Monday, March 21, 2011

Some Mistakes About Democracy and Freedom

I have a group of friends with whom I get together once a month to discuss topics of general interest. Modeling our conversations on those carried on by Samuel Johnson and his circle -- without the Great Cham to rule over our discourse -- we call ourselves the Johnson Society. Conversation is usually vigorous. Only one of the others in the group can lay claim to being a "scholar" of the academic sort, though all are thoughtful, scholarly citizens and excellent conversationalists. Each member of the group is able to consider a topic from many angles, to state positions and support them with arguments, to deliberate, and reach conclusions that are not merely louder or more entrenched versions of the position from which he or she started.

Last week the discussion focused on, among other things, democracy and freedom. I was unable to attend the gathering, but have received reports about the nature of the conversation. I was disappointed at not being able to be there, for it seems to me that it is exactly this sort of discourse, on these sorts of topics, that citizens should engage in much more frequently than they do in the United States. Indeed, the Founders hoped that American citizens would be just this sort of people: thoughtful, reasonable, engaged citizens, who speak, deliberate, and act in public. In their minds citizens are people who do not simply shout their untutored, unexamined views across a gulf at one another. Citizens are not people who listen only to those with whom they already agree; rather, they are willing to take the risk of free and open discussion with others coming from many different places, the risk that their initial prejudices, structured by their own personal situations and backgrounds, might change through interaction with others.

In any event, had I been in the conversation, I would have suggested that we too often make some mistakes about the character of democracy and freedom. American politicians and the American people, for example, call our nation a democracy -- and that is a mistake. It is a commonplace, or should be, that the United States is not a democracy but a republic, that it was never intended to be a democracy for good reasons. The Founders shared the classical view (one that has persisted through the history of political theory) that democracy is not a good system of government. Famously, Plato and Aristotle listed democracy as one of the bad types of constitution, primarily because in their minds democracy meant rule by the poor in their own interest rather than for the common good. The American Founders recognized other weaknesses of democracy, including its impracticality in any state larger than a small town. Most importantly, they (especially James Madison) worried that unadulterated, unlimited democracy inevitably led to tyranny of the majority -- an idea picked up by Alexis de Tocqueville in his classic and influential study, Democracy in America.

So democracy is not the proper term for the sort of constitution we have in the United States. No nation is a democracy in the strict sense, though many aspire to some form of popular sovereignty, as we do. But for complicated historical reasons, "democracy" has become one of those honorific terms that bring up within us a feeling of goodness -- and the usage of the term to suggest goodness has spread around the globe. Today's freedom fighters and rebels, most notably in the Middle East and North Africa, call for democracy, and their efforts and struggles should not be denigrated. But it is likely that they do not really want democracy so much as some combination of a free market economy, a variety of individual freedoms, the end of absolutist and tyrannical rule, and the development of some popular influence over governmental decision making.

What we have in the United States is a constitutional republic, and one we must struggle to keep, for we do not live in times conducive to constitutional republics except in the most formalistic sense. Benjamin Franklin, when asked on the streets of Philadelphia after the constitutional convention, "What have you given us, Mr. Franklin?," famously remarked: "A republic if you can keep it." A prescient and wise remark. As Franklin saw, citizens need to be keepers of the constitutional republic, a far more complicated matter than merely casting a vote now and then or taking an interest in public affairs from the comfort of an armchair. Most Americans are not citizens in this deeper way; instead, they are subjects of a government that happens to be elected (and by a minority of them, though the problem is the same in nations where the majority of population votes).

Consequently, I think we are mistaken to call most of our fellow subjects "citizens," for that term implies a more active and vigorous role in self-government than most Americans take. Most Americans today will tell you that a citizen is someone who is recognized as such by the United States government: those who are born or naturalized in the United States. But such a usage reflects the same flattening of the moral universe that leads us to call those who get in harm's way heroes even when they are only mindlessly following orders: we have lost any deeper sense of what these terms might mean, and so we strip them of their critical bite and apply them liberally to anyone who carries a passport or wears a uniform.

Speaking of the British, who in the 18th century were often praised (by Montesquieu, for instance) for their free government compared to the absolutist states on the continent, Jean-Jacques Rousseau said that they are only free when they vote and then they make such bad use of their freedom that they deserve to lose it. If citizens are only voters, then they are only choosers of their rulers -- not people engaged in the politics of self-government. Rousseau had a point, as he so often did (though he frequently took those points in unjustifiable directions). Americans simply choose their tyrants every few years, though our tyrants have learned that demagoguery is the key to success rather than bread and circuses or brute force. We are not very free politically, despite the right to vote (which so many choose not to exercise anyway) -- and despite how good it makes us feel to say we are free.

