The presidential campaign of 2008 is proving to be the most exhilarating political event within memory. Most eye-catching and inspiring is, of course, the Democratic side, with the inevitability that either a woman or an African-American will be the presidential nominee. It’s a novel, surprising, if not astonishing turn of events, which could not be more exciting if some master political operative in the sky had planned it that way.
But this campaign may signal something else, which is of much deeper significance. Although the campaign is unspeakably long, and obscenely expensive (I have heard it said that this is the first campaign in history which will cost more than a billion dollars), the primaries have turned out voters in record numbers, and most promising of all has been the engagement of young people in the electoral process.
In short, this election seems to be awakening vast sectors of the American public from their apathetic slumbers, at a time when we have been virtually standing at the graveside of American democracy. The vital signs that American democracy is weak have been obvious, and the causes for its lassitude are many.
As is well known, just a little more than half of the eligible electorate vote in presidential elections, and in off years, the numbers are much less. Compared to other democracies, both developed and developing, the United States is very far down the list of active voters among those qualified to be so. Moreover, Americans are, in general, frighteningly ignorant of the workings of political institutions and basic political facts, such as who is the chief justice of the Supreme Court, and many lack an ideological framework by which to coherently organize political trends and ideas.
Clearly American democracy is distorted and weakened by many factors. Most oppressive is the ability of super-rich interests to control the process while disenfranchising the rest of us. This includes the inordinate muscle of special interests, corporate and otherwise, and their high power lobbyists to virtually buy politicians and their votes. Money talks in other ways as well. The sheer cost of launching a campaign and sustaining it excludes from running for office those who are not well positioned to raise millions of dollars. Other factors that compromise our democracy are the consolidation of the news into fewer profit making media outlets, the movement away by some media from an ethos of objective reporting to advocacy and partisanship, and, as we saw ominously in Florida in the 2000 election, deliberate ruses to inhibit certain sectors of the electorate from exercising their right to vote. But perhaps among the most powerful dynamics that undermines democracy in America is the persistent, pervasive culture of consumerism, which permeates American life and American consciousness. Whether we consume material goods or entertainment, consumption is among the most inward turning and individualistic of all pursuits. It bears no relationship to public or democratic values. Among the greatest achievements of Ronald Reagan, who has gained mythic status larger than life in vast circles, was to lionize the commercial culture and transform whatever civic commitments Americans possessed into shopping. If you wish to divert the public mind from political and civic affairs, if you wish to buy people off and lull them to sleep, there is no better way than to turn them into consumers. The consumer does not care, and does not need to care, about democratic values. Consuming is about buying and spending, production and profit. It has nothing to do with being an inspired or active citizen.
It is against this dismal state of affairs that the current campaign is so hopeful. Whether the engagement in the political life of the country that we are now witnessing will gain traction for the long haul, only the future will tell. But one of the potent factors which will determine whether our democracy can be resuscitated, or whether this campaign is a transitory flash in the pan, will be vested in the personality, character, political philosophy and agenda, and the practical skills in the carrying out of that agenda — in short, the leadership abilities — of the next president.
What I want to do this morning is unpack what I understand by Americans ideals, which are essentially democratic ideals. I then want to share what some of the qualities and priorities are that this citizen would like to see in our next president.
When it comes to democracy and what democracy means, my greatest inspiration has been the thought of the humanist philosopher John Dewey. In many ways, Dewey’s view of democracy was similar to that of his older contemporary Felix Adler, the founder of our Ethical Culture movement. But unlike Adler, Dewey made democracy a centerpiece of his philosophy and he wrote much more about it than did Adler. In fact, Dewey was perhaps the greatest intellectual proponent of democracy in the twentieth century. In my opinion, Dewey’s views on democracy articulate an American ideal, which, to be personal, in many ways has inspired my own life and work,
What is Dewey’s notion of democracy? If you ask Americans what they understand by the democratic process, I suspect that most would respond by referring to electoral politics, especially voting. In the minds of most people democracy begins and ends in the voting booth. It is true that suffrage is an indispensable aspect of the democratic process. Free and fair elections, incorporating universal and equal suffrage, manifest the notion that the authority of government is the will of people. The right to vote in periodic elections by secret ballot is a mainstay of democracy and is one of the fundamental freedoms that people possess, and is so inscribed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for example.
But, in my opinion, voting is the most formal and minimal expression of democracy. It is like describing what a human being is by pointing to his to his or skeletal system alone, without making reference to the rest of his body, or his personality. Reducing democracy to voting once every four years leaves one with a very thin appreciation of democracy. Democracy is, really, a much more far-reaching and richer concept.
