Taking democracy seriously

President Bush's enthusiasm for democracy's advance abroad challenges us to take seriously the development of democracy in America.

Democracy isn't only about elections, constitutions, and institutions - it's also about the democratic development of the people. If, as William Hastie, the first black federal judge, put it, "Democracy is a journey not a destination," then we haven't arrived and should not self-righteously lecture the world on the topic. America ought to advance democracy again at home.

Growing incivility, campaigns that treat citizens as consumers to be sold a bill of goods, and increasing divisions along economic and partisan lines weaken our democracy. As the National Commission on Civic Renewal chaired by Republican William Bennett and Democrat Sam Nunn observed: "Never have we had so many opportunities for participation, yet rarely have we felt so powerless."

Democracy - from the Greek demos, meaning people, and kratia, meaning power - in America meant the creation of a people with the skills to get things done and the confidence, power, and knowledge to advance toward "a more perfect union." The nation's founders frequently voiced such sentiments. "Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people that mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power that knowledge brings," wrote James Madison. One tough-minded argument for citizen development came in 1787 from the anonymous Letter No. 4 of the Federal Farmer. It said activities such as jury duty encouraged citizens "to acquire information and knowledge in the affairs and government of the society, and to come forward, in turn, as the centinels [sic] and guardians of each other."

Citizenship education was the first mission of public schools, and it prompted the creation of public universities. "I know of no safe repository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves. If we think them not enlightened enough to exercise control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education," wrote Thomas Jefferson, who founded the University of Virginia to make the point.

Democratic development of the people became a function of the civic culture. Alexis de Tocqueville was amazed to find log cabins on the prairies filled with Shakespeare and books like Gibbon's "Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire." In the 20th century, civic uplift animated Jane Addams's immigrant settlement houses, women's reading clubs, and adult education. It shaped professionals' work in practices that have sharply eroded but that need to be revived.

Thus, Hubert Humphrey traced his political career to the democratic skills and values he learned in his father's drugstore in Doland, S.D. "In his store there was eager talk about politics, town affairs, and religion," Humphrey wrote in his autobiography, "Education of a Public Man." "I've listened to some of the great parliamentary debates of our time, but have seldom heard better discussions of basic issues than I did as a boy standing on a wooden platform behind the soda fountain." The store functioned as a cultural center, public space, and lending library. Places like that took many forms, from union storefronts to Rotary clubs. They schooled people in the skills of everyday politics across differences in education, income, and political affiliation. At times, they were seedbeds for democratic movements. The 1960s' civil rights struggle built on a vibrant culture of civic development in black churches, schools, beauty parlors, and other settings.

Democratic peoplehood was summed up by the term commonwealth. Four states are officially commonwealths, but the term isn't just a form of government. Commonwealth means becoming a democratic people as we undertake the practical work involved in creating and taking care of the things we have in common, from schools to libraries, parks to universities.

Democratic development and the commonwealth are missing from President Bush's ownership society. Plans to privatize parts of Social Security and abolish the estate tax focus on "me" rather than "we." These ideas are also absent from the Democrats' message. The Clinton administration's "reinventing government" program redefined citizens as government's "customers." In a dubious sign of progress, at a recent retreat of congressional Democrats, University of California linguist George Lakoff argued that the liberal message should be "government as nurturant parent." His framework turns citizens into children.

America's genius is its democratic spirit. Millions of citizens became active in the 2004 election for the first time because of their desire to turn the country around. Most saw the campaign as a beginning, not an end; but the nation remains sharply divided. To take the next steps, it is necessary to remember earlier meanings of democracy, and to forge public relationships across the "blue-red" divide to revitalize democracy as a way of life, not simply an election every four years.

Harry C. Boyte is founder and codirector of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. His most recent book is 'Everyday Politics: Reconnecting Citizens and Public Life.'

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