Democracy Is Our Hope For A Better Future

Index to posts in this series

In The Nation That Never Was, after telling us his version of a better story of America, Kermit Rosevelt writes:

We Americans are not perfect, either. Some of us are bad. Some are indifferent and unwilling to sacrifice for others. Some are easily distracted, misled, manipulated. We go forward and we go back. We elect Reagan, we elect Obama, we elect Trump. But what makes us American—our deepest ideal—is that we keep trying. America is born in an attempt to find a new and better way, to escape the stale and oppressive monarchies of Europe. We don’t get it right immediately. Yet we keep going. We’re looking for America, and we know that the America we’re looking for isn’t something that’s given to us by Founding Fathers. It’s something we make, something we find inside ourselves. The true America is not handed down from the past but created anew by each generation, created a little better, and what we can give the future is the opportunity to get just a little closer than we did ourselves. That’s the promise that makes us American. That’s the promise we have to keep. P. 205.

It’s not exactly a reason his better story is better, but Roosevelt thinks the better story supports his theory of democracy. Compare that passage with this from one of my favorite books, Philosophy and Social Hope, by Richard Rorty:

Pragmatists … do not believe that there is a way things really are. So they want to replace the appearance–reality distinction by that between descriptions of the world and of ourselves which are less useful and those which are more useful. When the question ‘useful for what?’ is pressed, they have nothing to say except ‘useful to create a better future’. When they are asked, ‘Better by what criterion?’, they have no detailed answer, any more than the first mammals could specify in what respects they were better than the dying dinosaurs. Pragmatists can only say something as vague as: Better in the sense of containing more of what we consider good and less of what we consider bad. When asked, ‘And what exactly do you consider good?’, pragmatists can only say, with Whitman, ‘variety and freedom’, or, with Dewey, ‘growth’. ‘Growth itself,’ Dewey said, ‘is the only moral end.’

They are limited to such fuzzy and unhelpful answers because what they hope is not that the future will conform to a plan, will fulfil an immanent teleology, but rather that the future will astonish and exhilarate.… Pp. 27-8, fn omitted.

The connection is obvious. Roosevelt says democracy is about the future. He says the better story fits with his view of democracy. Rorty says that Pragmatism is about the future. Later on he says that Pragmatism is well-suited to democracy, because the growth of freedom leads naturally to a democratic form of government. Both think we can have a better future.

The relation between philosophy and forms of government

Rorty calls himself a Pragmatist, after the only truly American philosophy, founded by the Americans C.S. Peirce, John Dewey, and William James. Here’s a short series discussing some of the basic elements of Pragmatism: Method, Truth, and Applications.

In Rorty’s first sentence, “a way things really are” is a reference to the traditional philosophical problem called the appearance-reality dualism. It’s based on the fact that we only have the evidence of our senses. Therefore we cannot know the reality of the thing we perceive as it truly is. Pragmatism teaches that all we know is what our senses tell us, and there’s nothing beyond that, no Platonic forms, no hidden reality. For a fuller discussion, see the post on Truth linked above.

The older forms of philosophy searched for universal truths, unchanging verities, the way things really are. The results of that search establish a static universe based on the theory of everything created by one or more human beings. There is one answer to any problem, and it can be found by consulting the fixed principles — or the ruler’s command. As Roosevelt puts it, universal verities lead to “… the stale and oppressive monarchies of Europe.”

Pragmatism and democracy are not necessarily connected. As Rorty points out, a Nazi could agree with and apply Pragmatic thinking. But there is a decisive difference between a society living with eternal verities, and one open to change.

A Problem

After reading Roosevelt’s book, I’ve begun to think the the real contest is between Americans dedicated to democracy in the Rorty/Dewey sense, and those committed to the unchanging verities they find in history or their sacred books or handed to them by authoritarian demagogues. The futurists want to make the future better for everyone. The traditionalists think everything is just fine as it is, or as it was at some date in the past, or as it would be in a new society built to effectuate their theory of everything. The futurists, as Rorty says, want the future to be amazing. The traditionalists can’t even handle the latest scientific achievements, like mRNA vaccines. The futurists think the economic status quo must be improved to benefit everyone. The traditionalists think the status quo is the best we can do.

