We seem to have lost faith in our democracy. A recent Associated Press Poll indicates that 70 percent of Americans are “frustrated with the 2016 presidential election.” Only “10 percent say they have a great deal of confidence in the political system overall.”
Most Americans say that the country’s morality is getting worse. According to a recent Gallup Poll, nearly 75 percent of us think we are heading in the wrong moral direction. Almost half of Americans rate our morality as “poor.”
The San Jose Mercury News printed a tongue-in-cheek article about moving to Canada, for those who are not happy with this year’s election. If we are not careful, our cynicism will undermine our democracy. A healthy democracy depends upon trust. It requires faith in human decency and a commitment to the common good.
Democratic faith is a central idea for John Dewey, one of America’s most important political philosophers. In 1939, as Europe was exploding, Dewey explained that democracy rests upon “faith in the possibilities of human nature” and “faith in the capacity of human beings for intelligent judgment and action.”
Without faith in humanity, cynicism grows and democracy becomes mob rule. Another great American philosopher, John Rawls, explained, “Distrust and resentment corrode the ties of civility, and suspicion and hostility tempt men to act in ways they would otherwise avoid.”
When we don’t trust each other, cooperation becomes impossible. Instead of working for the common good, we work to maximize our own self-interest. Instead of pursuing our hopes, we are motivated by our fears.
Faith in rationality is a key tenet of the democratic faith. Democratic citizens respect each other as rational beings. We give reasons and support them with rational arguments. We expect others to respond in kind. We express our disagreements with civility and restraint, believing that our civility will be reciprocated.
In a healthy democracy, we seek to understand each other. We aim to reach consensus. We listen as much as we talk. We avoid insulting and disrespecting each other. And we believe that each of us is committed to the common good in our own way.
Democratic societies fail when they are plagued by irrationality, rudeness, vulgarity, cruelty and violence. These social maladies cause further distrust and dysfunction, creating a vicious circle of cynicism.
Irrationality breeds mistrust. Instead of deliberating, we connive and cajole. Soon rudeness appears as a strategy and defense mechanism in a world of irrational manipulation. We yell rather than talk. We exchange insults instead of ideas.
The slippery slope of social dysfunction soon leads to vulgarity. In a manipulative power struggle, quick points are scored by playing dirty. Outrageous and obscene remarks soon become normal.
Once vulgarity is on the table, we are one step away from outright cruelty. Vulgar rudeness quickly morphs into nastiness and spite. Soon enough racist, sexist and bigoted comments appear on the scene.
The step from verbal cruelty to outright violence is lubricated by the irrationality and obscenity that came before. Violent words quickly lead to violent deeds, when we have given up on reason and civility. And soon enough democracy becomes mob rule.
All of this was understood and predicted by Dewey in 1939 as a betrayal of the democratic faith. He explained, “Intolerance, abuse, calling of names because of differences of opinion about religion or politics or business, as well as because of differences of race, color, wealth or degree of culture are treason to the democratic way of life.”
Dewey’s solution is more and better education, aimed at creating civility and rationality. Education for and about democracy is needed to renew our faith in democracy.
Democratic education relies upon moral education. The basics of moral education have been understood since the time of Plato. Plato said we need four main virtues: moderation, courage, justice and wisdom. We certainly need more of each.
But beyond those basic moral virtues, democracy relies upon faith – in human freedom and in our capacity for self-governance. We have to believe that human beings are good enough to solve our own problems. The democratic faith is a commitment to make a world in which intelligent cooperation produces humane outcomes. Without that faith, we might as well move to Canada – or build a bunker and ride out the storm.