The Tensions of Democracy

Democracy, U.S. Democracy

A prayer delivered to attendees of the Appleton Chapel of the Memorial Church at Harvard University by E.J. Dionee Jr., referenced historians, politicians, journalists and theologians, and each reference had a common thread. Democracy is an ideal, not a reality. It is an ideal because the reality of democracy, the truth of a democratic society’s existence, is that it is built on conflicting principles. These principles and premises rub up on each other and create a tension. It is upon this tension that our democratic society rests. When the tension tips to an extreme, then our democracy does not thrive. Dionee urged the congregation to pray for a democracy wherein every member of society is a member of an aristocracy.

Dionne, quoting Benjamin Barber, asserts that “the aristocracy of all” is the only aristocracy that should exist in the United States. Here is how Dionne suggests we think of democracy and how we might come close to better understanding it and attaining it.

Dionne pulls from the thoughts of historian James Kloppenberg and establishes that American democracy has three principles: autonomy, equality and popular sovereignty. He then goes on to state that popular sovereignty has the danger of becoming a popular rule. In such an instance, rights that are considered available to all run the risk of being trampled. When autonomy is at an extreme, the social contract is forgotten. And when equality is tenuous then all of society suffers.

We must have these three principles but only when they are tempered by the premises of deliberation, pluralism and reciprocity, as outlined by Kloppenberg. For a democracy to be successful its members must deliberate. Such deliberations stand to temper popular sovereignty. Pluralism helps support equality. And reciprocity mitigates unobstructed autonomy.

Is this how U.S. democracy looks today? Dionne seems to suggest that our balancing act of tensions might be drawing too tight. It seems that many would agree with him. Dionne reminds us that our society’s best chance of achieving democracy is for each citizen to exercise discipline. We cannot allow ourselves to take our principles to an extreme; we must gracefully employ deliberation, pluralism and reciprocity when interacting with our fellow citizens. When we respect one another, in much the same way in which aristocrats are respected, then our democracy will thrive.

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