Ever since the 2016 United States elections, American pundits have been writing about the decline and fall of democracy, a sentiment that is echoed in leading British and European media.
The Atlantic has a collection of such articles under the heading, “Is Democracy Dying?”, whose general purpose seems to be to explain how Donald Trump could become President of the US. Two of the series recently highlighted by the magazine offered contrasting diagnoses – one, that America suffers from too much democracy, the other, that it doesn’t have enough.
The “too much” argument concerns the power that the major parties have given to grassroots voters in the selection of presidential candidates – to people who simply can’t know enough about the candidates even to choose one who actually reflects their own preferences. That sounds plausible.
The “too little” theory is more interesting, if not entirely original, but it leads to a proposed remedy that ignores even deeper problems in Western societies, where fundamental beliefs and institutions have been seriously weakened.
The democratic deficit
Probably every serious writer on the subject in recent years has contrasted the admiration of Alexis de Tocqueville nearly 200 years ago for the way democratic self-government permeated every level of American society, down to children at their games, with the Bowling Alone society described by Robert Putman that had largely replaced it by the end of the 20th century.
Yoni Applebaum, author of the “too little democracy” essay, notes that in 1944, historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. could still write of his countrymen: “Rubbing minds as well as elbows, they have been trained from youth to take common counsel, choose leaders, harmonize differences, and obey the expressed will of the majority. In mastering the associative way they have mastered the democratic way.”
Since then, probably since that watershed decade of the 1960s, the associative culture of PTAs, sports club and service club committees and the like has dramatically declined, and Americans – like others – have handed over more and more of their self-government to political authorities or salaried experts. At the same time people have grown to distrust government, and there are even signs of young people, notably, rejecting the idea of democracy itself.
It’s true, says Applebaum, that Americans still volunteer and attend church services at relatively high rates, and that they use social media to connect with each other in new ways, but these are not “schools for self-government; they do not inculcate the habits and rituals of democracy.” He cites a survey that showed Trump found the majority of his support precisely among voters who had “the least experience with democratic institutions” because they “never or seldom engaged in community activities.”
‘Here’s how to fix it’. Really?
Since the historical circumstances that produced the voluntary associations of yore are unlikely to recur, says Applebaum, the revival of democracy must come from somewhere else. And what better place to start than schools, where “the youngest generations” are gathered, and where they should have the opportunity in various areas of school life for governing themselves. Whether in the student council or club sports or the robotics team, they can be learning “an appreciation for the role of rules and procedures for resolving disputes.”
Giving kids a greater stake in the rules and how they are applied might be a good idea – apart from the time it would take, either by adding extra hours to the school day or by taking them from other learning; but it assumes an awful lot about what children bring to school in the way of moral and social resources.
Is an eight-year-old from a fatherless home, where a stressed solo mother is struggling to keep a roof over her head let alone cultivate the virtues in her children – is such a child ready to help make rules and apply them to disputes at school? Yet, according to the Annie E Casey Foundation, around 35 percent of children under 18 live in a single parent home (25 percent in a single mother home). Some of these parents will be doing a fine job of bringing up their kids, while others struggle heroically with the odds against them in a culture where mass media and social media propagate self-centredness and self-indulgence.
Democratic processes require considerable virtue: respect for others and openness to their ideas; patience and good humour in debate; willingness to compromise or yield on what does not involve conscience – and the stamina to stand up for what does; obedience to agreed rules… In other words, habits of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance that should be cultivated from the child’s earliest years – in the family, where natural bonds and affection make the learning easier and more lasting. The school can have only a marginal effect on a child’s character when it is not being properly formed at home.
The parents’ task will be much harder, too, where extended family and community support are lacking. In the past, the church was the family’s main moral support – and still is for a significant proportion of Americans. But church and synagogue are in decline and, in some instances, sadly, are more of an obstacle than an aid to good formation.
De Tocqueville, as Samuel Gregg points out, understood that democracies need virtuous people, and that, in the case of America at least, it was the Christian religion that fostered such people, who could govern themselves well. Today, however, egalitarianism has substituted “values” for virtues, introducing a moral relativism that has ruined the old Christian consensus underlying American democracy.
This is clearly seen in the irreconcilable opposition between pro-life and pro-choice positions on abortion and euthanasia, and the split over same-sex marriage in Western democracies.
School democracy cannot avoid the moral fault lines running through society. Are students going to make rules about the rights of transgender peers regarding bathroom use and choice of sports teams? Pride events? Guest speakers? What will be the position of dissenters and conscientious objectors? Schools in the current moral environment could, indeed, be just a training ground for the tyranny of the majority.
There is a lot more to fixing democracy in America, or anywhere, than liberals like to think. More than the electoral system. More than education. It involves fundamental beliefs about the human being and his relationship to others.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet