Which Democracy, Which Spirituality?

Book cover of Democracy May Not Exist But We'll Miss It When It's GoneNot long ago, I thought “democracy” carried a near-sacred aura in American public life. No longer.

There is a book I’ve not read yet, but the title is so spot-on the book is on my “must read” list. Astra Taylor wrote Democracy May Not Exist, But We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone.

Confidence in democracy as the best means of governance is flagging in the U.S. Younger generations believe less in its promise and potential than older generations. Books such as How Democracies Die catalog modern democracies hollowed out from within, resulting in dictators and demagogues. The world’s nations which have been democracies are not as smitten by democracy as they once seemed to be.

In my sabbatical reading last year, I came to understand better that “democracy” has been a dynamic, multivalent practice in American life. The definition is not settled. Nor is democracy’s character. Nor is its potential for good and for ill. Nor is its future in the United States.

What does democracy mean?

Democracy can mean majority rule, with political minorities be damned. Eighteenth century opponents of democracy did not see the difference between democracy and mob rule. Hamilton and Madison in the Federalist Papers argued for the moral and pragmatic importance of not creating permanent minorities and of the majority respecting the rights of political minorities. Let that argument, or plea, sink in.

Democracy can mean one person, one vote, and that voting translates into laws and policies that express the people’s will. But democracy can also mean a party in power gerrymanders districts in a way that undermines the value of voting for persons whom the gerrymanders seek to neutralize.

From colonial times, as European settlements took their shape, there were huge regional differences between understandings of democracy. (I highly recommend Colin Woodward’s American Nations.) Democracy as envisioned in New England, influenced by the Enlightenment with a fairly expansive (for the time) understanding of the voting franchise, was far different from the Athenian-style democracy desired by Southern plantation owners: free white male property owners ruling and enjoying an economy built on slave labor and patriarchy.

Democracy can mean free and equal persons voluntarily bound together in a social covenant to accomplish together what they cannot do separately.

Democracy can mean arranging society to allot maximum freedom and liberty for individuals. Democracy can also mean respecting the rights of communities, rights that legitimately limit the rights of individuals.

Democracy can be a useful fiction and opiate of the people administered by elites who have rigged the social and economic systems to help themselves to society’s rewards while throwing crumbs and punishments at the hoi polloi. (And it is this sense, I believe, that leads many persons of color and Millennials to distrust representative democracy.)

With democracy in turmoil, I’ve been thinking about what the spirituality of democracy is. Or, to be more precise, what the spirituality of each type of democracy is. By spirituality, I mean the explicit and implied answers to what human life means. Spirituality also includes practices that connect each person and each community to something or someone larger than themselves.

Some spiritual practices foster our better angels. Some strengthen our demons.

What if we understood polarization as a spiritual practice—which it is. It is a practice of war, just as Newt Gingrich ordered when he was Speaker of the House (see How Democracies Die for the history on his tenure as Speaker). In this case, the war is waged in gerrymandering and the courts. The end toward which polarization aims is conquest and exile of the defeated.

What if we understood stoking fear as a spiritual practice—which it is. Fear is politically useful to close ranks, divide, exclude, and/or eliminate.

What if we understood truth-telling and reckoning with our past for the sake of our future as spiritual practices—which they are. If anything connects us to each other—and divides us from each other—it is the stories we tell, who and what we include and leave out.

What if we understood speech and words as sacred trusts—which they are: divine gifts that enable us to acquire knowledge, reason together, discover and make meaning, deliberate, grow wise.

What if we understood neighboring and self-governance as spiritual practices—which they most definitely are. Imagine the kinds of communities we’d enjoy if the virtues of self-governance and neighboring walked hand-in-hand.

The authors of How Democracies Die and Democracy May Not Exist, But We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone allege the U.S. never has been a democracy in which all citizens—regardless of race, creed, color, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, class, ability, and all the other ways we identify—have had a voice. (Pundits recently have criticized presidential candidate Joe Biden for using his work years back with a segregationist as a positive example. Practicing tolerance, forbearance, and civility in Congress in Jim Crow, pre-civil right America involved almost exclusively white men.) I think that is a correct assessment.

What it takes to be a democracy today requires much more effort, discarding past practices and acquiring new learning, than was the case before 1964. Same goes for the spirituality of democracy.

Becoming a democracy of which we can all be justly proud means paying attention to the spirituality of democracy. To whom and what are we connected? How are we connected? Where are we headed?