This is the first in a series of opinion pieces on how to fix democracy.
DEMOCRACIES DEPEND for their stability on four things. First, well-functioning institutions. Second, the delivery of good or at least decent outcomes for most citizens. Third, norms of reciprocity and forbearance. And fourth, certain character traits among both officials and citizens. While the four are closely connected, the last is the most fundamental.
In particular, democracies require high levels of personal grace. They are gravely endangered by its opposite, which is savagery.
James Madison, the principal thinker behind the American Constitution, focused mostly on institutional design. But in the Virginia Ratifying Constitution, he went in a different direction, and offered a kind of cri de coeur: “Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks—no form of government can render us secure.”
Madison was speaking in particular of the selection of rulers. He drew attention to what he called “this great republican principle, that the people will have virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and wisdom.” He explained that “we do not depend on their virtue, or put confidence in our rulers, but in the people who are to choose them.” But in insisting that “we are in a wretched situation” without “virtue among us,” Madison signaled a much broader risk for all nations that aspire to self-governance: social disintegration.
In the years between the Revolutionary War and the drafting of the Constitution, that risk was made palpable. Under the Articles of Confederation, local loyalties turned into intense tribalism, making a mockery of the very idea of a “United” States of America. Then as now, the risk of disintegration manifested itself in a kind of Manichaeism, in which citizens see the forces of good as pitched against the forces of evil. In such societies, the only real question, asked about essentially everything, is this: Which side are you on? That question invites personal and political savagery. It makes self-government impossible.
In his second inaugural address, delivered near the end of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln might well have been expected to speak in Manichean terms. Instead he offered a clear demonstration of political grace, which he modeled it for all to see. Lincoln avoided any kind of triumphalism. He did not treat Southerners as enemies. His closing sentence began this way: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.” He projected humility and a sense of his own fallibility (“as God gives us to see the right”).
Emphasising what all of us share, which is mortality, Lincoln asked the nation “to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.” In so saying, he echoed his first inaugural address, in which he proclaimed, “We are not enemies, but friends,” and prophesied that “the mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone,” would “swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Which side are you on? That question invites personal and political savagery. It makes self-government impossible.
In democratic politics as in daily life, grace tends to produce more of the same. It embodies a commitment to empathy. Gracious winners do not crow or accuse. For that reason, grace makes political compromise possible. Even more important, it makes political learning possible. When people see each other as fellow citizens rather than as enemies, they are more likely to attend not only to different judgments about facts, but also to different moral commitments. Manichaeism becomes difficult or even impossible. It looks thin and tinny, infantile, even pathetic.
In politics as well as in daily life, savagery has the opposite effect. If members of one political party cry “lock her up” about a political opponent, we have something approaching a declaration of war. If a nation’s president repeatedly calls the press “The Enemy of the People” and a purveyor of “Fake News,” a core democratic commitment is under assault (and members of the press might face physical danger). If political leaders describe those who disagree with them as traitorous or disloyal, or as beholden to “the banks” or to “millionaires and billionaires,” their targets will be tempted to respond in kind. The temptation might prove impossible to resist, producing a cycle of savagery. That cycle can undermine norms and ultimately institutions.
Over the last decades, America has seen an extraordinary spike in “partyism,” understood as automatic, intuitive enmity and even revulsion toward people of the opposing political party. In 1960, only 5% of Republicans and 4% of Democrats said that they would feel “displeased” if their son or daughter married outside their political party. By 2010, those numbers had skyrocketed to 49% and 33%.
Republicans have been found to like Democrats less than they like people on welfare or gays and lesbians. Democrats dislike Republicans more than they dislike big business. Political enmity has spilled into nonpolitical domains, so that people won’t trust those who are not like-minded on technical matters lacking any kind of political valence. There is no question that savage political rhetoric fuels the rise of partyism.
When people see each other as fellow citizens rather than as enemies, they are more likely to attend not only to different judgments about facts, but also to different moral commitments.
What can be done by way of response? Well-functioning democracies rely on institutions that tend to treat political savagery as background noise. Such institutions ensure that while in office, most high-level officials may usually ignore that noise. They have the insulation to attend to their jobs. They work on behalf of economic growth, employment opportunities, education, clean air and water, food safety, occupational health and road safety. When democracies are working well, the public gives a great deal of authority to technical experts—not to make final decisions, but to sort out the facts.
At least some of the time, that sorting can quiet political disagreement. If people can agree that a chemical in the workplace poses a small risk or a large one, they might well be able to agree on what to do about it. Or consider the question of nuclear power. If citizens in a democratic polity can agree on the facts, they should be able to agree about what to do, or at least their disagreements should be greatly narrowed. Climate change and immigration are more sharply contested, of course, but agreement on the facts should help people to identify reasonable paths forward.
It follows that democracies need to find a large role for technocrats, not only to help solve serious problems, but also to reduce suspicion and enmity across political lines. The conundrum, of course, is that as enmity grows, it can become far more difficult for high-level officials to apply technical expertise. More fundamentally, democracies are not technocracies. Experts may have their own biases. Even if they do not, members of the public are entitled to give more weight to some risks, and to some problems, than to others. A commitment to accurate fact-finding, and to institutions who can engage in it, is not enough.
That is why is it crucial for political leaders to tackle the problem of savagery head-on—and treat it as urgent. Instead of telling their opponents that they are traitors or fools or hypocrites, or in someone’s pocket, or indifferent to the nation’s welfare, they can address the merits of competing proposals, assuming good faith. They can refrain from attacking people’s motives. Political parties can promote politicians who play by those rules, and call out or diminish the authority of those who do not. The media can give less attention to sensational accusations and more attention to what really matters, which is the likely effects of policies on people’s lives.
Whatever the short-term incentives of those who are involved in politics and democratic debate, they need to listen to the better angels of their nature. They must aspire to grace.