What is democracy? Why does it need to be “saved” in the United States, as my subtitle claims? How is it saved, and by whom?
Democracy is understood to mean rule by the people. Some take issue with my subtitle and point out that the United States is a constitutional republic, not a democracy. Citizens don’t make laws, rather, they elect representatives that make laws. Of course, we also use the word “democracy” for this. We mean representative democracy rather than direct democracy.
But there is a yearning and a need for something more. Many want more potent ways of shaping our public life. Some are finding them. I will later cite an example in which a diverse group of residents of a small Alabama town worked together to revitalize the local economy. In the process, they created interracial friendships in a town where segregation had long been the norm.
This leads to the answer to my first question. The republic has to do with what we do every two years when we go to the polls. When I speak of democracy, I’m including the many things we do or should do between elections. One of these is to strengthen locally rooted community and civic life, as did the people in the Alabama town. If we vote every two years but are civic couch potatoes the rest of the time, we may have the machinery of a republic, but we don’t have a healthy democracy.
The idea that democracy in the United States is in trouble, that it needs to be “saved,” is the theme of many books, articles, documentaries, and talk shows. The trouble, however, goes back much longer than my young readers might realize. The Triad is my response to witnessing the deterioration of public life in the U.S. over a period of fifty years.
As a teenager in the late 1960s, I had a sense of optimism and idealism. That was a time of upheaval, but also of confidence that the American democratic system worked, that it was resilient, self-correcting, and responsive to the will of the citizens. In the 1970s, that confidence started to erode. Watergate and subsequent scandals deeply shook people’s faith in government. On the economic front, the widely shared prosperity of the 1960s was slipping away. By the 1980s there was increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of elites. Homelessness was on the rise. Even when employment was high, there were fewer good jobs. At the same time, it seemed to me, materialistic values were increasingly celebrated, and social cohesion and civic engagement were declining; this intuition was later confirmed by some important social science research.
The attention and loyalty of political leaders were increasingly captured by professional lobbyists advocating for interests with lavish resources. Susan Trento’s 1992 book, The Power House, portrayed the selling of access and influence by a highly successful lobbying firm. William Greider’s Who Will Tell the People, published the same year, looked at the “decayed condition” of American democracy. The elites make decisions behind closed doors, and the citizens have little say.
By the mid-1990s political discourse was becoming more hostile, partisan divisions sharper. In the past few years, this problem has become even worse. By 2012, several political moderates had departed from the U.S. Senate because of the divisive atmosphere and dysfunction that has paralyzed “the world’s greatest deliberative body.”
In 2015, shortly after the publication of the first edition of The Triad, one of my high school classmates remarked that Americans know that something is “screwy” but they can’t quite put a finger on the underlying causes. We plainly see political corruption, partisan divisiveness, propagandizing media, broken schools, decaying infrastructure, high incarceration rates, and a widening gap between social classes. This presents both a danger and an opportunity. On the one hand, the discontent that it creates can feed the spread of toxic and extremist ideologies. On the other hand, it can cause people to reexamine assumptions and consider new kinds of remedies.
Then came the 2016 presidential election. After a prolonged media circus, the major parties nominated candidates that were both widely distrusted. In the final election, voter turnout hit a 20-year low. More voters sat it out than voted for either candidate. ‘None of the above’ won the popular vote. The election of Donald Trump was a result of several factors. Many voters felt that mainstream career politicians had so badly failed them, that the need for a “shakeup” outweighed the flaws of an outsider who might offer one. Many saw the election as a referendum on corruption (and this, I believe, is a healthy sign). The decline of labor-intensive manufacturing jobs fueled a populist appeal for economic protectionism. There was also a dark side. The appeal to restore America’s greatness attracted white supremacists and aroused fearful or hateful sentiment against Muslims and ethnic minorities.
2017 has arrived. Never before have I seen the United States so divided, our public discourse so debased, our institutions so dysfunctional, and the level of trust in our institutions so low. The Economist Intelligence Unit, in its most recent Democracy Index report, downgraded the United States from a “full democracy” to a “flawed democracy.” A flawed democracy is a country with free elections but weighed down by weak governance, an underdeveloped political culture, and low levels of political participation. The report stated, “Popular trust in government, elected representatives, and political parties has fallen to extremely low levels in the U.S. This has been a long-term trend and one that preceded the election of Mr. Trump as the U.S. president in November 2016.”[i]
The need to “save” democracy in the U.S., then, is hard to deny. This brings us to the third question. How is it saved, and by whom? What are the underlying causes of this deterioration in our public life? What do we need to do better? Who are the actors who can develop our political culture to a more mature level? I wrote The Triad to explore these questions, but here’s the essence of its message.
