The true democracy

I do not remember, in a fairly long career spent in observing public events, a time when the average citizen was so disillusioned and ill at ease. The months that have just passed might be called "the summer of our discontent." No great scandals have broken out, no general calamities have befallen us. There has simply been a slow, corrosive growth of the feeling that nothing in politics matters very much, that the men claiming the people's suffrage are not large- scaled or significant and that somehow our system of government has slipped into being second rate. The danger in the coming autumn is that an even larger number of prospective voters than usual will stay away from the polls.

Many reasons might be advanced for this state of affairs. I shall adduce one reason, essentially moral and philosophical, which seems to me to underlie all the others. This has to do with the fact that we have misused our democratic form of government in efforts to express our private passions and our individualistic concerns; that we have sought to make politics a means of gratifying undisciplined instincts and desires. The system has not provided the gratification we looked for (it was not in the nature of things that it should); and meanwhile we have grown uneasy with the visible consequences of our actions.

For at least a generation our people have been taught that happiness consists in seizing upon every passing pleasure. To be at peace with themselves, they were to indulge their appetites and act out their impulses. In private life such an attitude must ultimately lead to boredom, and then to despair. In public life, I am arguing, it brings about the corruption of free government. Democracy was not made to satisfy casual impulses, and when it is used for this purpose it degenerates. All the philosophers of democracy -- men like Rousseau, Locke, tocqueville -- have insisted that in order to be free men must learn to enlarge their desires, to discipline and civilize their demands. Conversely, philosophers like Hobbes who have viewed human passions as essentially uncontrollable, have accepted absolutism as the only feasible form of government.

That men must govern themselves before they can aspire self-government, that they must be virtuous before they can be free, is the essential law of democracy. It is the prerequisite that has been ignored by nation after nation seeking to create democratic institutions. It is the secret that even Western democracies, with all their long experience, have too often forgotten.

That forgetfulness, I am now sadly convinced, was encouraged to the point of heresy by the call of the 1960s for "participatory democracy." The young of that day preached that the people must become more active in public affairs; that they must organize, assert themselves, and at every level enter into the process of decisionmaking. The movement might have been liberating; there is no antidote to boredom so effective as participation. But unfortunately the doctrine was perpetrated at the very time that standards in the private realm were in disarray.

Men and women who asserted that no restraints should be imposed on their sexual mores or economic propensities saw in the machinery of democracy a way to get what they wanted in the shortest possible time. The "now generation" became the generation that marched in the states, demonstrated in the parks, dominated the primaries, and demoralized public leaders by the brutal insistence of their demands.

Small wonder we are not disillusioned with the results. How can we expect men of the highest quality to play a role in politics when the voters hound them so stridently? How can we expect policies to be farsighted or consistent when we impose on our policymakers so many absolutist demands? Another season may find us all more happy with our democratic institutions, but that will only be when men and women have reasserted in their private existence the values of moderation and restraint, and when public life they have learned to ask for honest solutions, not for instant gratification of their egos.

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