June 27, 2015
The Crisis of Democracy
John Agresto, former president of St. John’s College in Santa Fe and former Acting Chancellor, Provost, and Academic Dean at the American University of Iraq in Sulaimani, is the author of Mugged by Reality: The Liberation of Iraq and the Failure of Good Intentions and other books. In his new book, Rediscovering America, he talks about the challenges that inequality and injustice pose to our ideals of democracy and freedom in America.
Asahina & Wallace: What is the crisis of American democracy?
John Agresto: We’ve inherited so many good and true things from our Western heritage and our own history — a belief that justice is something objective and not just the will of the stronger; a belief in the equality of all men, in rights and individual liberty; a faith in democratic government — yet we find ourselves at a loss these days in understanding, defending, and promoting them. We love justice and equality but don’t know if equal justice means greater redistribution of the goods of the world or greater freedom to make, achieve, and earn for our family and ourselves. We believe in rights, but we swing between believing they are critical and even absolute, to discarding them when they seem to give offense to others or when older rights seem in conflict with more newly minted ones. We praise democracy and are dismayed when our efforts to promote democracy abroad are met abroad with failure or, worse, public rejection or contempt.
The basic problem is we seem to have lost the reasons for our beliefs: We don’t know why America was founded on certain principles, or what equal justice might entail, or what makes democracy so valuable — and also what undermines it. And, not knowing why we believe in these matters, we misunderstand them, can’t defend them, and can’t explain them, not even to ourselves. So when we’re told our way of life needs to be “transformed,” we have scant resources to resist, or even to understand what we might be losing.
A&W: You spent 2003-2004 in Iraq as a civilian working for the Defense Department helping the Iraqi people reconstruct their system of higher education. The book you wrote about your time there, Mugged by Reality: The Liberation of Iraq and the Failure of Good Intentions, is mostly a record of disappointment and disillusionment. How did your experiences abroad shape your understanding of the crisis here in the United States?
JA: The most evident thing was how little we knew about what we were trying to do. We had a totally un-thought-out understanding of this wonderful thing we were promoting — democratic government. In a place where democracies had never been and where the culture and traditions gave democracy little support, we arrived, telling them that they now had to be “democratic.” Of course they had none of the historical and civic preconditions of self-rule. Didn’t matter; we knew that democracy was the great modern political value, and we pushed on. The results are sadly obvious.
The second and perhaps less predictable thing was that the Iraqis, many of them, not only had no understanding of democracy but didn’t see why Americans loved this thing called “freedom” so much. The all had TVs now and could see the precarious place of religion and morality, family and tradition, respect and order in what we call free societies, and they weren’t sure they wanted to go down that path. And, know what? We had no way of either seeing their worries or explaining why it might be that we Americans cherish freedom to the degree we do. It was then that I thought that I needed to write a book for my fellow citizens to show them what the Founders of our country knew — both the appropriateness and limits of democratic government, and the greatness as well as the difficulties of living together as free people.
A&W: “All men are created equal,” according to the Declaration of Independence. But are we really?
JA: Yes, we are. Absolutely. Now that obviously doesn’t mean that we are all the same, or that we’re all equal in intelligence, goodness, popularity, or in the differences that seem most talked about today — money, wealth, and income. But are we equal in the most basic sense that we were created with no one who is our natural or God-ordained boss, that we all have the right to rule ourselves, be ourselves, perfect ourselves — yes, in that sense, we are all “created equal.”
A&W: We are living in a period of great disparities of income and wealth. How does the notion of “social justice” square with our Constitutional order?
JA: “Great disparities” of income and wealth? Greater than when poverty was crushing and disease and death a daily, ever-present horror that haunted the poor? In today’s age of mass education, medicines that have doubled our common life-expectancy, cars, cell phones, televisions, and an array of both necessities and comforts simply unknown in times past, it’s hard to see that the fact that Bill Gates or Oprah Winfrey or Alex Rodriguez makes more than I do is some kind of crime against humanity.
But, not to be too flip about it, I understand that many people see “income inequality” to be “unfair” and an affront to both “social justice” and the great American principle of human equality. And this much is true: America was meant to be, perhaps above all, the land of opportunity. If the freedom to work and prosper is stymied, if our ability to succeed, rise, and even fail is prevented, and if the disparities between the rich and poor are permanent and intractable, then the situation is unfair and unjust.
But here’s the rest of the story: If the remedy to this perceived unfairness is simply to redistribute the wealth, to take from those who have or have succeeded and spread it downward, and not to open up avenues for the poor and middle classes to rise and prosper, then we have done little to restore the great promise of American life that we are indeed the home of free people and the land of opportunity.
A&W: Who exactly are “We the People”? What distinguishes democracy in America from all the so-called “people’s democratic republics” around the world?
JA: The Constitution begins, “We the People of the United States … do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” Because, as the Declaration of Independence before it proclaimed, we are all created equal, no one can ordain or establish government over us without our consent. No one can foist or force his rule, or any governmental arrangement, over us. Because we are, as the Founders would say, “free, equal and independent,” we as citizens rule ourselves. And we rule ourselves under a “constitution” that we established, a constitution that not only limits the power of the government but limits our power, too. Unlike in other nation states, here in America there are things that the government may not do, and there are things that we the people have collectively said that no one, not even majorities, may do.
