Monday, March 21, 2011

Some Mistakes About Democracy and Freedom

I have a group of friends with whom I get together once a month to discuss topics of general interest. Modeling our conversations on those carried on by Samuel Johnson and his circle -- without the Great Cham to rule over our discourse -- we call ourselves the Johnson Society. Conversation is usually vigorous. Only one of the others in the group can lay claim to being a "scholar" of the academic sort, though all are thoughtful, scholarly citizens and excellent conversationalists. Each member of the group is able to consider a topic from many angles, to state positions and support them with arguments, to deliberate, and reach conclusions that are not merely louder or more entrenched versions of the position from which he or she started.

Last week the discussion focused on, among other things, democracy and freedom. I was unable to attend the gathering, but have received reports about the nature of the conversation. I was disappointed at not being able to be there, for it seems to me that it is exactly this sort of discourse, on these sorts of topics, that citizens should engage in much more frequently than they do in the United States. Indeed, the Founders hoped that American citizens would be just this sort of people: thoughtful, reasonable, engaged citizens, who speak, deliberate, and act in public. In their minds citizens are people who do not simply shout their untutored, unexamined views across a gulf at one another. Citizens are not people who listen only to those with whom they already agree; rather, they are willing to take the risk of free and open discussion with others coming from many different places, the risk that their initial prejudices, structured by their own personal situations and backgrounds, might change through interaction with others.

In any event, had I been in the conversation, I would have suggested that we too often make some mistakes about the character of democracy and freedom. American politicians and the American people, for example, call our nation a democracy -- and that is a mistake. It is a commonplace, or should be, that the United States is not a democracy but a republic, that it was never intended to be a democracy for good reasons. The Founders shared the classical view (one that has persisted through the history of political theory) that democracy is not a good system of government. Famously, Plato and Aristotle listed democracy as one of the bad types of constitution, primarily because in their minds democracy meant rule by the poor in their own interest rather than for the common good. The American Founders recognized other weaknesses of democracy, including its impracticality in any state larger than a small town. Most importantly, they (especially James Madison) worried that unadulterated, unlimited democracy inevitably led to tyranny of the majority -- an idea picked up by Alexis de Tocqueville in his classic and influential study, Democracy in America.

So democracy is not the proper term for the sort of constitution we have in the United States. No nation is a democracy in the strict sense, though many aspire to some form of popular sovereignty, as we do. But for complicated historical reasons, "democracy" has become one of those honorific terms that bring up within us a feeling of goodness -- and the usage of the term to suggest goodness has spread around the globe. Today's freedom fighters and rebels, most notably in the Middle East and North Africa, call for democracy, and their efforts and struggles should not be denigrated. But it is likely that they do not really want democracy so much as some combination of a free market economy, a variety of individual freedoms, the end of absolutist and tyrannical rule, and the development of some popular influence over governmental decision making.

What we have in the United States is a constitutional republic, and one we must struggle to keep, for we do not live in times conducive to constitutional republics except in the most formalistic sense. Benjamin Franklin, when asked on the streets of Philadelphia after the constitutional convention, "What have you given us, Mr. Franklin?," famously remarked: "A republic if you can keep it." A prescient and wise remark. As Franklin saw, citizens need to be keepers of the constitutional republic, a far more complicated matter than merely casting a vote now and then or taking an interest in public affairs from the comfort of an armchair. Most Americans are not citizens in this deeper way; instead, they are subjects of a government that happens to be elected (and by a minority of them, though the problem is the same in nations where the majority of population votes).

Consequently, I think we are mistaken to call most of our fellow subjects "citizens," for that term implies a more active and vigorous role in self-government than most Americans take. Most Americans today will tell you that a citizen is someone who is recognized as such by the United States government: those who are born or naturalized in the United States. But such a usage reflects the same flattening of the moral universe that leads us to call those who get in harm's way heroes even when they are only mindlessly following orders: we have lost any deeper sense of what these terms might mean, and so we strip them of their critical bite and apply them liberally to anyone who carries a passport or wears a uniform.

Speaking of the British, who in the 18th century were often praised (by Montesquieu, for instance) for their free government compared to the absolutist states on the continent, Jean-Jacques Rousseau said that they are only free when they vote and then they make such bad use of their freedom that they deserve to lose it. If citizens are only voters, then they are only choosers of their rulers -- not people engaged in the politics of self-government. Rousseau had a point, as he so often did (though he frequently took those points in unjustifiable directions). Americans simply choose their tyrants every few years, though our tyrants have learned that demagoguery is the key to success rather than bread and circuses or brute force. We are not very free politically, despite the right to vote (which so many choose not to exercise anyway) -- and despite how good it makes us feel to say we are free.

Freedom is far, far more than the right to make choices about peanut butter and toothpaste. It is even far more than the right to say or choose whatever life partner you want -- though these are much more central the freedom of consumer choice. Freedom must include the fact of, not just the reputation for, self-government -- and that requires a citizenry that is knowledgeable, skillful, and interested in taking an active role in the public square. We do very little in the United States to encourage that sort of citizenry and that sort of freedom. Indeed, we find the sort of critical, engaged citizens essential to real politics in a constitutional republic scary. It seems to me that the rise of a certain sort of politician, and a certain sort of political commentator, indicates the rejection of real, thoughtful, deliberative, active citizenship. Instead, we substitute (and celebrate) jingoism, xenophobia, ideology, and stupidity. We are witnessing the rise of demagoguery and the pointed, intentional rejection of the kind of thought necessary for constitution keeping (let alone constitution making). Instead of citizens, we seek fellow-travelers. Instead of thought, we value emotion-laden rhetoric unadulterated by consideration of facts or ideas. Instead of leading citizens, we follow those who mirror our prejudices and ideologies, who tell us what we want to hear and refuse to challenge us to transcend our baser instincts. We gladly rush headlong for our chains (to quote the highly quotable Rousseau again). To call this freedom is absurd, for it strikes me as preparation for continued servitude, no matter how many kinds of breakfast cereal stock our shelves.

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