Today’s address was by Prof. Michael Thompson of William Paterson University who spoke on the topic, “What Is Democracy and How Can We Reclaim It?”
Prof. Thompson began his talk by taking us back to a special time and place in history, the Athens of 508 BC, when the people of Athens revolted not as a mob, but – for the first time in recorded history – as a people, forming what has come to be known as the Athenian Democracy. What made this unique was that this Democracy (“demos” or collective body of people + “kratos” which means power or strength) was defined not by the rights of individuals so much as by the interdependencies of Athenians among themselves and their responsibilities to one another. Democracy so defined, he went on to say, has three essential attributes:
- Accountability of the powerful to the people
- Redistribution of power (i.e., power is not inherently hierarchical)
- Ability of the people or their organs to negate improper uses of power
This is in contrast to those who would elevate the rights of the individual above all others.
Fast forward to today when we see threats to our democracy in many forms and especially in the rise in populism – on both the left and the right! Populism is by its nature undemocratic because it seeks to impose the dogmas of the mob on the people. We see today Trumpism on the right and political correctness on the left, neither of which brooks any compromise nor admits to any infidelity to the received wisdom of the crowd.
Democracy emphasizes the responsibility of the individual to the community and requires a degree of thoughtful skepticism. Skepticism is often confused with cynicism – the denial of all authority and the conflation of expertise with elitism. This is what we must guard against, we must put aside our prejudices and maintain a sense of humility recognizing that we may not have all the answers. Further, our responsibilities lie with the community in ways that should demonstrate reciprocity and responsiveness to the needs of others.