And, not to put too fine a point on this, the people who really want things to remain as they are are the filthy rich; and the people who really want to return to the past are the religious fundamentalists. Both groups are apparently willing to sacrifice democracy to get what they want.

Left Theory

Perhaps you have noted that posts at Emptywheel are categorized. Most of mine are in the category Left Theory. I think the left needs a set of ideas about society and government that can be persuasively explained to non-lefties, and that link all our policy positions into a reasonably coherent whole. I offered a tentative economic theory here. In that post I say that a useful economic theory should be based on observation and experience, not on some grand theory of humanity, or, for that matter any other grand theory. It would serve as a tool for reaching our goals. It would change as we learned more new things. In this sense it would be Pragmatic.

Democracy is a broad theory about how governments should work. It’s a system that works for all people of good faith, giving everyone the opportunity to participate in the process of building the future. In that sense it is Pragmatic.

In the absence of eternal verities, we have to justify all of our beliefs. Why then do I believe democracy is the way forward? First, I believe that the Golden Rule, “do unto others as you would have others do unto you”, is the best guiding principle humans have ever developed. I firmly believe that application of this principle would massively reduce the amount of pain and misery in the world, and that that would be a good thing. To do that, we need to get as many different ideas as we can about our future, both for deciding what we should be as a nation, and for solving problems. Democracy does that.

Also, I want to be part of the decision-making, so I should insure that others can and do participate if they want to.

Second, I agree with Jefferson that government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed. That desire, that insistence, that we give consent to the government is effectuated by majority rule in a democracy.

And that’s where the conflict lies. In the US the minority party holds power despite the will of the majority. The current system of government makes that easy, especially with the rogue majority on SCOTUS.

Our current challenge is to make our democracy work.

20 replies
  1. Peterr says:

    From Roosevelt, in the first blockquote above:

    The true America is not handed down from the past but created anew by each generation, created a little better, and what we can give the future is the opportunity to get just a little closer than we did ourselves.

    The MAGA folks would disagree — firmly and loudly — with this. Their definition of “the True America” (capitol letters in their original) is explicitly in the past. “Make America great AGAIN, like it used to be, because we sure have gone to hell since then.”

    Whenever “then” might be for that person. Could be the 1950s, pre-Brown v Board of Education. Could be the 1870s, after the end of Reconstruction. Could be the 1790s, after the revolution but before the War of 1812. Hell, for some, they’d like to go back to 1620s and the Puritan era. What they have in common, though, is the absolute belief that things *were* better back then, and it’s the left that pulled the US away from those Good Old Days of Yore.

    • John B. says:

      Specifically though, three main eras: post Civil War and the defeat of the slavers and the imposition of reconstruction; post 1930-40’s and the Roosevelt era of social insurance, workman’s comp and the 40 hour week with the government telling business what they can and cannot do and I think most importantly post 1960’s and the Civil Right’s era with movement towards a multi racial democracy empowered by the rights and acknowledgement of Americans who are black and American’s who are women who want bodily autonomy, equal rights and abortion that is legal and part of the overall women’s health care possibilities. These are the movements of progress that the MAGA crowd and the Xtrian Dominionists specifically want to remove.

  2. GSSH-FullyReduced says:

    “And, not to put too fine a point on this, the people who really want things to remain as they are are the filthy rich; and the people who really want to return to the past are the religious fundamentalists. Both groups are apparently willing to sacrifice democracy to get what they want.”

    “ And that’s where the conflict lies. In the US the minority party holds power despite the will of the majority. The current system of government makes that easy, especially with the rogue majority on SCOTUS.”

    Ed, thank you for clarifying these things. I appreciate your perspectives and opinions. Just wish my single vote could be multiplied x millions to rectify the current situation.

