Is Democracy As We Know It in Danger?

In the 2013 Milton K. Wong Lecture, one of America’s leading political philosophers and public intellectuals revisits the case she made 20 years ago in her 1993 Massey Lectures, Democracy on Trial. In Democracy on Trial Revisited, Professor Jean Bethke Elshtain challenges us to “think of how we, in our public capacity as citizens, can respond and in our capacity as sentient human beings, can reflect — and how the two activities can and must go together.”
Democracy on Trial Revisited
Jean Bethke Elshtain,


The lecture:

In 1993, it was my honor and privilege to deliver the Massey Lectures on the CBC. Combining the Massey Lecture with a pre-lecture viewing of polar bears in the wild: a hard combination to beat. Tonight is surely on a par with those previous events and I am deeply honored by this occasion.
There would have been no reason to deliver lectures that turned into a book called ‘Democracy on Trial’ if one did not believe that, indeed, democracy was challenged by political adversaries and transformations in the areas of economics, technology, communication, and neuro-biology, among others. I went on to pin-point certain quite specific concerns in cultural life, the economy, political formation, violence, race relations, tensions and conflicts in public and private life and how does one determine which is which in the first instance. Today, I hope to offer up descriptions of contemporary events that should challenge and trouble us and prompt us to think of how we, in our public capacity as citizens, can respond and in our capacity as sentient human beings, can reflect — and how the two activities can and must go together.
In 1993, we were embroiled in a debate over the fate and future of American civil society. Social scientists had accumulated mountains of data that showed convincingly the ‘thinning out’ of America’s network of civic associations. Millions of fewer Americans were engaged in civic volunteer work than at a prior time. Civic education had rather mysteriously disappeared from public school curricula. The noble category, ‘citizen’, seemed to mean less and less, to have lost its evocative resonance of the sort displayed in a quiet moment from one of director John Ford’s masterpieces, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence.” To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever made much of this brief scene but it always stuck with me given its poignancy and its promise. Let me recall it for you. A small immigrant family—husband, wife, and their grown daughter loved by the two male protagonists in the film, played by John Wayne and James Stewart — run a restaurant in town —the only restaurant in town. They work hard from dawn to dusk. The name of the family is Erickson. The territory in which Shinbone rests is not yet a state but is aiming for statehood and a big raucous assembly will be held about who will represent the territory in the wider territorial assembly and whether they are pro- or anti-statehood. The immigrant Dad, of Norwegian background, comes out of his house — his wife and daughter are already standing there —dressed in his best Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes, clutching precious papers in his hand, a shy smile on his face. His wife throws her arms around his neck proclaiming, “Oh, papa, I am so proud of you”. As he enters the hall he checks in, still clutching those precious papers, with these words, “Peter Ericksson, American citizen.” He is beaming all the while.
Perhaps only those beleaguered souls who fled to these shores in order to escape a horrific situation of fear or economic deprivation and who became ‘naturalized’ citizens really connect in a deep sense to the full meanings of citizenship any longer. So much so did this seem to be the case that, in my capacity as co-chair of a Task Force on Civic Education, I proposed — only partly in jest — that native born Americans should be required to take the test administered to all who chose to become citizens. The reaction, shall we say, was mixed. I had offered the proposal in order to highlight the ‘civics gap’, the fact that Americas seemed to know less and less about their country’s civic projects, its founding principles, its separation of powers, and all the rest. No doubt many of you have had the direct “hands on” experience of making up for this civic gap by educating your own children about democracy and the long, complex story of the American republic, its premises and promises, its failures and, yes, sins. I know I have.
No doubt I had this in mind when I made my proposal, but I was also recalling tutoring my maternal grandmother, a Volga German immigrant to these shores, to prepare her for her naturalization examination. Busy from dawn to dusk and beyond with children and work on the small farm she and my grandfather had acquired by dint of relentless work and a ‘no frills’ way of life, to put it mildly, she had not gone through the routine required for citizenship. Having decided that she wanted to become a citizen before she died, my grandmother, who was never comfortable at the steering wheel, drove herself to the Weld County, Colorado, Courthouse to acquire a booklet to help her prepare for her naturalization examination.
As I write these words, I see her sitting opposite me at her kitchen table, her busy hands in constant motion wiping off imaginary crumbs from the table. (Crumbs never had a chance around Grandma.) I queried:
“Grandma, what is the basic law of the land?”
“The constitution, ja?”, she responded in her accented voice.
“Ja, Grandma, the Constitution”—and so we continued.
