The Perils of Taking Our Democracy For Granted

by Glen Pearson

As democracy sails increasingly into troubled waters, one has to wonder how confident we are that we are up to the challenge. Most of us had assumed that as our wisdom and experience of working together increased, democracy itself would prove itself sufficient for facing whatever challenges confronted us.

Instead, what we have are democratic systems at various points of peril around the globe. Populism, which many assumed would infuse new life into our politics, has instead struck off in many new directions and made it even more difficult to find consensus. While it has been true that democracy doesn't automatically equate with equality, neither does populism bring accountability.

Our politics should not just be about our choices, but the depth of our character.

One of the great lessons we are now learning since World War Two is that democracy is fairly useless if it is merely inherited. Growing up in countries that have enjoyed advanced political systems doesn't guarantee that they will automatically function effectively. For it to truly work democracy must be reinvented in every generation. It is not alone enough to just don it like some favourite old coat; we must infuse it with our best efforts at public advancement if it is to succeed. Democracy functions at its worse when it depends on coercion and works best when it enhances the collective awareness of citizenship in voluntary action.

Our politics should not just be about our choices, but the depth of our character. If we are truly devoted to the public good, then coercion isn't required -- we do it willingly out of our commitment as good citizens. The very moral and ethical factors that created dynamic democracy in the first place must be renewed before our political state falls into the disarray that we so frequently see today.

Have we taken our democracy for granted? Most of us have and now our public life is suffering from neglect. Many of us view politics as some kind of political process that runs whether we pay attention or not. What democracy brought to us was the belief in the values of people and a kind of benign trust that eventually they would put the collective good above their individual pursuits. Democracy has always been about individualism, but depended on the ability of the average citizen to elevate their understanding and temperament to the place where it could work collectively with others for the common good. It's not rocket science, but it becomes impossible if in the pursuit of out lives we forget to look out for the community.

It's likely this is what Thomas Jefferson was thinking about when he penned: "The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only legitimate object of good government." With the anxiety over the future faced by most citizens today, Jefferson's ideal seems farther away from us than any time in recent memory. He saw democracy as revolutionary; we see it as automatic. He saw citizens as revolutionaries; we view them as consumers.

Democracy's great ties are with civil society, not government. Politics is about how we make choices; civil society is about who we are. And what is civil society's great gift to the democratic process? It's civility, not the rancor running through our interactions today. Democracy is about getting the best of us out into the public space, while still permitting us to enjoy our individual pursuits. In far too many cases we have allowed our collective life together to be decided by politics and not the better angels of our natures.

The most overwhelming forces facing the modern age can never be overcome by billions of individuals sealed in their own orbits. Democracy can only overcome those challenges when it brings us into a common space together, ready to work together, despite our differences, for the sake of our future. Somehow we have to get back to this and our politics at the moment is struggling with how to accomplish it.

A vibrant democracy requires, above all else, revolutionary citizens who seek to build one another up out of respect instead of tearing them down out of fear. It turns out that Ralph Nader was prescient when he said, "There can be no daily democracy without daily citizenship." The great question for all of us now is: are we ready for the sacrifice.

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Glen Pearson
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