Modern culture has severed the roots which nourish democracy

Only a few decades ago, we were celebrating the wave of democratization that seemed to be sweeping the world. Today we worry about democratic backsliding and democratic “de-consolidation” Indeed, even in America, the place where the great experiment of modern democracy began, there is widespread concern about democracy’s future.

Among the widely acknowledged indications that all is not well: the widespread collapse of trust in democratic institutions; the widespread violation in practice – and even rejection in principle – of democratic values, particularly among the young (e.g., freedom of speech); growing political violence (e.g., Charlottesville, the “1619” riots, January 6th, etc.); and the rise “illiberal,” ideologies, of political ideologies that flatly reject core democratic institutions and values. Our commitment to democracy seems to be increasingly precarious and the institutions and practices of our democratic government seem increasingly frail.

The obvious question is “why?”.

While there are many factors in play here, I want to call attention to one largely overlooked cause, namely, the erosion of democracy’s intellectual foundations. “Vigorous institutions,” as John H. Hallowell observed some 80 years ago, “require deep-rooted convictions.” They must be “securely and deeply rooted in the spiritual consciousness of the people.” Here, I would suggest, we encounter one of the principal causes of the crisis that besets us.

What is democracy?

Before proceeding, it is necessary to be clear about what we mean when we speak of democracy. At the institutional level, when we invoke democracy today, we do not mean untrammelled majoritarianism. Rather, we mean what is sometimes called (confusingly in my view) liberal democracy: a political order in which government is representative in character; limited in its scope; subject in its operations to the rule of law; acknowledges the existence of a body of rights inviolable by governmental institutions or democratic majorities; and includes institutional mechanisms assuring that the rule of law, rights, and limits on state power are respected in practice.

But democracy involves more than institutions and procedures. Political institutions and procedures, after all, are not ends in themselves. They are a means to institutionalize certain values and principles believed to be fundamental to the right ordering of political life. At the heart of democracy are found a series of anthropological and moral affirmations. These affirmations include the idea of human dignity, of the transcendent value of the individual human person, a dignity and value that must be respected by the state and placed at the very centre of human social life. They also include the existence of an order of human rights, and an order of justice, antecedent to the state and binding upon it. These affirmations are the charter and moral substance of democratic government.  

The crucial question today concerns the foundation of these beliefs. Do these affirmations represent fundamental truths about man and the universe anchored in the very structure of reality itself?  Or, alternatively, are they mere social constructs, subjective preferences, or consoling myths?

If these principles are not truths, but simply convenient fictions rooted in nothing more than our culture’s arbitrary preferences, democracy loses its very justification. If human dignity, for example, is a mere fiction, why bother building or sustaining a political order intended to serve it? Why should we be willing to exercise the self-restraint, shoulder the responsibilities, and make the sacrifices on which wellbeing and, ultimately, the very viability such an order depends? 

As Leo Strauss notes, once we come to believe “that the principles of our actions have no other support than our blind choice, we do not really believe in them any more” and “cannot wholeheartedly act upon them.” Why would a sane people be willing to “pledge” their “Lives,” “Fortunes,” and “Sacred Honour” to safeguard what they see as nothing more than myths?

Even if the institutions of democratic government remain in place, whether these institutions actually respect rights, serve the cause of justice, etc. will ultimately depend on the people. In the long one, after all, the laws will reflect their convictions and values. Mere procedures in themselves do not in and of themselves guarantee just outcomes. Why should they take rights seriously if they understand them to be merely comforting myths? Why should they seek to do justice if justice is but a fiction? Under such conditions, politics becomes an amoral enterprise, a matter of mere expediency and self-interest, a game in which winning is all that counts.

‘A metaphysical decision’

The affirmations that inform democracy, in short, cannot simply float in the air. To endure and guide political life, they must be grounded in something deeper than themselves. A written constitution and bill of rights alone are insufficient. “Democratic institutions,” as Hallowell writes, “require a philosophy of life to sustain them.” Indeed, for democracy to endure and effectively serve the moral affirmations that inspire it, what John Courtney Murray calls “a metaphysical decision” is required. These affirmations must be rooted in “ultimates” in a society’s “thinking about the nature of man,” anchored in absolutes in its understanding of human existence. Unless we are certain the rights we seek to secure “are indeed rights and therefore inviolable, and human rights and therefore inalienable,” they will not survive the inevitable storms of political life. Democracy, after all, is a rare and fragile form of government. Absent such a foundation we are in effect “writing on sand in a time of hurricane and floods.”