Why shouldn’t we all go through a similar drill? My proposed test didn’t fly, to be sure, but surely the “civics gap” signified that something needed to be filled or refilled? Shouldn’t we start teaching civics again as a routine matter? We knew from the solid research that those versed in civics issues knew more about civic processes—how a bill becomes a law and the like and possessed, as a result, a significantly higher sense of civic efficacy than those who did not.
The civil society debate lasted a few years. Many voices weighed in. Many proposals were entertained. And then it all faded away as other matters vied for our time and attention and new crises took front and center. Democracy on Trial had come at just the right moment and its most exigent concerns, as I had voiced them, receded into the background as the civil society debate lost steam with very little resolved, leaving behind a lingering sense that all was not well with us, despite the economic boom, that empty prosperity of the bubble of the Clinton years.
The largely hollow wealth being generated inspired nigh-utopian fantasies at the time about our future, individually and collectively. I well recall a television discussion — it was the “Lehrer News Hour” — during which I took exception to the histrionic babbling, from my perspective, of a enthusiast who opined that somehow traffic jams in our major cities and cancer—I cannot recall what else—would all be “cured” or “fixed” through some strange alchemy involving the escalating internet and all the new wealth being generated –on and on in this vein. (I nearly wrote ‘vain’, an instructive near slip as human vanity was certainly on display ‘big time’, as my grandchildren might put it, in the unreasoning utopianism of my interlocutor.) I remember this so clearly because the odd combination of traffic jams and cancer stuck with me.
Well, those expectations were soon to be crushed. What we now face is extraordinarily troubling. If we were in crisis in 1993, we are ever more so in 2013. Much that has happened to us was beyond our control—like the plenary jolt to the body politic administered by terrorists on 9/11 — but much else is the direct result of human folly and misjudgment — or, perhaps better put, a refusal to make judgments. Postponing looming problems does not make them go away. Now is a good moment to ask ourselves what, if anything, can be redeemed from that earlier debate, when civil society was on the tip of everyone’s tongue? Was it just one of those flurries that comes and goes, the proverbial fifteen minutes of fame, or have some basic insights been gleaned that are worth reconsidering? Clearly there is a certain self-interest involved in my answer—I should hate to think I wrote a book entirely for naught—but I think any responsible and reasonable observer of the current situation would concur that many fundamental issues were raised, controversies unpacked, and provisional solutions suggested. On this earth, every ‘solution’ is provisional and partial, of course, for we are not omniscient and we always operate in a world of imperfect knowledge.
I noted in the 1993 lectures that “many human ills cannot be cured…All human lives are lived on the edge of quiet desperation. We must all be rescued from time to time from fear and sorrow. But I read the palpable despair and violence as dark signs of the times, as warnings that democracy may not be up to the task of satisfying the yearnings it unleashes for freedom and fairness and equality.” Unsurprisingly, I was taxed by some critics as being far too mordant in my observations in 1993 and there was a bit of gloom here and there — but always tethered to democratic hope, to what I called democracy’s “enduring promise.” When asked by a reporter for the CBC “What does it mean to you to be an American?”, I had responded, on air: “It means that one can share a dream of political possibility, which is to say, a dream of democracy; it means that one can make one’s voice heard; it means both individual accomplishment as well as a sense of responsibility; it means sharing the possibility of a brotherhood and sisterhood that is perhaps fractious—as all brotherhoods and sisterhoods are—and yet united in a spirit that is more a spirit of good than ill will; it means that one is marked by history but not totally burdened with it and defined by it; it means one can expect some basic sense of fair play…will be recalled and called upon.” I concluded that that was “the best I can do.” It still is but there is considerable fleshing out to do, is here not?
Of the many issues that beckoned for my attention for this occasion, including the ongoing threat of terrorism, scarcely on the radar screen for Americans in 1993, although I have no doubt that we and the Administration of President Clinton should have been paying more attention, none is more important than our radically transformed social ecology. But I decided to turn to another matter I noted in 1993 but pertain now — ever more so. What I addressed, specifically, were proposals for improving democracy via tele-voting as a way to conduct democratic affairs: democracy by plebiscite, noting that plesbicitarianism has, historically, been a tool deployed by authoritarian and corrupt regimes to shore up their power.
This sort of crude populism is not the democratic deliberation on which a robust republic relies—quite the opposite. It invites, rather, policy by instant emotion. For example: at the time of the hostage taking in Iran during the presidency of Jimmy Carter, the immediate reaction in America was to bomb Tehran: we should just take them out. After a few weeks, cooler heads prevailed. The public has considered the issue and responses were far more nuanced and complex. Were our policy makers bidden to do just as the tele-polling and voting dictates, the response would be a disaster much of the time. Human rights respecting democratic systems have always relied on mediating institutions and ways of modulating the “will of the people” rather than permitting it transparent control of public life.