It was Dewey’s view that democracy even went beyond what we usually understand as politics. For John Dewey, democracy is a veritable character trait of a free people. Democracy is something a person feels in the fiber of one’s being, and lives out in the large and small arenas of her life. For Dewey, the human being is at the same time both an individual and a social being. We become our distinctive selves as individuals by committing ourselves outwardly to the community. And by our efforts to mold the community, we reciprocally mold ourselves as individuals. We become ourselves, we fulfill ourselves though active engagement with, and enrichment of, the life of the community. In this sense, the individual and society do not stand in an adversarial relationship to one another. Rather, they stand in a complementary and cooperative relationship with one another. For Dewey, not competition, but cooperation is both the process and the end of the democratic life. John Dewey, of course, was best known as a philosopher of progressive education, and for Dewey a primary purpose of education is to educate the individual toward social ends.
To be practical, in the Deweyan view, democracy finds expression not solely in the large arena of national politics, but in the small circles of life. So that the person who is active as a little league coach, in her PTA, participates in town meetings, or is a union representative is living out the democratic ideal.
Needless to say, there is a grassroots feel to this understanding of democracy, which sees the life of the nation as sustained from the bottom up, rather than from the top down. Another way of saying this is that democracy involves the nurturing of what is often called “civil society.”
What is civil society? Well, it has more to do with sustaining local institutions — schools, libraries, hospitals, fraternal groups, political activist organizations — than it does with large, national institutions, or the megaliths of the private sector.
Political theorist Benjamin Barber describes civil society well when he writes:
Civil society, or civil space, occupies the middle ground between government and the private sector. It is not where we vote, and it is not where we buy and sell; it is where we talk with our neighbors about a crossing guard, plan a benefit for our community, discuss how our church or synagogue can shelter the homeless, or organize a summer softball league for our children.
Needless to say when we are active in the Ethical Society, especially in the social justice work that we do and support, we are doing so within the realm of civil society. We are neither consumers, nor government actors, but we are uncoerced volunteers. And when we fulfill our objectives in civil society, we are acting most like citizens. As Barber states, “we are not politicians and bureaucrats, but empowered people, who use legitimate force to put flesh on the bones on our liberties.”
The point here is that the maintenance of a healthy, robust civil society is a key to the survival of democracy, and it is Benjamin Barber’s fear that a society driven by a predatory market culture smothers that intermediate sector of society.
It is the life of a vital civil society, that, I believe, Dewey equated with the heart of democracy. One more point: In a healthy democracy, individuals, whether in their work lives or in their roles as actors in civil society, would see themselves as working for the common good. And in Dewey’s final vision of society — which for lack of better term is almost a “spiritual” one — people would recognizes and attempt to harmonize their own interests and goals with the interests of society as a whole. My personal good and the common good would not be adversaries, but would be harmonized.
Such, in briefest terms was Dewey’s view of the democratic ideal. And since I came upon it in my twenties it has been my ideal also.
I present this notion, not only because I think that American democracy is in dire trouble, but because I think that with the excitement generated by this presidential campaign we may be seeing our best opportunity for taking American democracy off its death bed, and giving it new vitality. I very much believe that the future of an America worth living in will be based on whether we can recapture something essential to the American spirit and American life. I also believe the quality of the man or woman we elect in November will be the most important factor in determining the future of American democracy and the restoration of American ideals.
My presumption is that the presidency is a bully pulpit that can engage the energies of Americans or can deflate those energies and invite renewed apathy and cynicism. Strength of character and personality are key factors. Americans vest a lot of psychological power in their president, as one would a monarch. Just look at how often the president comes up in conversation, as an object of praise or contempt, by, of course, people who have never met him, as if our fortunes are determined by his every gesture.
If we want our president to restore our democratic and American ideals, I think we need to approach the role of the president, or anyone in high office, with a sense of realism. One doesn’t have to be a cynic to conclude that many of the vaunted promises we hear from our candidates, whether it is McCain, Clinton or Obama, are not what they will do or can do once they achieve office. This is especially true when once speaks the language of ideals. The nature of politics is that it inevitably involves compromise. Anyone in high office is automatically beholden to a multitude of constituencies, and the American public is only one of them. The president is also beholden to his party, to congressional leadership, to his own historical legacy, and yes, to special interests who helped put him there, and, also, of course, he or she is beholden to what is possible. But, while political policy cannot be based on ideals alone, any political policy that does not incorporate elements of idealism and speak the language of ideals is itself not a realistic policy.
Having said that, we need a president will who will inspire Americans to feel good about their country, by holding up a commitment to the ideals on which America was founded. I am not talking about promoting nationalism or chauvinism or restoring ideas of manifest destiny. But it is true, that unlike most other countries, the United States was founded on a cluster of inspiring ideas — equality, justice, human rights, opportunity and participatory democracy. To employ the words of Martin Luther King, we need a leader who will challenge America to live out the promise of its creed and speak to the power of those ideals. What we need is a president who will inspire Americans to get beyond the narrowness, the selfishness and materialism which keep people separate and isolated from one another, and thereby open up the public space that will enable us to engage each other in more meaningful pursuits. In other words, to help create a more vibrant civil society.
