American values and Democracy

In my first year seminar Tuesday we’ll be discussing democracy.   We are also reading Anne Marie Slaughter’s book The Idea That is America, a very timely and profound look at how the values that founded our country are still our best bet for solving our problems and creating a better future.    So I’ll blog a bit about those values in the coming weeks.   We already discussed liberty (or freedom), something I’ve written quite a bit about already.

Slaughter notes, of course, that the term democracy was used differently at the time of the revolution.   To the founders democracy was crude majority rule, while a Republic was representative government.    Around the time of Woodrow Wilson the usage of the term started to change.   Now politician and political scientist alike would clearly note that while the US is a Republic, it is also a democracy.

It wasn’t a democracy by today’s standards early on.    A country now is considered a democracy when every individual can participate equally in both choosing representatives and other elected officials (one vote per person), and participating equally in political debate and discussion.   Early America did not have this — the founders created a country with slavery, women were not allowed to vote, and for awhile only white land owners had a say in most matters.

A couple of things stand out.  First, as Slaughter notes, the United States is a constant work in progress.   The ideals of the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution are aspirational; early America did not fit what the lofty ideals the founders expressed.   Moreover, there have been peaks and valleys along the way — times where we move forward (e.g., the 19th amendment granting women the right to vote) and times we stray from our ideals (the McCarthy era red scare).    There is progress over time, but not constant progress.

This should help political activists and those with strong, passionate views accept that their causes cannot be won quickly.   Both abolition and woman’s suffrage came as a culmination of generations of effort.  Many were radical (some suffrage movements called for an all out revolution), some pragmatic, but over time they won because they appealed to American values.    Tradition, old prejudices, racism and sexism all violate the very principles upon which the country is based.   As time passes, we work and move closer to achieving those values more fully.   That should give us a sense of optimism, even when things look bleak.

Second, it also shows just how hard it is to form and support a democracy.   What the founders labeled democracy would not be given that word now.   To be a democracy requires that all citizens be able to have the right to vote and participate in the political discourse.   If a majority could deny a minority that right, the system would not be democratic by today’s standards.   Fundamental to maintaining a democracy is accountability to law (all must adhere to the rule of law)  and accountability to the people (elections must be free and fair).

What strikes me is just how interwoven our other values are to maintaining a democracy.  Democracies are meaningless without freedom — you can vote in almost every country in the world, but they do not achieve democratic rule if the people are not free.   Democracy cannot self-improve like ours has if there is no tolerance of dissent.   Disagreement is key.   We cannot improve if we do not allow people to think freely and criticize how things are done.

There is a lesson here for those who want to spread democracy.   President Bush famously said that “everyone wants to be free,” suggesting that democracy would be natural if only we got ride of despots like Saddam.   Yet as our own experience shows, our democracy took nearly 200 years to achieve the bare minimum of what it takes to define a country as democractic today.   What if Iraq had said, “We want to be a democracy, but women can’t vote and Sunnis will be held as slaves.”   We’d reject that as not only undemocratic, but an extreme violation of human rights.   Yet we had something like that for much of our history.

Still we expect other states to overnight jump from political cultures that often are less developed than ours was in 1789 to become a functional democracy operating with values we embrace in their 2010 form.   We seem surprised when war lords take over, a political system becomes hopelessly divided, or corruption runs rampant.  We don’t seem to realize that building a democracy requires generational efforts, and is always a work in progress.   Rather than try to demand radical reform, maybe we need to be patient.    Let’s look for slow steps rather than radical change.   Rather than focus on China’s faults, let’s appreciate how much it’s improved.  Rather than wringing our hands over Putin’s authoritarianism in Russia, let’s see it in the context of Czarism and Communism, and hope for at least steps in the right direction.

Humans have an annoying and very dangerous habit.   We like to see our situation — be it religion, form of government, or tastes — as being “right.”   Everyone else is wrong.   That creates a tendency to want to demand others conform to ones’ own choices and beliefs — or else they are met with anger and intolerance.  That is seen in our politics today — and has been in our politics probably since the country formed.   Our values are the best way to counter that tendency, and with democracy work through the disagreements, passions and uncertainties.   After all, we are still early in our path as a country to live up to the ideas and values that define America as an idea, not just a place.

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