Freedom is far, far more than the right to make choices about peanut butter and toothpaste. It is even far more than the right to say or choose whatever life partner you want -- though these are much more central the freedom of consumer choice. Freedom must include the fact of, not just the reputation for, self-government -- and that requires a citizenry that is knowledgeable, skillful, and interested in taking an active role in the public square. We do very little in the United States to encourage that sort of citizenry and that sort of freedom. Indeed, we find the sort of critical, engaged citizens essential to real politics in a constitutional republic scary. It seems to me that the rise of a certain sort of politician, and a certain sort of political commentator, indicates the rejection of real, thoughtful, deliberative, active citizenship. Instead, we substitute (and celebrate) jingoism, xenophobia, ideology, and stupidity. We are witnessing the rise of demagoguery and the pointed, intentional rejection of the kind of thought necessary for constitution keeping (let alone constitution making). Instead of citizens, we seek fellow-travelers. Instead of thought, we value emotion-laden rhetoric unadulterated by consideration of facts or ideas. Instead of leading citizens, we follow those who mirror our prejudices and ideologies, who tell us what we want to hear and refuse to challenge us to transcend our baser instincts. We gladly rush headlong for our chains (to quote the highly quotable Rousseau again). To call this freedom is absurd, for it strikes me as preparation for continued servitude, no matter how many kinds of breakfast cereal stock our shelves.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Challenge to Civic Education

It has been a month since I last contributed to this forum. In that time I have had the great pleasure and honor of joining a group of German and American scholars -- political theorists, political scientists, constitutional scholars, civic educators -- at the annual German-American Civic Education Conference, this year held in Bloomington, Indiana. As always, the conference enlightened and provoked.

I have written many times -- in this blog and elsewhere -- about the importance of civic education. Constitutional democracy, such as we have in the United States, such as they have in Germany -- requires a citizenry not only emotionally tied to the nation (the mistaken idea of citizenship too often held by Americans and, particularly, by pseudo-conservative writers and politicians) but one that understands, accepts, and values a body of principles that both underlie the nation and reflect the characteristics of constitutionalism itself. This body of principles is not static (another mistake made by many) but ever-developing, in precisely the way any live tradition develops through a confrontation of the tradition as handed down and the ongoing deliberation and debate of thoughtful citizens. [Lest I be misunderstood, this does not mean that we in the United States have a "living constitution" in the sense so often pilloried by jurists and (again) pseudo-conservatives.] Constitutional democracy, to thrive, must continually reproduce citizens -- and citizens must not simply be subjects, passively accepting what has been imposed upon them, but active participants in the thinking, speaking, deliberating, and acting in public that characterizes the political realm. These are complicated ideas, and require much more elucidation than can be given here. The main point is that constitutional democracy requires a conscious and active citizenry if it is to persist, if it is not to turn into tyranny and despotism (or, in modern guise, the caretaker administrative state). That is true in Germany as it is in the United States -- indeed, it is a fundamental truth about constitutional democracy no matter where it is established.

My German colleagues are as concerned about this need as are my American colleagues. In both nations, the vast majority of citizens know little about their political system, frequently express negative views about their system and those who take active roles in it, and seem willing to permit political leaders to exercise vast powers that contradict the fundamental principles upon which their constitutional systems rest. In both countries, schools are failing to carry out their fundamental task in a constitutional democracy -- to create educated and thoughtful citizens rather than to reproduce a labor force for post-capitalist economic orders. And so in both countries the need for sound civic education is critical.

In the United States civic education is in danger. The danger comes from those who believe that education should focus on English, math, and science to the detriment of social studies. It comes from a society-wide denigration of politics and a resulting lack of interest in learning about politics -- a lack of interest that means that remarkably few social studies teachers know much about our constitutional system. It comes from members of Congress who see education funding as discretionary, easily and quickly slashed in times of economic stress. It comes from a simplistic anti-earmark fervor that may sacrifice sound civic education programs with proven success to the gods of crass political ideology. It comes from presidential administrations in both parties who target their educational policies on fostering national productive capabilities rather than citizenship (in large part because they do not have a thought-out conception of citizenship, or see its value). It comes from the whole tone of public discussion: one that worries that teachers are overpaid without asking what they do and what they should be doing; one that values economic growth even if it means reduced civic knowledge and involvement; one that believes that education should focus on preparing the student for economic roles rather than political roles; one that denigrates politics because it accepts the reduction of the political to the play of politicians.

The sorry state of the American politics bespeaks the sorry state of our civic education, and from the papers presented at the Bloomington conference it appears as if more and more the state of German politics is coming to resemble that in the United States. If either of us are to thrive as a nation -- not only economically but as a constitutional people -- we must find the will and the ways to invigorate an education designed to produce a citizenry who are (as my friend Will Harris says) "constitution keepers" and "constitution makers." We must imagine and implement an education for a citizenry that will play an active and central part in governing themselves through real deliberation and decision, rather than one buffeted about by the whims of the day and the demagoguery of politicians bent on gaining or keeping power. In both Germany and the United States, excellent curricula for education of constitutional citizens exist and educators continue to hone those curricula and develop new ones. What is lacking, at least in the US, is a critical mass of citizens who will insist on the implementation of these curricula -- let alone politicians who will do so. We find ourselves caught up in a spiral in which our failure to educate citizens has produced a lack of citizens who see a value in educating citizens. The challenge we face in both nations is finding a way out of this spiral before our constitutional democracies begin to circle the drain.