  3. earlofhuntingdon says:

    As comically introduced by Midnight in Paris, the good ole days were never as good as our imagination would have them be. During La Belle Epoque, for example, France had Haussmann’s Paris, Impressionism, Art Nouveau, optimism and the Eiffel Tower. It also had Dickensian slums, Devil’s Island and the guillotine, an arch-reactionary military, and no-antiobiotics hospitals that were closer to their medieval counterparts than to today’s. The period ended with the First World War.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      One reason I rarely watched Downton Abbey was Julian Fellowes’s unrelieved propaganda, in which the people downstairs were treated as carefully as those upstairs, where the lord was attentive, reasonable, bright and caring, a good spouse and father. And where the chauffeur, an Irishman at that, could one day hope to wed the earl’s youngest daughter and become a member of the family. Guffaw. By Fellowes’s standard, the Wizard of Oz was a documentary.

      That was not Winston Churchill’s experience, nor, from the plethora of memoirs about life at English public schools, was it the experience of many others. I much prefer Gosford Park. Fellowes also wrote it, but Bob Altman kept him more tied to reality.

    • Ed Walker says:

      Coincidentally we’re in Paris now, leaving tomorrow. We visited a little-marked relic of that era, the tomb of Alfred Dreyfus at the Montparnasse Cemetery.

      Midnight in Paris is a great movie.

  4. pd-japan says:

    my first time to respond and with a quote I came upon while reading the book, The Man in the Red Coat, by Julian Barnes, “We were prepared to die for Dreyfus,” said poet Charles Peguy, “but Dreyfus was not.” Dreyfus not willing to lend his name, and his fate, to the cause to revolutionize France after he was released from Devil’s Island. And this seems to somehow or another relate to the complex way society goes forward as articulated by Ed’s post and the comments above.

    If a post ever veers off into a discussion of Japan, where I have lived for 30 years, I will have more to add. Thank you for Empty Wheel and the erudite discussions that typically follow.

  5. stillscoff says:

    Democracy is easy. It’s really quite simple.

    Give a damn about each other. Reach out with love, and let compassion guide you in every action.

    Think about someone other than yourself. Think about what it’s like to be on the outside, looking in.
    Then realize we are bound to each other by the common blood of ten thousand generations and this mall, blue marble which all of us must learn to share.

    I wrote the following lines about 20 years ago. They speak to my belief in what freedom really means. I think they’re more pertinent now than ever.

    It is, I hope, our common desire
    to see the lives of our loved-ones improved,
    to see poverty eliminated from among us,
    to see friends have an opportunity to flourish,
    to see those who are sick cared for,
    to see our elders supported in their waning years,
    to see our children protected and educated,
    happy and prosperous.

    We can disagree about means,
    but the end we seek is the same.
    It is about achieving lofty goals
    set before us by our shared humanity.
    It is about increasing liberty and justice,
    not just mouthing the rhetoric of freedom.

    It is about each of us
    learning to give to others
    the freedom we all seek, the freedom
    to live, to work, to worship (or not),
    the freedom to love whom we choose,
    the freedom to pursue happiness
    as we each perceive it, the freedom
    to do what we choose to do
    so long as our actions do not harm others.

    Freedom is about granting to others
    what we wish for ourselves.

    In choosing to withhold that freedom from others
    our own freedom is ultimately lost to us.
    In refusing to recognize the rights of others
    our own rights are thereby diminished.

    I’ve heard it said that love is a gift which,
    when given freely to others,
    is increased for those who do the giving.

    Well, freedom is like that, too.

    [Thanks for updating your username to meet the 8 letter minimum. /~Rayne]

  6. AlaskaReader says:

    Democracy is the process by which people choose the man who’ll get the blame.

    Bertrand Russell

    He wasn’t always that flippant, he also offered these words to live by:

    I have lived in the pursuit of a vision, both personal and social. Personal: to care for what is noble, for what is beautiful, for what is gentle; to allow moments of insight to give wisdom at more mundane times. Social: to see in imagination the society that is to be created, where individuals grow freely, and where hate and greed and envy die because there is nothing to nourish them. These things I believe, and the world, for all its horrors, has left me unshaken.

  7. jaango1 says:

    Of the many threads written and comments delivered our good buddy, Ed Walker, is deserving of much credit, and needless to say, but I will, his latest thread, is quite commendable. And deserving of our nation’s National Medal of Good Conduct.

