- Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary. [Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (1944), Introduction.]
- My political ideal is democracy. Everyone should be respected as an individual, but no one idolized. [Albert Einstein, from Henry Goddard Leach, Living Philosophies (Simon and Schuster, 1931).]
- A republic, if you can keep it. [Benjamin Franklin, responding to a woman’s question about the new government just after the Constitutional Convention of 1787.]
Government is social order. At a minimum, the security of the people demands a government that protects them from violent attack. Because governments must be financed, taxes are necessary. People may complain about restrictions on their liberty but without government, they would have no order in their lives and no freedom to pursue good and stable lives.
For most of human history, government’s functions could have been limited to a few things. Today, with our advanced technologies and our complex web of industry, finance, transportation, information exchange and other economic activities, governments have grown larger. They collect more in taxes and promulgate more laws and regulations because order and stability in the modern economy demands it. Rhetoric from the political right, hearkening back to the days of Thomas Jefferson in the United States, is irresponsible in denying the realities of modern economic life. The full extent of the damage to be done by this rhetoric and its accompanying effects on public policy remains to be seen.
For democracy to work properly – to serve the people’s needs – the people must be informed and responsible. This was the concern of the founders of modern democracy during the Enlightenment, and remains of paramount concern today.
Obstacles include propaganda.
Fundamentals of democracy:
- , Democracy Rules (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2021): “He doesn’t want us to fixate so much on democratic “norms” — those informal rules that beguile and bedevil political scientists — as he wants to talk about the democratic principles that animate those norms in the first place.”
- Packer, Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2021): “His deep fear is that Americans have lost the ‘art’ of self-government. He means, with credit to Alexis de Tocqueville, ‘not just rights, laws and institutions, but what free people do together, the habits and skills that enable us to run our own affairs.’ Self-government depends on trust, 'which we’ve lost.'”
Examples of self-government:
- Pauline Maier, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 (Simon & Schuster, 2010).
Examples of government being imposed from without.
- Thomas Barfield, Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History (Princeton University Press, 2011): ". . .Western powers made a serious error installing Karzai in a presidency with quasi-monarchical powers."
- James Miller, Can Democracy Work? A Short History of a Radical Idea, from Ancient Athens to Our World (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2018): What does “democracy” mean?
- Walt Whitman, Democratic Vistas (1871): three essays.
- Mario Vargas Llosa, Sabers and Utopias: Visions of Latin America (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2018): a vision for self-government in Peru
- Thant Myint-U, The Hidden History of BurmaRace, Capitalism, and the Crisis of Democracy in the 21st CenturyThe book’s focus is on the convulsions of the last 15 years, from a seemingly unshakable military dictatorship to the beginnings of democratic rule, but examining the legacy of Burma’s colonial past is crucial to grasping what’s happened more recently.
The messsiness of democracy:
- Lou Damrosch, Tocqueville’s Discovery of America (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010): “The contradictions Tocqueville found in Cincinnati fed into his larger conclusions. America, he found, was a nation of paradoxes. It proclaimed that all men were created equal, yet was suffused by racial prejudice. It placed unparalleled faith in the individual yet was conformist and controlled by the majority. It was materialistic yet deeply religious, commercial but puritanical. It had a carefully conceived Constitution and a well-defined political system, yet its most important decisions sprang from public opinion and mores, not the government.”
- Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein, The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality (Viking, 2019): “Neither man questioned the necessity of popular consent, but both thought democracy ought to be just one part of a properly balanced government.”
From the dark side:
- Benjamin Carter Hett, The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic (Henry Holt & Company, 2018): “A history showing that the Weimar Republic confronted problems of globalization with flawed leaders.”
Technical and Analytical Readings
Small government, whether that of Jefferson’s day or Coolidge’s, is incompatible with the demands of the contemporary world economy. Though the global economy has diminished the influence of government under the nation-state model, stability coupled with widely shared prosperity will not be restored until the people find a new way to govern ourselves.
- Bill Clinton, Back to Work: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011).
