Things Change. They Just Do.

E. J. Dionne has a piece in Commonweal about the decline of democracy in America and Europe. Hard-data seekers will be frustrated, because quantifying this decline is not possible. Historical development, like human nature itself, defies final summation in mathematical equations.

The afterglow of the dissolution of the Soviet Union is still with us. Despite our anxieties about militant Islam; despite our less than triumphant wars in Central Asia and the Middle East; despite the unraveling of domestic civility and the worst economic crisis in nearly a century– despite all this, we like to think that American democracy is the culminating apex of historical development. We won the Cold War; that victory proved the superiority of American democracy over any autocratic or totalitarian system.

Let’s say that’s true. Let’s say that the fall of the Berlin Wall was the sign that democracy won. The mistake is to believe that democracy won forever: that history had come to an end, and that all the world– if it were progressing to enlightened ends– would inevitably become like us.

The merits and shortcomings of democracy aside, what such triumphalism lacks is historical imagination. Historical imagination involves two activities of the mind: first, it considers centuries– rather than today’s hours and minutes, or the next election cycle– as the pertinent measure of time; second, it consciously resists projecting this era’s dominant worldview onto the past, or into the future. Not unlike the religious imagination, historical imagination both recalls us to the truth that our life is but a breath, and checks our natural inclination to believe that the sun revolves around us.

With historical imagination, it’s not hard to foresee a time when American democracy is not triumphant; to conceive of a day when another way will work better to meet the challenges of that particular day. Things change. They just do.

We can prepare for inevitable change– the inevitable, unavoidable change that comes at many times in a human life, and throughout human history. How we can prepare for the changes that will come, is for next time.

An excerpt from Dionne, and the link, follow:

We know American politics are dysfunctional. But after a week of scandal obsession during which the nation’s capital and the media virtually ignored the problems most voters care about — jobs, incomes, growth, opportunity, education — it’s worth asking if there is something especially flawed about our democracy….

Citizen dissatisfaction is hardly surprising in the wake of a deeply damaging economic downturn. That doesn’t make the challenge any less daunting. We should consider whether democracy itself is in danger of being discredited. Politicians might usefully disentangle themselves from their day-to-day power struggles long enough to take seriously their responsibility to a noble idea and the systems that undergird it.

Earlier this month, the Transatlantic Academy, a global partnership of think tanks led by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, issued “The Democratic Disconnect,” a sober report by a group of distinguished academics.

“Democracy is in trouble,” the report begins. “The collective engagement of a concerned citizenry for the public good — the bedrock of a healthy democracy — is eroding. Democratic governments often seem crippled in their capacity to deliver what their people want and need….”

via Is Democracy in Trouble? | Commonweal Magazine.

More on “Restore America Now”

Ron Paul’s yard signs say: “Restore America Now.” A good idea, of course– but I question the implied link between such a restoration, and the election of this– or any other– politician.

This is not your usual broad-brushed contempt for “all those crooked politicians.” I’m not that cranky yet. Rather, I simply wonder whether those things that would “restore America” are those things that the world of politics can address.

Imagine a day in the future, when people of differing philosophies and commitments nevertheless agree on this: America is restored! What developments, what events, what changes– on that future day– will people point to as having led to America’s restoration?

Will it have been some American military conquest that will have led to America’s restoration? Some economic policy or federal budget, enacted by Congress, that will have led to such a restoration? Some charismatic president whose messiah-like appeal enables the nation to transcend its differences and unite its energy in common purpose?

The reason those– or any other developments in the world of politics– are unlikely to be cited as having led to America’s restoration, is that they’re all external. They locate all power in the political sphere, and cede to that sphere all resp0nsibility for our common life.

The restoration of America (if it happens) will have political ramifications, but it won’t be driven by politics. It will be driven by those components of culture that touch hearts and minds: education and learning; art and imagination; religion and faithfulness– all of which (if authentic) foster individual character and invigorate communities.

We’ve gone too far astray for the “restoration of America” to entail a simple course correction. At this point, such a restoration will involve transformation: qualitative (rather than quantitative) changes in values and ways of life.

Anxiety and Change

Iranian authorities prepare to quell pro-Egyptian demonstrations. Bahraini police break up protests. Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas reshuffles his cabinet, in preparation for the possibility of new elections. And for his Fox News viewers (a highly anxious group), Glenn Beck diagrams  how the pan-Arab Muslim Caliphate soon will be knocking on Europe’s doorstep.

Precisely what kind of pressure we should place on the Iranian regime; or precisely what level of support we should give the Egyptian military–  these and other specific policy questions are not illuminated by thoughtful theology. However, particular attitudes and perspectives– attitudes and perspectives that increase the likelihood of forming successful policies– are the result of thoughtful theology. For example:

1. We should be suspicious of the notion that democracy is the perfect answer for every people, everywhere and at every time. Some of the rhetoric about democracy elevates it to the status of a quasi-religion, as though everyone can, and will, be saved once democracy is established in their land. While freedom and democracy are compelling ideas that share common ground with a theological/moral understanding of the intrinsic worth of each and every person qua person, democracy is not an unambiguous good in all times and in all contexts. Wise American leadership in support of democratic reform movements needs to be discerning, timely, crafty.

2. We– especially we “can-do” Americans– should be suspicious of the temptation to mistake being powerful, with having the ability to control outcomes. The first does not mean the second. We can bring power to bear– say, in Iran– but we cannot dictate that the reformers will overthrow the Iranian theocracy, or that, if they do, some unintended consequence then becomes even more threatening. Recognizing this kind of limit is the virtuous outcome of thoughtful theology, and is also hopefully the lesson of our hubris in Iraq. The world is not plastic, yielding to how we mold and shape.

Grasping at the perfect answer, and attempting to control outcomes, are stock responses to anxiety. Thoughtful theology– thoughtful grounding in the Transcendent One– guards us from over-reliance on our own frail human capabilities, guards us from over-reaction to events, and gives us patience for issues to ripen– so that our policies actually have a chance to fulfill their intent.