Clarion Calls for Americans To Rescue and Defend Democracy

WITH American-style democracy seemingly on the rise around the world, why are Cassandras shouting that the very existence of democracy is in peril?

Two of the latest warnings come in books by a respected political philosopher and a well-known historian and cultural critic. Jean Bethke Elshtain and Christopher Lasch say American democracy won't end with the bang of revolution or war but with a whimper of indifference and neglect. Elshtain describes her mood as one of ``nervousness'' about our future; Lasch speaks in even darker, more ominous tones. But in the end both manage a kind of sober hope for democracy - if citizens awaken in time to rescue it.

Lasch's book, ``The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy,'' consists of previously published essays revised for this volume. In a piece entitled ``Does Democracy Deserve to Survive?'' he paints a bleak future for America, one of corruption, deterioration, crime, and ``the widening disparity between poverty and wealth, which is morally obscene and politically explosive as well.... As conditions in American cities begin to approach those of the Third World, democracy will have to prove itself all over again.''

How, then, can Americans save their democracy? In ``Democracy on Trial,'' also a collection of essays, Elshtain argues that two keys will be a return to civility in public discourse and ``solidarity'' - the willingness of all Americans to shoulder civic responsibility. In a civil society, Elshtain says, we cannot give up on the idea that we can talk to each other and work together. ``If I go about my business respectful of the fact that you, too, must go about yours, we need not share or even understand each other's beliefs, rituals, and values completely,'' she writes. ``But we do understand that we share a civil world - that we are, for better or worse, `in it together.' ''

In this kind of democracy, ``compromise is not a mediocre way to do politics; it is an adventure, the only way to do democratic politics.... It does not stir the blood in the way a `nonnegotiable demand' does.... But it presages a livable future.''

The great challenge for the Founding Fathers, she reminds us, ``was to form a political body that brought people together and created a `we,' but also enabled people to remain separate and to recognize and respect one another's differences.'' This remains our challenge today. If Americans continue to identify themselves by categories such as race, class, income, or gender, she says, our nation will slip into ``incommensurability'' - we will literally be unable to talk with each other. The only solution, then, is to stay ``committed to the centrality of dialogue and debate.''

Elshtain draws on the writings of Pope John Paul II (and of Lasch) to reject the idea that only capitalism, consumerism, and narrow self-interest motivate individuals in a democracy. These fail to account for ``solidarity'' - unselfish acts undertaken for the common good. If these acts begin to ``strike us as utopian or naive,'' she says, we will lose our civil society - and our democracy.

Both Elshtain and Lasch see an underappreciated role for religion in maintaining American democracy. The civil rights advances in the 1960s, which broadened our sense of democracy, owe a great deal ``to the conviction that every person is unique and irreplaceable, a child of God,'' Elshtain writes. ``The biblically grounded belief in the equal worth of all souls in the eyes of God profoundly transformed received notions of political equality, stressing human dignity in contrast to equal power to rule and to be ruled.''

For Lasch, indifference toward, if not outright scorn for, religion is just one of the sins of the secular, chiefly liberal ``elite'' at the top of American society. This privileged 20 percent - the well-educated, technocrat class - mistrusts other Americans as too ignorant and too intolerant to guide our democracy. Yet the elite are turning their own backs on participation in democracy, finding more in common with their social and economic peers in other countries than with fellow Americans.

The problem behind the current apathy toward democratic participation, Lasch argues, isn't that Americans lack information. Rather, because most Americans have been excluded from the political debate, they lack the desire to seek information. Information doesn't stimulate debate, Lasch says; instead, debate generates a desire for information. A functioning democracy should be defended ``not as the most efficient but as the most educational form of government, one that extends the circle of debate as widely as possible and thus forces all citizens to articulate their views, to put their views at risk, and to cultivate the virtues of eloquence, clarity of thought and expression, and sound judgment.''

In short, he says, ``we come to know our own minds only by explaining ourselves to others.''

America is now a society with few ``third places'' - beyond the home and workplace - to talk with each other, Lasch says. This means the press should rethink its role as a purveyor of neutral ``information'' and become more of a forum for public debate, ``the equivalent of the town meeting.''

Neither Lasch nor Elshtain is easily pegged to a spot along a conservative-liberal scale. In some cases, they reject both views as worn out and inadequate. Both invite third-way thinking: Lasch in particular reminds us of the American tradition of political pragmatism, which values practical results over ideological purity.

At a time when some Americans are vigorously engaged in reshaping our democratic institutions - while an alienated majority either hates or ignores government - Elshtain and Lasch cry for Americans to come to the aid of their democracy. The question now becomes: Is anyone listening?

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