Repairing Our Democratic Values
By Dr. Joseph Chuman, leader of The Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County
It’s hard to get excited about them. It’s much harder to get militant in their defense. In fact, it makes one feel a little foolish even to try. But try we must. What I’m referring to are liberal values. It’s much easier to grow militant if one is a hard-core conservative or a strident leftist. The more extreme a position or an ideology, the more readily it can be expressed in simple slogans. It’s reducible to one-liners, to zingers. But liberal values can’t, by their nature, be so communicated. Liberalism involves compromise, nuance, often subtlety. It’s not readily reducible to sound bites, and therefore, as noted, hard to express with militancy. An angry liberal is almost a contradiction in terms.
The current presidential campaign resonates with extremes and has exacerbated extreme divisions in our society. I am looking forward to the end of this election. Never have I am been as mentally embroiled in a presidential race as in this one. My head sometimes feels like it’s tied in knots. While I have before dreaded the prospects of having certain candidates become president, never have the stakes been so high. It is not merely a liberal versus a conservative. This time the outcome is between having a normal human being or a madman occupy the White House. The campaign has seemed surreal, more appropriate for a small nation that has known only power-hungry, petty dictators and not the United States of America. The presumption is that Donald Trump will go down in defeat, though with the mercurial nature of the polls, I feel I cannot rest until the threshold of needed votes for victory is crossed and the winner declared.
Social Activism: But in a sense, the election does not mark an end; it opens the door to a new phase of politics and social activism. Democracy is not self-legislating and as Jefferson said, “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” In short, the maintenance of democracy and freedom is a Sisyphean burden. It never ends, and concerned, freedom-loving, citizens can never rest from their burdens for long.
What the Trump campaign has done is expose deep fissures in American society. His hate-filled campaign has turned back the clock on race relations, undoing some of the work that good people have engaged in for the past few decades to put America’s ugly legacy of racism behind us. He has given permission for every white supremacist, racist, anti-Semite, xenophobe and misogynist to come out of the closet to spew hatred. But he has also unearthed the strident economic divide in our society, which has been greatly smoothed over and given scant attention. There are millions of people for whom America no longer works, who are very angry, and who will vote for him.
Trump’s demagoguery is of a piece with an international trend that has come to question, if not despair, of the liberal, democratic values that we identify with an enlightened society and which we all cherish. In this regard, he finds company with the extreme proponents of the Brexit movement in England, Marine Le Pen in France, Gert Wilders in Holland, and far-right leaders and movements in Austria, Hungary and Poland. And he has a special affinity for Russia’s Putin, whose authoritarian objective is to make Russia great again. We can also include the Chinese state in this dark trend, where the average citizen has no experience of democracy and is happy to let the overlords in Beijing run the show as long as the economy delivers the goods.
Illiberal Democracy: What this global trend may augur is a souring on liberal democracy in favor of “illiberal democracy.” A liberal democracy is a state in which the will of the people is expressed through periodic elections and the rights of individual citizens are respected. An illiberal democracy is one which holds periodic elections, but the institutions that safeguard freedom and individual rights – an independent judiciary, an effective congress, a free and energetic press and a vital framework of checks and balances — is compromised or suppressed. Trump’s appeal as a strong leader has incorporated this illiberalism and a contempt for the constitutional principles, of which he seems blithely ignorant. What’s more disturbing is that those who are captivated by his persona don’t seem to be bothered by his illiberalism. And there are apparently tens of millions of them.
After the clouds of this election clear away, we will face a political landscape in which the democratic values and institution that we humanists cherish will be in need of invigoration and repair. To save ourselves from the impending illiberalism that hovers, we are going to have to become re-enchanted with democracy and become excited about liberal values. The realization of these values has always characterized Ethical Culture at its best. To the extent to which our resources allow, we need to communicate those values explicitly and militantly to the wider world. As mentioned, this is not easy to do, but I believe that our times demand that we need to give it our best effort.