Being asked to give your opinion and given a chance to register it instantly may at first seem democratic but the individual in this formulation is the private person enclosed within himself or herself, rather than the public citizen. A compilation of opinions does not make a civic culture. Add to this a dynamic I tagged “the politics of displacement” and what one finds is a culture that is fixated on publicity or celebrity and, moreover, that ongoingly displaces private issues onto a public stage. Another side to this coin is, of course, that public issues become over personalized; everything is evaluated through the prism of ‘me’.
The complete collapse of a distinction between public and private has been anathema to constitutional democrats who hold that the differences between public and private identities and commitments are of vital importance. Historically, it has been the antidemocrats who have demanded unified, overweening loyalty to a monarchy or a regime, like the French Revolution, unclouded by other commitments and loyalties and values. For the architects of the terror, one’s loyalty to the revolution must be unifocal, must begin with ‘the heart’. It follows that those in power must track down all those who hold any reservations about the course of the revolution in their hearts or minds and eliminate them. That is an extreme version of the public/private collapse, as is twentieth century totalitarianism. But we have our own ‘soft’ version and the dismal role it plays has, if anything, been magnified by revolutionary changes in communication over the past fifteen years.
Let me explain. There are days when 1993 seems a very, very long time ago indeed. The ‘social network’ was just a blip on the screen. It had yet to explode. Some of us were just beginning to adjust to this thing called ‘email’. I recall commenting in print that, over the course of my professional life, from 1973 to 1993, academic life was one dizzying speed-up. One went from what we call ‘snail mail’ and carbon copies and mimeographing — does anyone remember either the typewriter or the mimeo machine? — to Xerox copying; then Express Mail; then Faxing. Then email. The little social graces that permitted one a bit of extra time — oh yes, my article is in the mail when, perhaps, it was two days from being mailed but, given the vagaries of the mail, that was okay — were eclipsed. People wanted ‘stuff’ and they wanted it now. Messages became more and more importunate; patience grew thinner and thinner. I cannot even estimate how many people I have vexed and, in some cases, made irate, given my wayward way with email. Do some folks always have email turned on, at every moment, day or night? Certainly the expectation has grown that one will respond more or less instantly.
But that speeding up of our lives — to which one must add the cell phone, of course — is not my primary focus. Rather, I wanted to talk about the social network — or so-called ‘social’ network. Is it ‘social’ or is it faux social and, at its heart, really a privatizing phenomenon masquerading as something outgoing that registers, taps, and extends our sociality? I’ll opt for the latter knowing, as I do so, that I will be in hot water immediately given how many millions of people are deeply vested in “online”, well, everything. There have been some studies, of course, indicating that the more hours one spends online the fewer hours one spends interacting with a concrete, real, live human being. This is not at all surprising, is it? There have also been studies showing the ways in which the new social media are distracting. Two people are at lunch, say, and one — or both — are busy staring down at their cell phones or I-pads or whatever they have, “messaging” away and not talking to the person directly across from them.
The social network is too easily community-on-the-cheap. It taps our desire, our need, to be in touch with others — and this way one can be in touch without touching. It registers our need for friends and one can have many, many friends absent any of the depth, tone, texture, and responsibilities of real friendship.
These will be taken as the grumpy rumblings of a Luddite, I’m sure, for that is the way we avoid having the sort of public, cultural conversation we should have about such matters. For beleaguered parents who are trying to hold the line at, say, not permitting a child to sit at family dinner and to text-message away at the same time, dealing with the new media is a rear-guard action and they themselves are immersed in it much of the time. We like the word community — we like it a lot — so we talk blithely of internet communities or online social communities without any real encounter with one community involves and why plural communities of care and responsibility, beginning with the family, lie at the heart of a flourishing civil society. Any weakening of this network of institutions perforce weakens democracy.
A concrete project for citizens who live in hope is to name things accurately and appropriately. Consider appropriation of the word ‘community’ by enthusiasts of cyberspace. Community derives from the Latin ommunis, from which ‘communion’, ‘communicate’ even the reigning image of he person in Christian anthropology as one born in communion, all usher. Community is grounded, tactile, relational, fleshly, or at least it must begin in this concrete way and, in principle, be open to such instantiation. It implicates us in a world of others who bind us to them as well as to a time and place.