- Preet Bahrara, Doing Justice: A Prosecutor’s Thoughts on Crime, Punishment, and the Rule of Law (Knopf, 2019): “We should take our cues from American criminal trials, in which both parties are obliged to consider flaws in their own arguments and understand the mind-set of the other side. Assertions must be evidence-based; research must be rigorous; decorum is paramount. “You can’t call your adversary a ‘low-I.Q. person,’” he notes. ‘You can’t argue the prosecution is political; and you can’t make sweeping biased statements.’”
Threats to democracy:
- Elaine Scarry, Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing Between Democracy and Doom (W.W. Norton & Company, 2014): arguing that “the ability of one leader to deploy a nuclear weapon is inherently undemocratic.”
- Larry Diamond, Ill Winds: Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency (Penguin Press, 2019): “‘After three decades in which democracy was spreading and another in which it was stagnating and slowly eroding, we are now witnessing a global retreat from freedom.’”
- Steven Levitzky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (Crown, 2018): “Levitsky and Ziblatt show how democracies have collapsed elsewhere — not just through violent coups, but more commonly (and insidiously) through a gradual slide into authoritarianism. Autocrats often come to power through democratic elections rather than at the point of a gun.”
- Astra Taylor, Democracy May Not Exist But We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone (Metropolitan Books, 2019): “ . . . an idiosyncratic rumination on problems associated with popular self-government.”
- Burt Neuborne, When at Times the Mob Is Swayed: A Citizen’s Guide to Defending Our Republic (The New Press, 2019): “ . . . noted constitutional scholar Burt Neuborne administers a stress test to democracy and concludes that our unprecedented sets of constitutional protections, all endorsed by both major parties, stand between us and an authoritarian federal regime fronted by Donald Trump’s tweets . . . ”
- Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (Public Affairs, 2019): Does and will democracy have any meaning, when a few people can use algorithms to manipulate the masses?
- Andrew Marantz, Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation (Viking, 2019): “Marantz knows that evenhandedness is a professional principle; but even more fundamental, he says, is the need for honesty.”
- James Poniewozik, Audience of One: Donald Trump, Television, and the Fracturing of America (Liveright, 2019): “. . . Poniewozik, the chief television critic of this newspaper, uses his ample comedic gifts in the service of describing a slow-boil tragedy.”
- Anne Applebaum, Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism (Doubleday, 2020) “Why Intellectuals Support Dictators”
Documentary and Educational Films
- Howard Chandler Christy, Scene at the Signing of the Constitution (1940)
- Edvard Munch, Jurisprudence (1887)
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
In the era of apartheid, and since, many South African musicians used their craft to express the struggle of the South African black majority for freedom and self-rule.
- In his String Quartet No. 2 (1913), Charles Ives writes of four men “who converse, discuss, argue (in re ‘Politick’), fight, shake hands, shut up – then walk up the mountain side to view the firmament!”
- Morton Gould aspired to write the “Great American Symphony.” Messy and contentious but held together by key and tempo, his Symphony No. 3 (1947) leans in that direction.
- Mario Vargas Llosa, The Neighborhood: A Novel (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2018): a failure of self-government
- Jo Nesbø, Macbeth: A Novel (Hogarth, 2018): “In the end, he offers a dark but ultimately hopeful “Macbeth,” one suited to our own troubled times, in which “the slowness of democracy” is no match for power-hungry strongmen who demand unstinting loyalty from ethically compromised followers, and where the brave must band together to defeat the darker forces that threaten to destroy the social fabric.”
Come, I will make the continent indissoluble,
I will make the most splendid race the sun ever shone upon,
I will make divine magnetic lands,
With the love of comrades,
With the life-long love of comrades.
I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of America, and along the shores of the great lakes, and all over the prairies,
I will make inseparable cities with their arms about each other's necks, the love of comrades,
By the manly love of comrades.
For you these from me, O Democracy, to serve you ma femme!
For you, for you I am trilling these songs.
The President is there in the White House for you, it is not you who are here for him,
The Secretaries act in their bureaus for you, not you here for them,
The Congress convenes every Twelfth-month for you,
Laws, courts, the forming of States, the charters of cities, the going and coming of commerce and malls, are all for you.