Is Democracy Dead—or is it just Obsolete?

Lesson Learned on the Road to Waco

It is a bright Texas afternoon and Interstate 35 is not so crowded. I set the cruise control—that sublime moment when driving to Waco becomes an actual joy. Driving a few of clicks above the limit, it is not long before I found myself gaining on a slower car, and I realize that I will have to pass. In my driver’s side mirror, I see another car approaching at a much faster speed. I have to make my choice quickly: Do I move into the left lane at my current speed and force this guy to slow down as I pass the car? Do I hit the gas and race around the slower car as fast as I can? Or do I hit my brakes and stay in my lane until the driver speeds past? I select the third option. Afterward, I began wondering why had I deferred to the driver in the fast lane. Then I realized this road encounter had revealed something profound about democracy.traffic

Thomas Hobbes and other 18th century Enlightenment thinkers outlined our social contracts, the mutual sacrifices members of a community make without hesitation. This willingness became fundamental to the establishment of our democratic government. In light of recent events and trends in the news, I am fearful that our democracy has died, or at the very least, it appears somewhat obsolete. Citizens are beginning to abandon the lumbering deliberations that a democratic process requires. We no longer seek to engage in tedious duels of logic to uncover truth.

Instead, we crave a fast-food version. The true statesman has been replaced by the sophist, who publically shames and demonized the opposition until they can no longer speak. Those who influence public opinion are simply those who command attention while talk shows seldom feature those who practice serious dialectic. On defense, these ideologues tightly drape their identities around the issue, making it impossible to counter without inflicting personal offense. The truth uncovered by these methods is most often a mirage as such politicking denies the community the opportunity to use rational dialectic in deciding the issue.

It is difficult to practice dialectic today because a mutual appeal to authority is no longer possible. Postmodern apologist Jean-François Lyotard observed that our great institutions have lost their credibility. Democracy itself is certainly not immune from this penetrating critique. In the new democracy of public opinion, the only appeal with credible density is the appeal to self and the ultimate limit to your opponent’s authority is your right to take offense: “Freedom for me means freedom from you.” To say the least, this is not a very hopeful foundation on which to build a better community.

Civic order requires more selfless engagement and democracy has always maintained an inherent imbalance in this regard: the majority always wins. When outvoted, the collection of offended selves finds the democratic process tyrannical, and the courts often seem fixated on reversing this reality. The law has lost its sting, and you can sense it even when driving our highways. Liberal or conservative, the problem lies in all segments of American society. If the lawmaker is proven unjust, the lawbreaker becomes free to act without restraint. Like the driver who hopes to change lanes, those who still obey the law must make way for those who fearlessly enjoy their freedom from social contracts.

Let us become more intolerant of those who selfishly disregard our contracts, regardless of their age, race, or ideology, including me. A militaristic police state is not the answer, but a citizenry that respect the laws of community—those generated by honest dialectic in a democratic process—will make such policing unnecessary. The sacrifice is honorable and healthy. May we all enjoy the security that comes from the true practice of democracy.


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