Looking At Democracy

The Illinois Humanities Council and the MacArthur Foundation are sponsoring a contest for media pieces on the subject of strengthening democracy.

So where do you start?

It’s long been the view of Religion in the Balance that what ails the body politic are the fundamentals on which politics are built: an operationalized view of human nature and the end (as in purpose) of human life; how the liberty of the individual, and the responsibility of the individual to the community, are balanced; how those who have power and voice in a society treat (in word, deed, and policy) those who are relatively powerless and voiceless.

Rodney King once famously said (paraphrased), “Can’t we all just get along?” King’s plea was for the peaceful co-existence of different races, and therefore something we should all desire. In the context of democracy writ large, however, the answer to “Can’t we all just get along?” is a resounding “No”– thankfully. We shouldn’t expect, or even want, to “all just get along,” because plurality, diversity, and disagreement are our strength. Unanimity– broad, society-wide unanimity– is just another word for totalitarianism. It would be troubling if we were all getting along without conflict– it would be a sign that either we were snow jobbing ourselves through widespread self-deception, or that we were being coerced into unanimity by an outside power. Both are false, and symptomatic of a society in deep decay.

The genius of our democracy is that we hold as an ideal (if not always in practice) that we can live peacefully– and actually compromise– with people with whom we disagree: people who do not share the view of human nature that we do; people who do not pursue meaning in life the way we do; people who balance individual liberty and communal responsibility in society differently than we do. The genius of our democracy is our ability to use this difference and diversity as a strength.

Re-learning how to use conflict creatively is the most important beginning we can make, to strengthen democracy today.

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