They say nothing focuses the mind on the here and now like the threat of immanent death. So, in my mindfulness mediation recently, as I have at various times in my life, I imagined having only six months to live and watched to see what emerged as a new or top priority. The first thing that came to mind was to thank my sons for being such good husbands and fathers; what a comfort it would be to face death knowing two good men are replacing me. My next impulse surprised me: I would beg my fellow citizens to recognize the extraordinary value of what they are giving up by abandoning their commitment to democracy.
When Benjamin Franklyn quipped that they (the founders) had given us a Democracy “if you can keep it,” he foresaw the challenge acknowledged four score and seven years later by Abraham Lincoln. Bloodied and discouraged by a bitter struggle between the right to pursue unlimited personal wealth and the ideal of a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” Lincoln asked, as we do again today, whether “any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.”
Human greed and ambition will always threaten our highest egalitarian ideals. Sharing power and wealth for the benefit of others requires self-discipline and self-sacrifice. It calls on a recognition that we are ultimately, in some profound way, one people, one humanity. This recognition informs our trust that inclusion is not just practical, as it certainly is, but is rooted in a spiritual truth that makes the sacrifice not just worthwhile but morally right.
The aphorism “none of us are free unless all of us are free” echoes what most of us know in our hearts and clarifies an essential value behind democracy. Democracy recognizes the dignity and worth of all people by professing a shared human right to agency over the external governance of our everyday lives. This is the equality and liberty conferred by our constitution—the right and power of self-governance.
But self-governance, it turns out, is not always easy. In the pursuit of individual and social interests there is an ever present need for exchanges and compromises to accommodate the interests of others; the give and take of social politics seems to require at least as much giving as taking! Thus is the reservoir of goodwill and material resources needed for national abundance filled. At some level most of us know this from our family and community lives, where trust and unity of identity and purpose come easily. It is just as true, though not as easy, for a large, diverse nation.
Eating at these values, at this core of democracy, is a corrupting notion that freedom and liberty mean freedom from concern or responsibility for others. This is not what the founders meant. It’s a false god being promoted through a libertarian philosophy that values the acquisition and retention of unlimited personal wealth first and above all else. It serves only the individual and ignores the collective, the common good. It is antithetical to democracy. It seeks to dominate rather than empower and resists all forms of sharing, especially publicly administered ones like taxes and social safety nets.
The influence of this self-only way of looking at the world can be seen in the drumbeat of attack on government. Those who would dominate from the top of economic or political power insist on weakening the structures of democratic governance (such as voting and fidelity to the rule of law) because democratic processes are the way all of the governed can share the responsibilities and benefits of the collective society. And sharing is not their thing.
To criticize democracy for its failures, for being slow and painfully incremental in responding to emergent public needs and demands, is fair and reasonable; to reject or abandon it is not. For the alternatives will not preserve the autonomy and agency of every citizen. If we yield our right and responsibility to govern ourselves, if we give up the struggle to negotiate and compromise through the processes of government, if we stop caring about the dignity and needs of everyone, the power vacuum will quickly be filled by some one or someones in pursuit of their own interests. We have seen how autocratic rulers think, what they value and what they don’t. While today’s autocrat might be serving your interests, tomorrow’s might consider you the enemy, and there will be no rules or authority to protect you. Once lost, it is very difficult to recreate a government that accepts power-limiting and power-sharing rules to secure equality and liberty for everyone.
In my (imagined) last six months, I would plead from the rooftops for every American to stop and reflect on the gift of the Democracy we’ve been given, and to recognize the importance of America’s influence on freedom seeking peoples around the world, and then muster the courage and determination to protect and preserve it, to not let it perish from the Earth.