On Point: The Hard Thing of Democracy


by Austin Bay
July 1, 2008

A Vietnam vet friend of mine argues that maintaining a democracy requiresthree things: a passion for freedom, tolerance for diversity and intolerance forthreats.

A letter from a reader, responding to a column on Iraq's strugglingdemocracy, suggested I write about the United States' own tortuous path --sketching a nation that began with limited voting rights and confronted powerfulfactions, ethnic animosities, urban riot, rural rebellion and destructive civilwar. The reader thought America's saga might help the public "understand thatthis democracy thing is hard."

Hard indeed. Mull my friend's threefold guidance, and you'll find trickyparadox after paradox entwined within several enigmas. Balancing tolerance andintolerance is an obvious tension, which requires reason, experience, maturityand discipline, but the aspiration for freedom, the drive to obtain it andretain it, also involves emotional passion and desire.

America itself is a structural paradox. The United States is a republic-- for good reason. America's founders saw dangers in what James Madison(Federalist Paper 10) called "pure democracy ... a society consisting of a smallnumber of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person."Madison argued this arrangement had "no cure for the mischiefs of faction," andweaker parties and "an obnoxious individual" were vulnerable to "pure" majorityrule.

Yet a muscular democratic spirit empowers the Constitution's openingphrase, "We the people of the United States." America is a balancing act, wheredemocratic practices and values steer the republic.

Democracy and freedom, that passionate objective, are closely linked, butdemocracy in practice is an exercise in restrained freedom. Liberty withoutresponsibility quickly and all too easily degrades to libertinism, which is whymaintaining democracy demands shared responsibility.

But shared responsibility -- what a risky demand. Human beings may behavenobly and sacrificially; they also behave abysmally and selfishly. During theCold War, Jean Francois Revel wrote in "How Democracies Perish" that "democracymay, after all, turn out to have been a historical accident. ... Democracy is byits very nature turned inward. Its vocation is the patient and realisticimprovement of life in a community."

Revel echoed John Adams' observation of 1814: "Democracy never lastslong. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There was never a democracyyet that did not commit suicide."

Revel saw democratic practice as paradox fraught with social reward anddanger. "Societies of which permanent criticism is an integral feature are theonly livable ones," he wrote, "but they are also the most fragile."

"Permanent criticism" exemplifies tolerance for diversity, though to myear Revel's "criticism" implies respect and regard for the system itself -- asalient difference from 1960s student protestors who damned the entire Americanenterprise. But neither criticism nor protest is the highest form of patriotism,as many of these self-congratulatory '60s radicals contend. The toughest job ina democracy is that of a private soldier assaulting an enemy machine gun nest --and that private's action is intolerance for threat exemplified.

Revel believed democracies would continue to be threatened "as long astheirs is not the only system in the world," and they "must compete with systemsthat do not burden themselves with the same obligations."

What are those obligations? Philosopher Paul Woodruff in his "FirstDemocracy: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea" identified "seven ideas" that ademocratic government "tries to express." They certainly intersect with Revel'sobligations. Woodruff listed: freedom from tyranny; "harmony"; the rule of law;natural equality; citizen wisdom; "reasoning without knowledge"; and generaleducation.

Harmony entails "wanting together." Lack of harmony can lead to civilwar. Democratic equality "rests on the idea that the poor should be equal to therich ... at least for sharing governance." Woodruff argued that ancientAthenians taught that "reasoning without knowledge depends on working out whatis most reasonable to believe. What is most reasonable to believe is the viewwhich best survives adversary debate." That suggests permanent criticism andcontroversy are as vital to democracy as being prepared to defend it.

"Democracy is hard," Woodruff wrote, echoing the reader's letter. "Theydid not get it entirely right in Athens 2,500 years ago, and we do not have itright now, anywhere."

Perhaps democracy is, like happiness, a pursuit.

To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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