But inspiring rhetoric, such as we see in Barack Obama, is not enough. Unless the rhetoric is backed up by solid policies and programs that help realize, at least in part, those ideals, lofty rhetoric becomes empty rhetoric, and promises unkept become false promises. They become the nurturing ground of apathy and cynicism, not only about the president, but about the political system as a whole.
We need a president who is a person of integrity. We need a leader who will be willing to transcend partisanship for the sake of crucial issues that fulfill the needs of broad cross sections of the American people. By contrast, fewer presidents have been more destructive to the political culture and American faith in politics than was Richard Nixon, for whom the personal become very political, and whose paranoia and penchant for dirty tricks placed a dark cloud over American politics, which has been with us for a generation. We don’t need dirty tricks, and we don’t need Cheney-like commitment to the “dark side.” And we certainly don’t need a chief executive who, with his executive orders and signing statements, is committed to establishing an “imperial presidency” at the expense of Congress, the judiciary or the people whom the president is constitutionally empowered to serve. In short, we need a president who will help restore faith in democracy because he or she is a person of integrity, and because she believes in it herself. We need a president who will proudly and explicitly demonstrate that he is not above the Constitution and the law. We do not need machinations, but transparency coming from the highest office in the land. Without transparency in government, there simply can be no democracy.
An essential component of democracy is fundamental freedom, and the civil liberties that are enunciated in the Bill of Rights. Bill Clinton was no champion of civil liberties and neither, to say the least, is George Bush. Our commitment to liberty is put to the greatest test at times when our security is most threatened. Throughout our history, whether it was the Palmer raids after World War I, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, or the McCarthy persecutions, we have been too quick to sacrifice our freedom out of fear because we were told by our leadership that national security required it. Each of those times the wisdom of hindsight has told us that the loss of freedom was unwarranted. The post-9/11 period is one of those times. In this case our chief executive has manipulated public fears to limit basic freedoms for the sake of instituting his agenda, including expanding his power at the expense of the other branches of government, the Constitution and the people.
The sowing of an environment of fear is not salutary for sustaining a robust faith in American democracy. And one of the most disheartening signs of that lack of faith is that the opposition party has been, frankly, cowardly in challenging the progressive erosion of basic American liberties.
Nothing is more American than the idea of freedom, and we need our next president to be a strong and fearless defender of civil liberties who would be willing through his or her leadership to defend and expand the circle of basic rights and liberties and not curtail them or suppress them.
What pertains domestically, I believe needs to be extended to foreign policy as well. We live in a globalized world in which the watchword is international cooperation and not unilateralism. Unilateralism has been the policy line of the current administration. It has gotten our traditional allies to dislike us, and our enemies to hate us more.
If we wish to nurture democracy around the world, I don’t think we do it best by wielding a big stick, and by bombing the nations we wish to remake into democracies, but through diplomacy, through exchange programs, and by building hospitals, and schools, and through well-placed, generous foreign aid. And by finding the way to rein in American multinational corporations that ride roughshod over developing countries, extract their resources and exploit their labor, but most often leave little of lasting value behind.
And finally, in the international arena, we can no longer afford to be hypocrites when it comes to human rights. We cannot tell the world that we are the champions of human rights, while we run secret prisons, deny prisoners the most basic judicial rights, and while we torture our enemies. Here is the one issue in which realism and compromise have no place. We need a president who will rescind these despicable practices, unconditionally, unequivocally and absolutely.
Much more could be said about ways to strengthen democracy, both here and beyond our borders. But, it seems to me that we can’t have a robust civil society, or a strong democracy, without a healthy and secure middle class. If the middle class is eroding, if people are anxious about losing their jobs, or need to work three jobs, or can’t meet their mortgage payments, then not enough free time nor enough energy is left for volunteer commitments and political activity, which are the life-blood of democracy. If we wish to revitalize democracy, our next administration must find ways to strengthen the economic security of the middle class sectors of society. It must do so not for the sake of more mindless consumption, but for the sake of fostering greater interaction with our neighbors, for the sake of liberating enough time and energy to build a sustainable environment, and for the sake of creating a more just and more fulfilling society for all.
In closing, I believe we need enlightened, intelligent, knowledgeable, and ethical political leadership to inspire the American people toward greater dedication, and to help mold society in more fulfilling directions. But our leadership is only half the story. If we take democracy seriously, then we need to accept that the ultimate responsibility for the welfare of our society does not rest with its leadership. It rests with us.
The current presidential campaign has lit a spark of excitement in our political culture at the moment. Whether it is a momentary phenomenon, or will gain traction for the long range will be greatly dependent on the character, skills, policies and leadership abilities of whoever holds the office. But, we too, will have to do our share to make sure that our democracy is not a democracy in word only.
Dr, Joseph Chuman
2 March 2008