By contrast to the concrete, nitty-gritty nature of real community, think of so-called cyber community and that ‘reality’ called virtual. This is a form of gnosticism that is parasitic upon the realities — the concrete realities — thoroughgoing cyberites disdain. Writes critic Mark Slouka: “Already, we are told, technological prostheses had begun to ‘liberate’ us from the limitation of the human body. The possibilities were endless. Within the span of our children’s lifetimes, we are assured, it will be possible to link the human nervous system into RAM (random access memory), effectively preserving it in some artificial state. Within the foreseeable future, the dividing line between nature and technology — a false dichotomy, we were told, since at least the invention of agriculture — would be erased; genetic engineer in general and the human genome project in particular, had already blurred the line forever.”
Divorced from our bodies, so the scenario runs, all boundaries between self and other, male, female, anything and everything would disappear. We could be anyone we want. We could go anywhere we an. We could do anything we want. Reality would lose all meaning. So does community when it takes place in cyberspace and involves no concrete living relation of human bodies one to another, or the possibility of such. Disdain for the limitations of the natural world, including our own physicality, skyrockets. If we embrace this distention with its obliteration of any concrete reference points, we have an image of relativistic ephemera: all that is solid melts into air and we take the air for the thing itself. This is a form of techno-gnosticism: all is spirit, intellection. Bodies matter not. Yet there is a desire to appropriate concrete words as a mimetic imperative. Take “their words” away, redefine them, and lose the concrete reference points along the way. All of this is part of the wider project of modern excarnation, as philosopher Charles Taylor puts it.
Let me be very clear: the social network taps into something deeply human and enduring about our natures. But it is a deeply flawed instrument that can all too readily give one a simulacrum of the ‘real thing’ only. Small wonder we can never be satisfied. We have 400 ‘friends’, we want ‘800’. We check in with 6 chat rooms regularly; no, not enough, let’s make it 12. As we lose the habit of really engaging other people, we become habituated to that abstract form of glancing engagement we enjoy through the chat room. I recall very well that one of the last pronouncements Christopher Lasch, the famous American historian, proffered to me concerning the fate of America was to worry that we had lost “a culture of democratic argument”. Not every political debate can be Lincoln-Douglas, of course. But surely it isn’t too much to hope that a few debates might rise about the sensationalistic, the hum-drum, and the ‘getting one’s message out’ sort.
When things go awry politically, we don’t assess critically the policy or program, we decide that the “message” just hasn’t gone out: we’ve got to do more publicity; we’ve got to get the President to give more speeches in more visually friendly venues and the like. This has become yet another way to avoid genuine encounters about important differences; the sort one has with one’s democratic opponents — who are not, as Abraham Lincoln told us on the eve of the horrors of a civil war, “enemies but friends. We must not be enemies”.
Enemies we became then and, in many cases, enemies, it seems, are what we are now. On two different occasions, for example, and in a university setting, I heard people on two different occasions shout that President George W. Bush should be shot because that is what one does to Hitler. We’ve all witnessed media obsession with the clothing, hair, make-up, shoes, and married life of female political candidates, as if these are the most burning issues of the day. At times this can be horribly cruel as one encountered online blogs arguing that Sarah Palin and her husband were irresponsible and socially reckless because they brought into the world a “deformed” infant that would only be a burden to American taxpayers. Were the Palins responsible, they would have aborted baby Trig before he was born because Down Syndrome people are not productive, they are a drain on us. Again: a family decision becomes grist for the mill for pseudo-political commentary. All of this goes on routinely in the blogosphere. This and even worse. I should add that one of the bloggers condemning the Palins for bringing to term their Down Syndrome child had a higher degree in economics, I believe it was.
And this doesn’t happen on the farthest shores of madness of our current political scene either: many of you perhaps recall an essay in an honorable and respected journal on why it was entirely reasonable to hate George W. Bush. Let me note that I have knowingly offered the particular examples I did in order to bring some balance into what were often rather unbalanced discussions in the contemporary academy. Most of the time only the follies of the right are noted. But, of course, there are nasty and stupid things that substitute for authentic political concerns that come from left and right alike. My astonishment, since the last decade of the twentieth century, is how often the displacement of politics, media distortion, and uncritical embrace of self-enclosed ideologies that generate their own mechanisms of justification for extreme rhetoric, has gone mainstream.
What can be an instrument for good — human rights networks, increasing transparency so tyrannical, human-rights abusing regimes cannot so readily hide their handiwork, is also a force for de-socialization, for isolating us rather than really connecting us, for our ongoing failures of civic formation, and for displacing private issues into politics thereby downgrading those concerns that pertain to all of us without distinction, that speak to a good that we can come to know in common that we cannot know alone. In a way, many of the instrumentalities that now charm and fixate us and are seen as promoting and sustaining democracy, on generating friendship, and on creating community, that promise to strengthen our democracy, are reminiscent of the promise in the nineteenth century that there were short-cuts to heaven, to the Celestial City of Paul Bunyan’s pilgrim, Christian. I cannot resist given you a peek into Nathaniel Hawthorne’s brilliant send-up of the “liberal theology” of his day that held that the old arduous path to the Celestial City, with the pilgrim bearing his burden of sins on his back, could be turned into a super railway that would get us there quick, without all the messy stuff about sin, remorse, penance, meaningful membership in a church body, and so on — just as the social media and all that gloms onto it promises a painless way to get to community and to friendship and to human identity.