Scholars have for years and years debated the question, “How Democratic is the American Constitution?” And some, pointing to such things as the Electoral College or the equality of states in the Senate, have said, “Not very.” But what we have is a modified, constitutional, limited, checked and restrained democracy that we established and that was not imposed upon us. We the people constituted for ourselves a government that we hoped would be strong enough to protect us and restrained enough not to tyrannize us. And, having done so, we also reined in our own right to rule. We live under a moderated, restrained democratic system — what we used to in times past call a Republic.
A&W: Libertarianism is deeply ingrained on both the Left and the Right of the political spectrum. Can there be such a thing as too much freedom?
JA: Yes, absolutely. We even have simple slogans to teach us this: No one is free to yell fire in a crowded theater; my right to swing my fist ends at the tip of your nose, and so on. But the hard question really is two-fold: Where, exactly, are the limits to my rights; and who is to say, who tells us, when we’ve overstepped those limits? Is it really so simple that we, as a democratic people, should just wait for the government or the Supreme Court to tell us what our rights are or when we’ve gone too far? Well, I don’t think it’s all that easy. My book is in many ways an attempt to untangle and help us answer these fairly thorny questions.
A&W: Supreme Court decisions and the Bill of Rights get a lot of attention in current political discussions. But what role do rights play in the overall scheme of our Constitution? Is there too much emphasis on rights by both the Left and the Right?
JA: Not to speak only in generalities, but rights are central to our way of life. Indeed, the Declaration says, “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men….” Indeed, the Preamble to the Constitution ends with the ringing words calling us to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” But that same Preamble lists all the other great goals, all the other most desirable things our Constitution was meant to accomplish — form a more perfect union, provide for the common defense, establish justice, promote the general welfare, and insure domestic tranquility. All of these, not simply rights or personal liberty alone, are the great ends of our democratic life. The trick is to find ways to achieve them all as far as we can without sacrificing any.
But there’s an additional problem: While rights are centrally important to our way of life, we may have drifted from our understanding of what our rights really are. Do we have the right to subsidized health care? Does free speech include filthy speech? Do gays and lesbians have a right to marry? Do I have a right not to be party to their ceremonies? Where does my right of private property end? What are the limits, if any, to religious rights? How far should we let political correctness restrict our free speech rights? Is academic freedom always/often/never bounded by the sensitivities of the aggrieved or offended?
Oddly enough, to answer your question on whether there is “too much emphasis” on rights, it might well be the case that there’s too much emphasis today on supposed “new” rights — rights not to be insulted or questioned, rights to free contraceptives, gay marriage rights, rights to do whatever we please whenever we please it — and too little emphasis on America’s core rights, bedrock rights: freedom of thought and discussion, property rights, rights of association and religion, and so on. But how do we know which rights to value and which rights to hold as secondary? Again, that’s the reason for this book.
A&W: One of your books, Tomatoes, Basil, and Olive Oil, is an Italian American cookbook. Has your immigrant heritage influenced your understanding of the character of our democracy, and if so, how?
JA: I think my immigrant heritage taught me to see more clearly what too many others simply take for granted. When I asked my mother’s father, the one who brought the family to America, why he came here, he answered as so many of them did: He came because he heard the streets were paved with gold. When I said that it was surely a silly idea, he responded, clearly hurt, “No, no ... they are.”
What he knew was that America is surely the land of opportunity, but that it most often only gives its full benefits to the hard working, the imaginative, and the dedicated. It has, in that way, the ability to benefit both the individual and the society together.
I also learned not to take for granted or to spurn those things that our contemporary culture seems to try hard these days to diminish — faith, family, neighbors, tradition. At its best, America has the ability to let each of us rise and be all that we can to be, but at the same time, it has the tendency to separate us from the past, from the heritage of our culture, and from natural associations. Growing up in a family of immigrants, each of whom came here to find a better life, I learned both to cherish the freedom and individuality we each enjoy but also to respect the binding cords, the connections and the interdependencies we all share. By analogy, I think that’s exactly what the Founders of this country tried to do: to form a society, a country, a nation — but one composed of free and independent men and women.
I think they succeeded; but I also think we are in real danger of losing it.
A&W: After finishing your book on the crisis of American democracy, what exactly are readers supposed to do about it?
JA: The first part of the crisis, the core of the crisis, is a crisis of understanding: Most of us have this feeling that we are supposed to revere our Founding Fathers and respect the work they did, but we don’t know why, or how. So the first thing to do is to go back and see what it was that they were trying to accomplish here in America, why they were embarking on this great experiment, and how they went about trying to forge a decent and lasting country, a country of free but still just, compassionate, and patriotic men and women.
Given the shallowness of our media today and the superciliousness of our intellectual and academic classes, this work of education and learning is actually the hardest part of the task!
The second part is clear: Armed with knowledge, we must reassess all the calls to “radically transform” our American way of life in hopes of a quick fix to some newly arisen problem or because we’re told to be ashamed of our country, our culture, or our sentiments or our long-held views of justice and fair treatment.
Third, armed with knowledge, we must resolve to think things through and not fall prey to slogans or catch phrases. For example, knowing all that is required to both form and keep a just democracy alive, we might think twice before assuming that we can go everywhere or anywhere and build up “democracies” abroad. Or, armed with a deeper understanding of both equality and liberty, we might think twice before falling prey to demagoguery regarding the latest version of “social justice” or new demands for economic redistribution or further attacks on our principles of free enterprise.
You see, because in America we govern ourselves, our nation will be no better or worse, no smarter or dumber, no finer or more debased that “We the People” are.