Just now, Americans don’t know what to do with each other. After the legitimate election of a new president, those who supported his opponent attempted an insurrection of the US government. The election loser had spent all four years of his presidency undermining public trust in the news media, scientific credibility, cultural diversity, and their own fellow citizens. So when he called on his followers to interfere with the election process, they did; and when the result didn’t go their way, they revolted.
Needless to say, this isn’t how democracy is supposed to work.
I’m not an expert on the topic by any measure, but I feel such an urgency in the need to recover our American soul and repair the fabric of our American society, that I want to offer a perspective which might help us get oriented in the important work before us.
I’m sure that the solution will not come by a process of elimination – of defeating, discrediting, and silencing voices of dissent from the debate over who we are as a nation.
If American democracy is anything, it is – and must continue to be – a productive conversation among different voices and value systems, working together toward compromises that work for everyone.
A major challenge has to do with the fact that some of us don’t want democracy. Some of these have no real vision of what they want instead, making them susceptible to apocalyptic conspiracy theories and mob anarchy. They are easily suckered into believing in things like a “deep state” of cannibalistic Democrats who abduct and traffick children, space aliens who are coming to take over the earth, or that Jesus is going to come on the clouds and save them from this mess someday soon.
I’ve suggested elsewhere that a generalized anxiety in such true believers is what gets cathected into the object of their fanatical devotion, giving focus and direction to an otherwise unmanagable neurotic energy. In this post, however, I don’t want to get pulled into a rabbit hole of trying to diagnose the causes and conditions behind conspiracy thinking – though, no doubt, its devotees can be a real danger to the rest of us.
Instead, let’s come back to democracy, this productive conversation committed to working toward compromises that work for everyone.
Democracy is actually one of three paradigms of governance, holding its space along a continuum with two others. Authoritarian governance concentrates power and control at the top of a vertical hierarchy of command. In order to work, a general compliance must be enforced down the chain of command, all the way to the ground where individuals are almost completely bereft of their freedoms. This form of government typically either gets locked in place by an act of forceful take-over, or the people get seduced into surrendering their liberties to someone who vows to rule providently on their behalf.
As history teaches, that rarely lasts for very long.
At the other end of the continuum is communitarian governance, which seeks to include and involve everyone in the work of achieving consensus. In the ideal version, there is no hierarchy and everyone shares equally in the benefits and responsibilties of communal life. As you might guess, such an arrangement has been difficult to realize and virtually impossible to maintain over any significant length of time. At some point, the arbitration for a fair distribution of resources and enforcement of justice begins its ascent into some, typically elected, governing body or individual.
It would seem that the attraction of having somebody in control is extremely difficult to resist.
With the poles of our continuum now set, we can get a better sense of where the paradigm of democratic governance sits with respect to the authoritarian and communitarian models. Its central work of building compromise among different perspectives and value systems exhibits the non-extremist virtues of the other alternative types of government: in recognizing the importance of including everyone in the process (the communitarian virtue) while providing vision and direction from a centralized authority (the authoritarian virtue), in an administrative body of elected representatives.
As society grows more diverse, with various pocket-cultures starting to form and compete for control, democracy is tempted toward more authoritarian solutions. In more stable and peaceful times, communitarian ideals can inspire new visions of that “more perfect union.”
But for the most part, in the creative tension that characterizes all healthy societies, democratic compromise charts a more interesting, engaged, and sustainable path than the others. The trick to making it work, however, is in understanding the principal voices that need to be included, and what each voice brings to the table.
In addition to the familiar Conservative, Liberal, and Progressive voices I have added a fourth, the Nostalgic voice, whose priorities pull in the opposite direction of the progressive voice. In what follows, I will summarize the special contribution of each voice and suggest how their “conversation” can make American democracy stronger.
Conservatives and Liberals have been knocking each other for decades, with each one accusing the other of undermining our American Experiment.
By definition – which is always a good place to start – a Conservative is someone who seeks to conserve or “hold on” to what’s been working so far … or at least was working not too long ago. By defending traditional ways and values, Conservatives also, at times unwittingly but at others with full intent, work to strengthen or restore the establishment of authority from earlier times. For this reason, I have placed an arrow of sympathetic influence from the Conservative voice towards more authoritarian forms of governance, which characterized many or most traditional societies (chiefdoms, monarchies, and empires) of the premodern period.
A Conservative’s popular opponent is the Liberal who, by definition again, seeks to liberate or “open up” the boundaries that divide society along the lines of wealth, race, religion, sex and current definitions of what is regarded as “normal.” With changes in the demographic landscape of society, Liberals believe that the rules around power, access, and representation need to change accordingly. Their social principles inspire them to challenge and seek to change all definitions that alienate, isolate, or disenfranchise any citizen.
In my diagram, an arrow of sympathetic influence identifies a leaning in the Liberal voice towards communitarian ideals.
A Liberal voice in democracy also frequently trends in the direction of Progressive concerns, with an interest in making progress and “moving ahead” into a more advanced and enlightened society. Progressive solutions to social problems tend to favor more full-scale and comprehensive collective action, seeking universal access to public goods like healthcare and education. The arrow of sympathetic influence for the Progressive points in the direction of a future utopia.
Progressives and Conservatives often can’t even get to the table for dialogue, since their respective visions of cultural stability or social change draw on very different vocabularies.
Pulling in the exact opposite direction of Progressives is what I’m calling the Nostalgic voice, from the root meaning of longing for home and “going back” to a golden age when things were as they are meant to be. Looking back in time with nostalgia can preserve the memory of something lost along the way, and the mere act of remembrance might at times provide the discernment needed to meet the challenges of today.
In the constructive conversation of democracy, the Nostalgic voice offers an anchorline back to a paradisal society which, even if it never actually existed, clarifes the “gold” of timeless ideals out of the ambiguous prima materia of our life in time.
As the throughline among the four voices of constructive democracy illustrates, each voice is connected, directly or indirectly, to the others, while each voice is also pulled (or tempted) into a preoccupation all its own. At the heart of democracy, however, is a respectful disagreement but co-equal commitment to compromise, between Conservatives who want a table with a sturdy foundation, and Liberals who request a place at the table for everyone.