – we’ll start here.
Not to be confused with pity, sympathy, or even compassion, empathy is our innate ability to identify with and understand another person’s experience. We have this ability by virtue of the fact that the human experience is so similar across historical periods and social realms. You may never have had the experience of being forcibly separated from your parent or child, but you can empathize with what another individual is going through because you have experienced what it’s like to lose contact with someone you love and depend on, to have something you need taken away, or to be prevented from being the support that someone else desperately needs.
Despite the differences among our numerous body features and attributes, the human nervous system is essentially identical across the categories of ethnicity, gender, and age. Because you have known separation and loss in your life, you don’t have to guess what it must be like for a child and parent to be forcibly separated. Yes, to some extent the difference between that human experience and your own may need to be filled in by your imagination – and be grateful if that’s true – but the registration of separation anxiety on a human nervous system is universally the same.
What this means, of course, is that you must check in with your human experience in order to identify with and understand the experience of another. Sure, you can ‘feel badly’ for them in their situation, and even wish it didn’t have to be that way. It must be awful to be separated from the one person you most depend on, you think to yourself. But until you go deep enough into your own experience of separation, isolation, loneliness, anxiety, and loss, you may be said to have pity, sympathy, or compassion for that poor soul, but not empathy – not yet.
Once your nervous system fully identifies with what that other person is going through, then and only then do you realize in a fully experiential way that you and that other person are truly one.
From the root meaning “with the stars,” consideration refers to a disciplined practice of looking at your choices within a larger frame of reference. The stars indicate a cosmic frame of reference, which is as large and far out as this frame can go. As the contextual frame is expanded, we also find our view of time lengthening, stretching through the predictable near-future consequences of a considered choice to its foreseeable and likely effects farther out and ahead in time.
Of course, a literal consideration throws the horizon beyond even Earth time, including therefore not only the direct outcome you may be wanting, but the repercussions and collateral effects of a choice on your own life in the longer run, as well as on future generations and other species of life.
Now, you should be able to see how a recession of empathy, a lost connection to your own inner depths, will tend to shrink your frame of reference. Since you cannot really identify with what parent-child separation feels like, your optional futures don’t need to take them into consideration. Indeed your world – referring to the web of meaning you have constructed around yourself – doesn’t include them because they have nothing in common with you.
You probably won’t admit this aloud, but the gap between your life and theirs is enough to make you suspect them as not even fully human. Our president refers to the arrival of Central American families at our border as an “infestation,” which leaves us with one course of action: pest control.
True democracy requires its citizens to exercise self-control, to take care of their property and look after their families, to be informed and involved in their government, considerate of their neighbors, and daily devoted to the greater good. Responsibility is literally the ability to respond, referring specifically to a thoughtful reply in word and action instead of merely reacting impulsively to what happens.
Your ability to respond thus depends on your degree of success in opening a frame of reference beyond the reflex actions and emotional reactions provoked in the moment.
This is where the final recession is most evident today in American democracy. Fewer and fewer citizens bother to vote. More and more of us are allowing the media to curate our picture of the world around us. We feel like things are spinning along their own predetermined courses and that our voices and choices don’t really matter.
If Earth’s mean temperature is rising, what can I do about that? If the government is channeling resources away from education and into defense, then it probably means that we’re vulnerable to hostile takeover (or an ‘infestation’) and just need more bombs than books right now.
If our president is gifted in one thing, it’s in spinning a script to the American people that is on topic with our greatest fears but far out from the actual facts. Many of his executive orders are based in reaction more than genuine responsibility. His “Make America Great Again” campaign shows that his frame of reference is dangerously small and surreptitiously focused in favor of only a very small minority of Americans.
And on the question of whether he truly identifies with and deeply understands the human experience, whether American or Mexican, white or black or brown, rich or poor, here in this country or on the other side of the world – well, what do you think?
In the end – but hopefully before the end – it’s up to you and me. Voters who are more empathically grounded in the human experience, who are more aware of what’s really going on around them, and who take responsibility for their lives, their happiness, and for the wellbeing of everyone, will elect leaders who can truly lead our way forward as a nation.