In his brilliant send-up, Hawthorne writes in this 1843 tale of a gleaming new railroad that will take pilgrims to the Celestial City without the arduous pilgrimage required of John Bunyan’s Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress. Hop aboard! Mr. Smooth-it-away will get you to the promised place as you avoid the Slough of Despond, the battle with Apollyon and every other obstacle. One “great convenience” of the new rapid transit way to get to the Celestial City is that you didn’t make your way with all your burdens upon your back — no, you could just check the luggage and be done with it. As for Apollyon, well, he is now tamed as the “chief engineer” on the train. All of this shows “he liberality of the age; this proves, if anything can, that all musty prejudices are in a fair way to be obliterated.” As they streak through the countryside, the modern pilgrims notice some old-fashioned pilgrims making their labored way — they are mocked as preposterous and obstinate. Mr. Smooth-it-away, Mr. Live-for-the-world, Mr. Hide-sin-in-the-heart, Mr. Scaly Conscience, and some gentlemen from the town of Shun Repentance, are all reassuring on this score.
Now a tunnel, quickly, through the Hill of Difficulty — no more arduous ascents or descents. There are no terrible giants any longer who try to seize travelers and turn them away from the path to the Celestial City. Now there is but one giant called Giant Transcendentalist, German by birth, but his world is a “heap of fog and duskiness”, so it is very difficult to know what he is talking about. More characters pop up; all designed by Hawthorne to spoof the liberal theology of his day for believing there were shortcuts for the modern pilgrim. Alas, it turns out that the Lord of the Celestial City will not take in the passengers from the train – for, indeed, there really are no shortcuts. Even worse, some of those assisting on the voyage turn out to be cohorts of Satan himself, including Mr. Smooth-it-away, for the train leads straight to hell.
Dear fellow citizens: We live in a time of shortcuts. We would obviate all arduous processes. What is the cultural critic, citizen, patriot, confronted with developments that threaten from abroad and that threaten to alter us radically within to do? The tone and texture of much contemporary criticism has become ever more course and vulgar; more nasty, in a word, and cocky and this over the past few decades: criticism partakes of some of the worst features of the culture rather calling up the better angels of our nature. So one must walk a line between drawing attention to dire problems, some of which cut to the very heart of who we are as a people and what kind of place we live in, and cynicism; we must walk a line between embracing all sorts of alleged cure-alls to our woes that only generate more problems and solve nothing at all; we must walk a line between facile optimism and a gloomy pessimism.
I know that American politics has always been a blood sport on some level but it’s getting awfully ugly out there, in part because we scrutinize every candidate’s life and history in every aspect, respecting no boundaries of decency or privacy in the process. We drive many good people away from public service because they want to put neither their families nor themselves through the ugly and demeaning hazing now de riguer. In the process we depoliticize politics and over politicize intimate life. There is no ‘haven in a heartless world’. Every haven has been invaded and is pervaded by the logics of our techno-cyber-consumerist culture. You have to be a hero of sorts to stand against it and God did not make us to be heroes, God know. It is triumph enough some days just to get out of bed. That God does raise up heroes among us from time to time reminds us that it could be different, we don’t have to go down this path, we can stand apart or stand in front and push back. We are not just flotsam and jetsam tossed wildly about in the storm.
Perhaps we can learn to be a bit kinder, a bit more forgiving of one another and, at the same time, more demanding in what we expect from those in authority — and from ourselves — for, as the cartoon character Pogo, an opossum, said so many years ago during a different time of domestic crisis, “we have met the enemy and he is us”.
One of America’s foremost public intellectuals, Jean Bethke Elshtain is the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics, Divinity School, The University of Chicago. In addition to her many award-winning books, Professor Elshtain writes frequently for journals of civic opinion and lectures widely on themes of democracy, ethical dilemmas, religion and politics, and international relations.
She delivered the CBC Massey Lectures in 1993 and, in 2006, delivered the prestigious Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh, joining such previous Gifford Lecturers as William James, Hannah Arendt, Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr.
In 2011 Professor Elshtain was honored with the Democracy Service Award, previously given to the Dalai Lama, Lech Walesa, and Vaclav Havel, among others.

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