    And given my current age for both skepticism and cynicism, when I look to my retirement within the next couple of years and which is quickly arriving, my political experience and regarding “mentorship”, has always been spoken loudly, and in particularly to what the next “vision” of Democracy shall be. And as a Yaqui and Apache, the history of my ancestors, has weighed heavy with regard to behavior and advocacy. Take, for example, my ancestors delivered democracy into what is today’s Republic of Mexico, and many of my antcedents, both survived and died fighting for what America, would not realize relative to international relations. However, much has changed since the “migration” of ideas, has been overly successful. And will continue to be the apt behavior, for the many us and whom will become the “receiving end” of what’s awaiting around the next street corner and for each of us to enjoy.

    And in one of my seminal moments for practicing democracy, and from many years ago, I came to realize that “practicality” can be quite successful. To wit, I crafted a coalition of lobbyists to challenge to state’s regulatory apparatus and thusly, proven to be quite successful and in which the residential user relative to utility rates, was subsidizing the the immoral behavior of the decision makers and as the “bandits” were placating the business sector.
    And throughout the month of meetings that transpired, the lobbyist representing the Chamber of Commerce called me out for “being a baby killer”, for having served 18 months in the Vietnam War. Suffice it to say, this lobbyist was a recent graduate from law school and without a vast experience in either human nature or politics, and thusly, in the form for advocating the historical nature of a National Debt Surtax, despite our annualized Argumentation on Debt Limits and Deprivations. Therefore, I continue to remain both a ‘nationalist’ and a ‘progressive’ when I address my preferred vision of democracy.

    And yet, I will extend my retirement once the “voices therein” from the first experience relative to the pending arrival of the UFOs and with their massive technological advantages.

  8. LordAvebury says:

    I like Tim Snyder’s conceptual framework of “the politics of inevitability” and “the politics of eternity”. Essentially, both of these absolve the citizen of the responsibility to think and act, because either everything is destined to succeed, so we don’t have to work at it, or there’s no future, so no point in trying. He argues that we break out of this by looking at history and recognizing that our actions can have consequences, so we have responsibility.

  9. Franktoo says:

    At Ed’s last post, Rayne dismissed my suggestion that Jefferson may have lost the idealism of his youth as he grew older, rather than having been an opportunistic hypocrite. Both are viable hypotheses. I could cite dozens of Republicans who I thought were once principled believers in balanced budgets and free trade only to slink away in the harsh reality of Trumpism, but one could easily argue they were always hypocrites too. So I’ll suggest Hillary Clinton as a model for a politician who became less idealistic as she grew older. (Anyone wanting to donate to the charities supported by the CF didn’t need to give the CF 70% for overhead.)

    As for Jefferson, he may have wanted to free his slaves after his death, but those slaves were collateral for loans and he was hopelessly in debt. The State of Virginia was forced to give his unmarried daughter (who continuous took care of TJ after her mother died) a small pension after his death, because she was left penniless. From a practical point of view, those weren’t his slaves; they belonged to his creditors. Some may never have been his slaves; those he inherited from his father-in-law (including Sally) came with his father-in-law’s debts. (Otherwise his wife’s half-brothers and sisters would have been sold to pay those debts.) Jefferson was in debt partially because he spent so much time in public service and partially because he invested so much non-productively in Monticello, his monument to the “enlightened Virginia gentleman farmer”.

    I think we should avoid (with few exceptions) painting major historical figures as completely good or evil. We should be inspired by their best and learn from their failures. I can’t picture young Jefferson as a hypocrite when he wrote in a draft of the Declaration the words quoted below; I think it illuminates what he ASPIRED for the new country he was birthing by “all men are created equal”. He likely damaged his political reputation by including this divisive and impractical language. Later he led legislation to limit the spread of slavery. One could argue that his words inspired the movement towards abolition of slavery that began immediately in the North all the way to Lincoln’s use of his words in the Gettysburg address. IMO, his later personal failures to live up to his aspirations are being wrongly used to erase those aspirations.

    “[The King] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.”

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