At Home in a Democratic Framework

A friend of mine asked me the other day what I thought about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He had read an article somewhere and he didn’t know much about it, and so he asked. I sort of chuckled because that’s a pretty big thing to ask and I didn’t quite know where to take it. But the conversation started somewhere and evolved, as these conversations do, into the world wars, drawing borders, colonialism, international relations, the definition of terrorism. You get the point. It was a dialogue—one of those conversations that dives deep down the rabbit hole of ideas that seems rare nowadays (even if it didn’t accomplish much). We listened to each other, admitted when we didn’t know something and used our phones to Google some facts. Neither of us withdrew to a particular side, camp, tribe.  

At 35-years-old, the lack of open and thoughtful conversations, especially among our leaders, strikes me as one of the core problems of America today. Generally, as a country, we have lost our understanding of what democracy is ultimately striving for: an exchange of ideas that works to move the country forward—to progress. And because of this, we have lost our ability to work towards a more perfect union. If we have a collective vision, I’m unaware of what that is.

Jon Meacham’s 2019 Introduction to On Democracy, a collection of essays, letters, and poems by E.B. White (1899 – 1985), captures this current climate of stagnation by echoing White’s words from decades ago. “White anticipated,” Meacham writes, “the antidemocratic forces of our own era: political tribalism (We doubt that there was ever a time in this country when so many people were trying to discredit so many other people, [White] wrote—in 1952); media saturation (This country is on the verge of getting news-drunk anyway; a democracy cannot survive merely by being well informed, it must also be contemplative, and wise, [White]wrote—in 1954); and the need for a free and disputatious press (There is safety in numbers: the papers expose each other’s follies and peccadillos, correct each other’s mistakes, and cancel out each other’s biases White wrote—in 1976).” It is important to note Meacham’s parentheticallines from White, and especially when they were written. Catastrophizing our current sociopolitical climate is easy because we are living in it, believing that these times are somehowunprecedented regarding these “antidemocratic forces.” The truth is that these forces come around every generation in one form or another. It is merely the circumstances that change, and the language.

What may make this epoch different is the speed in which there have been great shifts in politics, technology, and economics that are trapped within a sweeping net of globalism. This net continues to expand while political discourse regresses into a Nietzschean labyrinth. In a 2016 article for USC Trojan Family, the alumni magazine for USC, Robert Bradford writes that there are “…seemingly endless news and opinion outlets, from magazines and websites to social media, television programs, radio shows and podcasts with political viewpoints. Discourse often descends into the rude and crude…” This is true, of course, but let’s not pretend that politics hasn’t always been vile.

One of the nastiest campaigns in American history came in the 1800 presidential battlewhen Thomas Jefferson ran against John Adams. Peter Feuerherd, in his article “The First Ugly Election: America, 1800” wrote that “both candidates suffered personal attacks; Adams, for his perceived lack of masculine virtues, Jefferson for rumors that he had fathered children with one of his slaves and, enamored with French revolutionary ideas, had plans to install a Bonaparte-like dictatorship in America. His heterodox Christianity also raised charges of atheism.” Jefferson and Adams may not have had Fox News, CNN, or 24-hour news cycles, but they had brochures and newspapers. What has undoubtedly changed since 1800, however, is that a fact—”a true piece of information”—is no longer a fact. The perpetuated omission, manipulation, and downright falsehood of claims has become common practice. Personal attacks are the least of it.And this is a grave threat to democracy.

Where does this leave us? Where do we go from here? These questions are challenging to answer while tribalism runs ramped, political parties are deeply fractured, and facts are no longer facts. How do we reemerge with reasonableness to create a collective vision of America for the 21st century?

The British-American author, editor, and blogger, Andrew Sullivan, was interviewed by Scott Pelley on 60 Minutes in November 2021. Sullivan says, “The American Constitution was set up for people who can reason and argue and aren’t afraid of it, and then reach compromises…Well, if you’re in a tribe, and all that matters is the victory of your tribeyou can’t behave that way. You can’t make it work. This country came to the point where we had violence in the usual peaceful transfer of power. That is a huge warning to how unstable our system can be if we remain tribalists in a system that’s supposed to be designed for reasonable citizens.” 

John Quincy Adams identified the necessity of discourse during his Inaugural Address on March 4, 1825: “Of the two great political parties which have divided the opinions and feelings of our country, the candid and the just will now admit that both have contributed splendid talents, spotless integrity, ardent patriotism, and disinterested sacrifices to the formation and administration of this Government, and that both have required a liberal indulgence for a portion of human infirmity and error.” That is—we discuss and disagree but move forward through individual sacrifice for the common good, acknowledging our mistakes and shortcomings.

We are not going to change the standoff between our tribes through a single piece of legislation, or by winning an election, but rather by changing ourselves—by changing the electorate—and forcing candidates to have a conversation. And maybe we force them by introducing term limits. By capping election contributions. By having another ConstitutionalConvention. But as Americans, we demand our government to function. At heart,” Meacham writes, “White’s vision of democracy is about generosity of spirit and a kind of self-interested covenant—the best way to guarantee freedom and fair play for ourselves is to guarantee it for others.” And to guarantee freedom for others, we need to listen to what they have to say.

This is what White had warned, and what he was concerned about in his own time: “The United States, almost alone today, offers the liberties and the privileges and the tools of freedom. In this land the citizens are still invited to write plays and books, to paint their pictures, to meet for discussion, to dissent as well as to agree, to mount soapboxes in the public square, to enjoy education in all subjects without censorship, to hold court and judge one another, to compose music, to talk politics with their neighbors without wondering whether the secret police are listening, to exchange ideas as well as goods, to kid the government when it needs kidding, and to read real news of real events instead of phony news manufactured by a paid agent of the state . . . To be free, in a planetary sense, is to feel that you belong to earth. To be free, in a societal sense, is to feel at home in a democratic framework.”

Are we still offering “the liberties and the privileges and the tools of freedom?” Sullivan says, “that separation between politics and life is what we’re losing. And that’s a terrible thing to loseWe can fight over arguments but not debate each other’s good faith or character or dismiss people because of their race or sex or whatever,” Sullivan continues. “We can leave all that behind and be citizens, arguing, reasoning. Deliberation is what the founders called it. If we’re not like that, this system will fail as it is already failing.” And when we fail, we lose what White called, “being at home in a democratic framework.” But we never actually lose our freedom. We give it away.

Geoff Watkinson
Founder at Green Briar Review | Website | + posts

Geoff Watkinson has contributed to Guernica, storySouth, Brevity [Blog], The Humanist, The San Diego-Tribune, The Virginian-Pilot, and Switchback, among others. His first nonfiction collection, Have Some Faith in Loneliness & Other Essays, is due out in early 2022.. He is the founder/managing editor of Green Briar Review (www.greenbriarreview.com). Read more of his work at geoffwatkinson.wordpress.com/publications, or find him on Twitter: @GeoffWatkinson.

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