American democracy at year’s end: may we proceed with confidence? (12/30/2015)

Gridlock has made solutions to the great problems of our time elusive, writes David Adler.

By David Adler

Immanuel Kant, the great 18th century German philosopher, wrote the republican form of government was destined to supersede its alternatives. Perhaps history will prove him correct, but democracy has never been taken for granted. Certainly it was not in the 20th century, when the Great Depression, the carnage of two world wars, the Holocaust and the rise of communism and fascism threatened civilization and left the future of democracy in doubt. Hatred, irrationality and atrocity were the defining characteristics of the century, and together they affirmed the wisdom of Goya’s observation: “The sleep of reason brings forth monsters.”

Distinguished British historian Lord Bryce was undoubtedly right when he wrote in 1888: “Perhaps no form of government needs great leaders so much as democracy.” The great virtue of democracy is its capacity for self-correction, but this requires from its leaders vision, intelligence, analysis, diagnosis, prescription and guidance. These are not commodities abundantly available at any juncture in history. However, the allies were fortunate to have found them in Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, who lamented “the woe and ruin of the terrible twentieth century” brought on by the political, economic and moral failures of world leaders.

Democracy as a system of deeply admired values, was on its last legs. In the United States, the Great Depression cast doubt on democracy and its premise of prosperity. The problem of racism in the United States cut a deep wound in the principle of equality and opportunity for all Americans. Fears about national security at the height of McCarthyism left civil liberties in shambles and exposed a citizenry’s lip service to enforcement of the Bill of Rights. By century’s end, however, progress was at hand. President Bill Clinton, in his second inaugural address, rightly observed that “more people on the planet live under democracy than dictatorship.” But what did that mean for average, ordinary Americans as a new century dawned? Might Americans, as a whole, proceed with confidence in our democracy?

Sadly, the underpinnings and conditions of those grand governmental failures of the 20 th century – political, economic and moral – are in full sprint. The political failings of our nation’s capitol are by now, a thrice-told story. Gridlock, fueled by hyper-partisanship and careerism, has made solutions to the great problems of our time elusive. The problem of race is as real as it has ever been. The recent terrorist strikes in Paris and San Bernadino have heightened Americans’ concerns about national security. The ever-widening gap between the haves and have-nots has made “income equality” a homespun term across the land. In that vein, Idahoans struggle to believe that legislative leaders can so lightly cast off the plight of the working poor.

The anger, frustration and irrationality, particularly in the form of bigotry that launched 20th century despots to the pinnacle of power, have emerged in America in this campaign season and catapulted Donald Trump into the front runner’s position to capture the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. Trump’s demagoguery – and that of his competitor, Sen. Ted Cruz – has transformed this race into a cult of personality, with little articulation of detailed policy proposals. In a state of national agitation, the democratic expectation of reasoned discourse enjoys little currency. That development represents an internal threat to the integrity of our republic.

But American democracy faces its greatest threat abroad in the form of religious fanaticism, which breeds terrorism and, with it, a fundamental challenge to our constitutional commitment to religious tolerance. Most of the killing around the world is attributable to religious quarrels. It has been justly said that the most dangerous people on earth are those who believe they are executing the will of the almighty. Here, we are wise to recall Lincoln’s observation in the Civil War, that “The Almighty has His own purposes.” The real threat of terrorism is not likely an existential threat to the survival of our nation, but to our democratic values. If terrorists succeed in persuading Americans to abandon those values, then they will indeed have triumphed.