America has historically grounded its commitment to the principles constitutive of democracy’s foundation in two sources. The first is the Western natural law tradition at whose heart is found a metaphysical and moral realism. This tradition insists the human mind can discern on the very structure of being itself a body of basic moral imperatives that obligate us prior to, and independently of, our consent; moral imperatives. It is this tradition that finds expression in the Declaration of Independence’s famous invocation of “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” and its ringing affirmation of “self-evident” moral “Truths.”

The second is America’s religious heritage. As countless commentators have shown -- most recently, Tom Holland and Larry Siedentop – the revolution in human self-understanding wrought by Christianity played a pivotal role in laying the intellectual groundwork for what we call democracy. One thinks here of the Christian distinction between the temporal and spiritual, which laid the groundwork for the idea of limited government. One also thinks here of the Christian insistence on the worth and dignity -- the sacredness -- of the individual human person. This meant that human beings could no longer be understood as instruments to be used for civic purposes, that the state existed for man rather than man for the state, and that freedom and equality had to be seen as hallmarks of a rightly ordered society. It is no accident, as Brian Tierney has pointed out, that the idea of natural rights emerged in a culture “with a faith in which human beings were seen as children of a caring God.”



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Corrosive moral scepticism

The problem we face is that our society – or at least, the bulk of it – no longer either embraces either natural law philosophy or the Christian vision of man and the universe. On the one hand, contemporary philosophy is characterized by a pervasive hostility toward both the metaphysical and moral realism of the natural law tradition. The result is a culture increasingly pervaded by a corrosive moral scepticism which insists that moral judgements are simply matters of individual preference, and that assertions of moral truth are simply devices used by some to impose their will upon others. On the other hand, as Robert Wilken has noted, over the past 50 years, the Western world has experienced nothing less than “the collapse of Christian civilization.” Today we inhabit an increasingly post-Christian social universe.

An older cultural ethos informed by the natural law tradition and Christianity, in short, has been largely displaced by a new and very different cultural ethos. This ethos combines a hyper-individualistic ethic of human self-creation (which, as Michael Sandel notes, views human beings as sovereign wills “unbound by moral ties antecedent to choice”), non-judgementalism, and toleration with a metaphysical and moral nihilism. In Stephen Hawking’s memorable formulation: “the human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet.”

This ethos, however, is simultaneously deeply incoherent and inherently unstable. It is incoherent because the ethic toward which this vision of the universe points is not the egalitarian ethic of equal concern and respect it advocates, but instead an ethic of power, an ethic in which justice is the will of the stronger and the strong dominate and exploit the weak, and in which politics becomes a matter of more expediency and self-interest.

It is unstable because its metaphysical and moral nihilism acts to undermine the whole range of moral affirmations that are democracy’s charter and substance. In a godless and meaningless universe, after all, what sense does it mean to speak of natural rights, human dignity, or justice, or of establishing a political order dedicated to institutionalizing and advancing these ideals? 

This recognition, I would contend, casts considerable light on the problems that American democracy is experiencing today. It’s true that the institutional structures of democracy remain more or less intact, our politics continue to be conducted almost entirely in the idiom of rights, human dignity, etc., and we continue to insist that justice must be done, and rights safeguarded. Nevertheless, as was mentioned earlier, democracy’s institutional structures seem increasingly dysfunctional and increasingly lacking in public trust or support. Likewise, there’s the troubling emergence of the “illiberal” ideologies and the increasing rejection of core democratic values.

Most importantly, there’s the increasing slippage of democracy’s moral substance at the level of practice. One thinks here of our growing incivility, the open contempt of cultural elites for the populace, and the increasingly authoritarian character of the democratic state (e.g., censorship, use of the law to persecute political opponents, etc.). But the clearest indicator of the slippage of democracy’s moral substance is one less commonly noted: our ever-deeper slide into what John Paul II termed “the culture of death”. There can be no more unmistakable sign of the erosion of democracy’s moral substance than the withdrawal of legal protection from the weakest and most vulnerable members of our populace.

If we are experiencing democratic “de-consolidation,” I would suggest, this is in part because we are no longer no longer able to ground the moral affirmations which are its foundation and substance in absolutes in our understanding of man and world. We thus lack both the means of justifying our commitment to democracy and the resolution to defend it in practice. We have been writing on sand and now the hurricane and floods have arrived.

A plant whose roots are severed withers and dies. Is it any surprise then that cut off from the roots that give life to its institutional structure and moral substance, the same is happening to American democracy?  

Kenneth L. Grasso is Professor of Political Science at Texas State University. He received his MA and PhD from Fordham University, and his BA in Government and Politics from St John’s University. He has edited or co-edited several books including Theology and Public Philosophy (2012), Defending the Republic (2008) and Rethinking Rights: Historical, Political and Philosophical Perspectives (2008). His edited volume The Future of the Catholic Church in the American Public Order will be published next month.

Image credit: Bigstock  


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