Essentials of a Functioning Democracy

Santa Clarita Signal • Ethically Speaking Column • For June 11th Weekender, 2016

Essentials of a Functioning Democracy

David W. Hegg

I continue to be stunned at how rapidly moral fractures are occurring in our precious democracy. Most recent are the wholesale redefinitions of marriage, sexuality, gender, and the extent of governmental power. It is as though we went to sleep for a few months and awoke to a whole new kind of democracy presided over by those with no historical, moral, or ethical moorings. Somehow, a cadre of rebellious children have taken control of our country and are running around breaking things.

For example, in the past year we have seen judges and members of the executive branch mandate monumental changes that have brought down a cascade of expensive requirements on businesses, schools, and citizens alike. Add to that the chaos of the present political season with its riots, violence, inane drivel, inflammatory racism, and enough duplicity to fill Lake Erie and you have every right to question whether someone snuck in and stole our national brain. Unfortunately, if we brainstormed together for a few minutes we could list many more examples equally horrendous in their absurdity.

All this got me thinking about what our founding fathers would advise were they able to speak from the grave. But since they remain silent, I will take a shot at suggesting what it takes to maintain a properly functioning democracy. Here are my five top suggestions. For a democracy to flourish you must have:

An educated citizenry: If laws are made, and ruling positions filled via the votes of the people it is only reasonable that those people have sufficient intellectual ability, and enough general education to enable their choices to be coherent. Further, they must be discerning enough to sift through the tsunami of political spin and outright lies aimed at shaping their decisions. If a vast majority of the voters are unable to understand the issues, discern truth from error, or recognize the long-term consequences of their votes, all is lost.

A shared morality: Our second president – John Adams – put it very simply: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Power in the hands of the citizenry will only be good for all when there remains some moral curbing of the natural desires of the human heart to obliterate all restraint.

An undergirding unity: One of the great fractures in our democracy currently is the rise of radical tribalism. In almost every area we are seeing opposing “tribes” refusing to grant any credibility to one another lest their tribe’s power be lessened. Whether it is a political party, or a moral ideology, what we are losing is a resolute understanding that we are all neighbors whose shared loyalty to life, liberty, and the greatness of America must remain stronger than any of our differences.

A societal humility: Pride often leads to an abuse of power, and an authoritarian mode of operation. We are seeing a kind of super arrogance today that gives birth to a mean-spirited, vitriolic hatred for those with whom we disagree. And this arrogance is fueling a harsh, oppressive and even tyrannical way of governing. For America to be great, we must remain a humble people.

A conversational civility: What it all comes down to is the ability to listen well to those with whom we disagree, to seek first to understand and only then to oppose. And, opposition must be civil, understanding problems are only truly solved through collaboration rather than competition.

Certainly we all agree our democracy would be a terrible thing to waste. After fighting so hard, and enduring so much to have come this far, we dare not allow the great hope of our American experiment to be overwhelmed by a cacophony of partisan arrogance and outrage. We must work to regain the foundation stones on which our union was built lest we end up proving what so many have predicted, that a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, must ultimately wither from within.