Democracy: What is it? Do we want it?

Capitol image in Reflecting Pool behind Congress. Freeart photo.

Let’s start with “civilization.” A place where people come together.” Webster’s Dictionary goes much farther, indicating that those people have made time to advance in the arts, science, and government affairs. Talented people expressing their gifts, leaving the bickering behind.  

Democracy is different from civilization. Webster says that democracy is “government by the people, where the supreme power vested in the people under a free electoral (voting system),” but adds that the people exercise their authority by direct action. (Since it is difficult to vote everyone simultaneously in a population of 329 million people, we have “elected agents” or representatives (Congress and the State legislatures and the President).  

The sticking point for some: Democracy is also characterized by “formal equality of rights and privileges: political or social equality—democratic spirit.” This last element in its simplest term—the ability to extend voting rights across races, gender, income, social position and castes—has been a stumbling block from the Greeks throughout time, nations, regions, states, and local communities.  

Lincoln Began to Extend Voting Rights

After the Civil War when Lincoln wanted to provide the vote to black men (not women, no women would receive the vote in America until the 20th century), he started with men who had fought with the Union to preserve it when the prospects were bleakest. These were the survivors, the men who had lived through attacks by both Confederates and certain angry white Yankees who believed black’s ascent would infringe on their white privilege.

Lincoln moved forward after the Emancipation Proclamation despite the clamor among white men on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. Lincoln mentioned this plan to extend the vote to black Union veterans in a speech from the White House after the Confederate Surrender at Appomattox.  John Wilks Booth stood on the perimeter of this crowd, already angered by the Confederate surrender, it infuriated him that the President would give the vote to blacks. On the spot, Booth decided his plan to kidnap Lincoln would turn into an assassination, changing the course of American history. Southern Vice President Andrew Johnson, formerly a senator from Tennessee, has been cited as one of America’s worst Presidents in part for his slanted approach to Reconstruction, ushering in Jim Crow laws, setting the nation backwards for as much as a century.

The Long Wait on Voting Rights

While many boast of America’s Democracy, some are little different from the men who in 1865 were not willing to share the vote even with their wives, many of whom managed the home, the business or plantation, and the children while their spouses were away fighting the Civil War (and even World War I, since the Nineteenth Amendment was not enacted until 1920). The Voting RIghts’ Act followed many years later in 1965, ensuring blacks no longer would be punished with a poll tax or poll examinations that many of the examiners could not pass themselves. But the further we are from enactment, the more the rights of registered American voters of color are being challenged. 

Today Hispanic Americans are being lumped into politically realigned Congressional Districts in such a limited number that their votes may never elect a representative. Or their votes are marshalled into a single district, so they will elect one Hispanic candidate but never be able to have a majority or impact the outcome in another district, despite their growing number of registered voters in a state like Texas. 

Politics Becomes a Blood Sport

Redistricting, the division of a state into Congressional voting districts, can be done by the state courts or by the state’s legislature when the state’s population increases based on the US Census. In Texas, the second largest voting body in the country, redistricting takes place in the legislature. By winning the largest number of seats in the state legislature, a political party can take charge of redistricting—re-dividing the size and composition of the state’s Congressional Districts—with the “possibility” that these districts might be composed as “safe” seats for members of their party. This process is referred to as “gerrymandering” (see This could extend their party’s influence and voting power for years to come. See: https://past-becomes-present.blog/2019/05/14/gerrys-irony-insists-on-bill-of-rights-father-of-gerrymandering/ 

This political prize turns politics into a blood sport rather than the communal gathering (sometimes practiced) of our Colonial ancestors. (In all truth the Presidential contest between Federalist (think Larger Government) John Adams vs. States’ Rights/Smaller Government) Thomas Jefferson may have been one of the most ruthless on record, but that’s another story.  

Moderation: Democratic Virtue Lacking

We’ve forgotten that the American Revolution was not like the French Revolution. Alexis de Tocqueville, the Frenchman who visited America in the 1820s, noted the revolution in America “was the result of a mature and reflecting preference for freedom (from England), and not of a vague or ill-defined craving for independence.” Anarchy did not play a part, instead a love of law and order centered the nation.   

But to return to moderation Americans need to consider weighing competing principles and exercise a wee bit of humility to tame our passions—difficult tasks at a time such as this. While it might seem arcane today when divided philosophies are at fever pitch, but the inscription on the temple of Apollo at Delphi was Moden Agan, “nothing in excess.” May seem out of kilter in modern times, but even a little movement might make a difference. 

Could We Try a Little Civility?

How can we remove ourselves from this tangled spaghetti to return to a more civilized society? 

P.M. Forni lists nine rules for practicing civility in his book Choosing Civility that could start us down the right path if we’re willing to make an effort.

  • Pay Attention. Be aware and attend to the world and the people around you.  
  • Listen. Focus on others to better understand their points of view. 
  • Be inclusive. Welcome all groups working for the greater good of the community. 
  • Don’t gossip. Reject the stories that circulate about others. 
  • Show respect. Honor other people and their opinions, especially during disagreements. 
  • Be agreeable. Don’t become a contrarian—contradicting for sport. 
  • Apologize. Be sincere and repair damaged relationships. 
  • Give constructive criticism. When disagreeing, stick to the issues. Don’t make a personal attack. 
  • Take responsibility. Don’t shift responsibility and blame onto others or share disagreements publicly. 

Repairing what’s broken in national politics will take more than a fortnight and require all the innovation and courage Americans can muster, but at the local level, it is possible to move forward at a slightly more rapid clip. The Civility Project in Duluth, Minnesota in 2003 helped the community work through economic decline, plants closing and rising anxiety. The Civility Project and Better Angels are examples of what public intellectuals like editorial writer David Brooks refer to as “constructive localism.” It’s the local issues where discussions can get heated, but you come to know each other and have a better chance of working through issues using these principles.

Don’t Kid Yourself–Voting Still Works, if You Just Do It!

Still there is no remedy that can go to the heart of political issues in support of democracy like getting out to vote. With just 55.7 percent of eligible voters making it to the polls in the 2016 Presidential election, we have a long way to go. 

(Ironically of this popular vote, the split was 46.8% for Donald Trump and 48.2% for Hillary Clinton. Based on the number of electoral votes per state, the Electoral College awarded the Presidency to Mr. Trump., thus making it more challenging to convince some voters to show up in 2020. Although we constantly hear about the Republican landslide in 2016, the fact is just 25.7% of all eligible voters cast a ballot for President Trump. It wasn’t a landslide, don’t be confused by what you hear.     

These suggestions above may seem overly simplistic solutions for Americans working to counteract the political and social poison being injected into our Republic. Do we want to be a democracy? Some do, some have no idea what they are wishing.  

Yet for the sake of our nation, ourselves, our children, we must begin to bring Americans back into civil discussion, slowly, carefully, but absolutely. Only then will America be able to return to the fair, operational political process that we hope and pray to achieve. 

Moden Agan, Peter Wehner, The Death of Politics, (New York: HarperOne, 2019) p. 152

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in Americaed. Phillips Bradley (New York: Vintage Books, 1945), 1:73. 

“Better Angels Help Communities Ease Political Tensions.” CBS This Morning,  March 26, 2018, available on You Tube, https://youtube.com/watch?v=5mLDgUuK34