The remedies to our problems will come not from an elite group of progressives enacting well-intentioned political reforms for the rest of us. They will not arise spontaneously by abandoning our country to “the market.” Also, it’s not a question of merely electing the right candidate or the right party. Rather, a broad based effort is needed to build social capital, promote cooperation, and encourage an ethic of service. We are all actors. We need to be talking with each other rather than talking past each other. We need to develop the ability to come to informed opinions. We need to educate our young people in the skills to participate in a modern global economy. They also need to gain civic participation skills and an understanding of science, history, and the wider world. Economic actors, such as business and labor, must also step up to the plate as civic actors that create prosperity rather than maximizing short-term gain. The news media has a responsibility to be truthful rather than selling slanted or sensationalized content.
The purpose of The Triad is to awaken the new civic conscience needed to motivate all these actions. The actions are built on three civic virtues, which I call service, learning, and community building. The word “virtue” means a good moral quality. The word has a second meaning that is just as important. When we say that a medicine has a certain virtue, we mean that it is potent and effective. It’s not just that we should try to make a difference, but that we can.
A few words are needed about what this book is not. First, many books by political and social scientists summarize their research. The authors treat their moral values as “biases” to be minimized in their work. I should warn the reader that The Triad is not this type of book. It is moral suasion from start to finish. While it builds on the work of scholars such as Robert Putnam and Francis Fukuyama, its purpose is to offer a moral framework for solutions rather than document problems. Second, many books end with a laundry list of recommended reforms or actions. I structure the discussion differently, citing examples along the way of what the civic virtues look like in the real world. In this way, the virtues are explained more concretely. Also, I want to communicate that the actions taken have enduring effect because they express an underlying moral commitment. In the case of the Alabama town I mentioned earlier, the residents acted to beautify a dilapidated property. More importantly, however, they formed relationships and built capacity for a healthier pattern of community life.
My approach to civic renewal is inspired by my religion, the Bahá’í Faith. Its scriptures advance what modern thinkers might call a social Gaia hypothesis. Humankind is not merely a collection of individuals, but an organic whole. This understanding guides and motivates Bahá’í communities throughout the world in efforts to spiritually educate children, train young people to pursue paths of service, heal racial divisions, educate women and girls, and undertake social and economic development projects. The goal is to build the sinews of a world civilization based on justice and unity. The Bahá’í Faith also offers a new model of democratic life. The community is administered not by priests but by governing councils elected in an atmosphere of prayerful reflection. These councils use a nonadversarial deliberation process in which the participants collaborate to investigate the facts and find the best solutions to issues.
It is unrealistic to expect a large and divided society to adopt the culture and practices of a small and cohesive community of faith. The contrast between the two, however, informs my understanding of what ails American society and what small strides people of good will could take to move the country in the right direction. This is why I chose service, learning, and community building as core virtues of citizenship. First, they are guiding principles that I have seen at work in successful grassroots projects. Second, they are clearly needed in American democratic life to incentivize better political leadership and motivate widespread civic engagement to solve problems. Initially, the choice of the three virtues was based on my gut instincts. As work on the book progressed, I discovered other real-world success stories that illustrate the power of these virtues.
This civic engagement can happen in many ways and in a variety of settings: an urban neighborhood whose residents work together to create a safe recreational space, a public school in which parents, students, and teachers collaborate to improve learning, a church that embraces diversity, a business that invests in social progress, voters that educate themselves on issues and vote with the goal of electing leaders with high ethical standards, and even a simple act of kindness.
These solutions require work. The Triad offers no short cuts or quick fixes. Its message is that a healthy democratic society is at least as much about what we give as about what we get.
This is a small book about a big subject: American democracy. We’ll reflect on America’s past, its present, its future, and its place in the world. This book was shaped by personal experiences, so I’ll begin by introducing myself.
I’m not an expert on public policy, economics, history, or law. I studied electrical engineering at Purdue University, a Big Ten college in a small town in Indiana. I have worked throughout my career on the development of new technologies.
I was once an ardent political liberal, and at Purdue was at one time the president of the Young Democrats on campus. As the years have passed, I have come to the belief that the answers to society’s problems are rooted in truths that cut across political ideologies and party platforms. You will find it difficult to pigeonhole me as politically “liberal” or “conservative” based on what’s in this book. I embrace a set of core values, some of which resonate with liberals and some with conservatives, and I hope to convince you that these values are mutually compatible. I will say no more on that now, because I would be getting ahead of myself. Later, we’ll discuss these political philosophies in more detail.
