Loading...

Praying for democracy

020917Dionne

E.J. Dionne

Loading…

Sunday, December 31, 2017

What follows is a slightly edited version of a morning prayer I offered last month at the Appleton Chapel of the Memorial Church at Harvard University.

Let us say a prayer for democracy. But let us do more than pray. Let's ask ourselves what it means to live by a democratic ethic. "Here on earth," as John F. Kennedy said, "God's work must truly be our own."

We know that democracy, particularly in its liberal form, is embattled, facing threats within nations that have long been proud of their democratic traditions, and competition from systems that tout themselves as better able to deliver many of life's good things.

But the greatest threat to democracy may be our own indifference.

Democracy properly encourages open-mindedness. But are we so open-minded that we are not willing to say, unequivocally, that a system providing for free speech, freedom of conscience, a free media, freedom of religion, and genuinely free elections is both morally and practically better than alternative systems? Are we so concerned about our tendency to deify our own culture and traditions, are we so turned off by the invocation of democracy in defense of wars we might have opposed, that we are unwilling to assert that democracy is worth defending across cultures and nations?

Democracy is and always has been imperfect in practice. Vaclav Havel, the Czech dissident who became his country's president, told Congress in 1990: "As long as people are people, democracy in the full sense of the word will always remain an ideal. One may approach democracy as one would a horizon, in ways that may be better or worse, but which can never be fully attained. In this sense, you, too, are merely approaching democracy."

In embracing democracy, as the historian James Kloppenberg has written, we are standing up for three contested principles: popular sovereignty, autonomy and equality. We are also embracing three premises: deliberation, pluralism and reciprocity.

We know that in its liberal form, democracy must at times resist popular sovereignty — a majority of the people cannot vote away their own rights or anyone else's. We know that our own quest for autonomy can conflict with our obligations to the communities to which we owe debts. We know that many democracies, including our own, are a long way from true equality.

Yet in the face of these tensions and imperfections, which values would we place above popular sovereignty, autonomy and equality — and also above deliberation, pluralism and reciprocity? If we would uphold these commitments, we should be prepared, with Havel, to defend the democratic ideal.

We should also be prepared to live it. For religious people, the grounding for democracy is a belief that all human beings are endowed with equal dignity by God. But one need not be religious to insist on the equal dignity of our fellow human beings.

A devotion to democracy thus ought to affect how we treat others. We often have to deal with hierarchies, but we should never internalize them. Those at the bottom of formal authority structures see things and know things that cannot be seen from on high. We should, as Pope Francis has said, seek the wisdom available only on the peripheries. We learn from experience that the distributions of virtue, compassion and judgment are not correlated with the distributions of power and wealth.

Democracy, finally, is rooted in two intuitions, about our aspirations to transcendence, which allow us to imagine a better world, and about our proclivities to sin and failure, which require limits on the power any of us can wield. Thus Reinhold Niebuhr's aphorism: "Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary."

Democracy imposes a discipline. It demands that no fortunate group should ever claim, by virtue of its position or its educational attainments, the unchallenged right to impose its will on others. To invoke the late Benjamin Barber's lovely phrase, the only aristocracy democracy fully sanctions is "an aristocracy of everyone." It is the one sort of aristocracy worth praying for.

E.J. Dionne is a columnist for The Washington Post.

Loading…

Humans of Greenville

@HumansofGville

Local photographer Joe Pellegrino explores Greenville to create a photographic census of its people.

Op Ed

July 17, 2018

Donald Trump's catastrophic visit to Britain began with a political scandal of his own creation. In an interview with the Sun, a British tabloid, he slammed the British prime minister, Theresa May, and supported her rival. He criticized her conduct of Brexit, the most contentious issue in British…

Anne Applebaum

July 17, 2018

Imagine you've just found out about a piece of state legislation that will affect your life. Maybe it's a new regulation for your business. Maybe it's a change in the tax code, or something that affects your personal liberties.

You're ready to head to the legislature to speak your mind, so you keep…

Colin Campbell

July 16, 2018

With President Trump announcing Judge Brett Kavanaugh as his nominee to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy on the U.S. Supreme Court, the public discussion has turned to whether a new justice will tip the ideological balance of the Supreme Court and help overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 case that…

Andy Haile

July 16, 2018

The Washington Post

The death toll in Nicaragua continues to rise. A bloody assault on protesters last week by police and pro-government paramilitary forces left 31 civilians, four police officers and three members of President Daniel Ortega's black-hooded paramilitary groups dead. It left the…

July 16, 2018

If I told you that North Carolina had one of America’s top-ranked systems of public education, there are at least three ways you could respond.

You could question what I mean by “top-ranked system.” You could challenge the factual accuracy of my claim. Or you could contest the…

john hood.jpg

July 15, 2018

Vidant Health, like hospital systems around the nation, serves a critical role as a health care safety net, providing high-quality care to all patients, including those who are under or uninsured. 

According to the 2015 Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates, 28 of the 29 counties in the…

Brian Floyd

July 15, 2018

As a child in eastern China, Panshu Zhao worshipped the United States. "He read the Bible his parents gave him, watched Hollywood movies and studied the ideals of democracy," reports the Associated Press. "He jumped at the chance to attend graduate school at Texas A&M University."

In 2016, Zhao…

Steve and Cokie Roberts

July 15, 2018

As President Trump put Germany and other allies on notice for the harm they are doing to NATO with their failure to spend adequately on our common defense, Democrats in Washington came to Germany's defense. "President Trump's brazen insults and denigration of one of America's most steadfast allies,…

MarcThiessen

July 14, 2018

The Wall Street Journal

The U.S. economy continues to show strength in the wake of tax reform and deregulation, but the downside of robust growth is that Donald Trump thinks this means he can dabble at trade war with impunity. He ought to look at the signs that growth would be even stronger if not…

July 14, 2018

Judge Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation hearings to be a Supreme Court justice will take place in the shadow of the nomination of John Roberts to be chief justice 13 years ago.

Roberts was confirmed on a 78-22 vote in 2005. That's the most votes any justice has received for more than two decades. But…

PONNURU
291 stories in Op Ed. Viewing 1 through 10.
«First Page   «Previous Page        
Page 1 of 30
        Next Page»   Last Page»