My ancestors came from Germany, France, and Ireland. I grew up as the fourth of five children in a middle class Catholic family in a suburb on the northeast side of Indianapolis. My father was a mechanical engineer who attended college during the Great Depression, paying expenses by waiting tables. My mother grew up on a farm in southern Indiana.
I was recently asked to share reflections on what my parents taught me about how to make sense of the world. Looking back, I realize that my parents’ actions were far more important than their words. First, there was an atmosphere of unconditional love in the household. As children, my siblings and I were always made to feel that we were intrinsically good people. When I made mistakes or did less-than-good things, I had to own up to it; but it was always clear that it was my actions that had fallen short, not that I was inherently bad. Second, my parents cultivated a strong sense of teamwork and responsibility to the family. I never saw them quarrel; they would always discuss things with an attitude of mutual respect. On Saturday mornings, the household chores would be divvied up among us all. Third, discipline was never arbitrary, but rather was used to teach something important. For a time I was forbidden to watch The Man from UNCLE, a popular prime-time spy show. My parents were disturbed by the cavalier attitude toward deadly violence on the show and expressed this to me. The ban was soon lifted, but I’ve never forgotten the message. Finally, there was an intangible sense of unity. During a visit I made to my parents after they had retired and moved to the west coast, a friend of mine entered the living room and saw us doing individual activities: I was reading a book, my mother working a crossword puzzle, and so on. My friend later remarked that even though we were doing separate things, it still felt like we were together.
What does this personal story have to do with American society, its economy and politics? I believe that in some respects a healthy family is a microcosm of a healthy community, a healthy society, and a healthy planet. I don’t expect my employer or my government to shower me with unconditional love, but there are important parallels with respect to the balance that is needed between rights and obligations.
The first parallel is the role of the individual. Like a family, a healthy society is neither a collection of disconnected individuals pursuing personal goals, nor a troop marching in lockstep conformity. Individual freedom and initiative are vital, but liberty must be balanced by a sense of responsibility toward the communities of which each of us is a part. This is not just that we don’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater. In the workplace, an employee who sees his work as a contribution to something larger than himself is motivated to do a good job, and this helps to create a successful business and a more prosperous society. Outside the workplace, a citizen who sees herself as part of a community is involved in charitable work in education, poverty reduction, or public health. In these examples, the individual strives for excellence and simultaneously sustains communities. The power of the individual to make a difference is a value that inspires conservative political thought; we cannot be passive and expect government to solve all our problems.
The second parallel is the obligations of institutions, both public and private. It doesn’t make sense to expect an employee to perform work conscientiously without a reciprocal obligation on the part of the employer to pay a living wage. Furthermore, a working person should never have to choose between a debilitating illness and financial ruin because of the unavailability of affordable health care. How can we make health care more affordable? Should the costs of health care benefits be borne by the employer, the government, or some combination of the two? Those are important practical issues, but ones that we can solve once we have agreement that the obligation to solve them exists. The responsibility of society to safeguard its members from abuse and exploitation is a concern that inspires liberal political thought.
The third parallel is the approach to communication and discussion. My parents did not always agree on everything, but they always respected each other. Whenever there was a disagreement, the purpose of the discussion was not persuasion, but rather investigation of the issue. They were not on opposing sides of an argument, but rather partners in search of a solution. If they had different points of view at the start, this was treated as an opportunity to learn something new and arrive at a better solution, in collaboration, than either could have devised individually. This kind of nonadversarial decision-making and commitment to learning is desperately needed, not only in Washington, but also in the many spaces where we discuss the issues. Generally, neither liberals nor conservatives have raised the call for this kind of change, let alone worked to create a favorable climate for it.
American society is not healthy by these measures, and its condition has gotten progressively worse in the past few decades. Many authors have proposed legal and structural reforms to improve the functioning of our political system, and many of these proposals have merit. I suggest that we need to go beyond that. We need a shift in our values and worldview, a new perspective on the very nature and purpose of democratic processes. A spirit of reciprocity and cooperation rooted at the individual level is an indispensable part of the solution. I will go into more detail about this later and describe three “civic virtues” that I believe each of us needs to exercise.
This is not a “gloom and doom” book. While in the short run, America is in for some difficult times, I believe that its troubles are a blessing in disguise. We can’t expect fundamental change unless the status quo produces enough pain for enough people. America is approaching this point. The good news is that once the discomfort level leads to a shift in the climate of opinion, macro-political reform can happen very quickly. Change is possible, but as citizens, we can’t wait for “them” to bring it about. It comes from public-spirited engagement on our part.