Is Democracy Possible?

Robert M. Hutchins

[Reprinted from The Center Magazine (The Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions), January-February 1976]

Sixteen years ago I wrote an essay on this topic that was published in the Saturday Review. The very nice lady who acted for the Review objected strongly to the title. She said it was so shocking that nobody would take the paper seriously. She may have been right. At any rate nobody did take the article seriously. If nobody takes this article seriously, it will not be because of the title. If we look almost anywhere in the world, we find people asking whether democracy is possible and usually giving a negative answer. The dictatorships in Latin America, Africa, and Asia leave the Western world with an almost complete monopoly of self-government. Only Europe and North America make serious claims to democracy as we understand it. The peoples' democracies that burden the Eastern world need not detain us, for they are clearly not within the range of our subject. The difficulties besetting the governments of Europe and North America are serious enough to raise the question whether democracy is possible even when these countries actually have governments democratic in form. Britain, for example, is a democracy, but it is a fair question whether it can escape a temporary interruption of its democratic course. And for ourselves, we have only to remember the narrow escape of Watergate.

Democracy is a system of government by which people rule and are ruled in turn for the good life of the whole. It is a system of self-government. It is government by the consent of the governed, who have consented, among other things, to majority rule. Nothing excludes a system of representation, though a system of full-time politicians and indifferent citizens can hardly be a democracy except in name. The aim of any democracy must be the common good, which is that good which no member of the community would enjoy if he did not belong to the community.

The exact opposite of democracy is government by pressure groups. This is a government under which special interests, by deals and propaganda, endeavor to exploit the community for their own benefit. For example, everybody ought to have a chance to live in a decent environment. Everybody ought to have a chance to live in a decent home. Those who destroy the environment in order to provide homes and those who would preserve the environment by refusing to provide homes are equally guilty of perverting democracy; for they must see that the common good requires both.

A community is of course composed of diverse people with diverse interests. These people become a community through their dedication to the common good. They have to be dedicated to the common good, or there will be no community, and they will lose that good which would accrue to them if they did not belong to it.

Tocqueville remarked that the individual is a defaulted citizen, that democracy fosters individualism, and that individualism first saps the virtues of public life and ends in pure selfishness. Tocqueville said that democracy, by way of individualism, .throws every man "back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart." The citizens of the United States, Tocqueville thought, would escape this fate because our Constitution required us to learn together to seek the common good. We would be forced, he said, by the necessity of cooperating in the management of our free institutions, and by our desire to exercise our political rights, into the habit of attending to the interests of the public. This was, indeed, the hope of the founding fathers.

Tocqueville's expectations have not been fulfilled. The people of the United States are in fact defaulted citizens, with an indifference and even a hostility to government, politics, and law that would have astounded Tocqueville - and the founding fathers. Instead of being a citizen the American individual is a consumer, an object of propaganda, and a statistical unit. In view of the condition of our education, our mass media, and our political parties, the outlook for democracy, the free society, and the political community seems dim.

All the studies the Center has been carrying on have come out at the same place. We are entering a new world, and we are not very well prepared for it.

In 1934 Mr. Chief Justice Hughes said, delivering the opinion of the Court, "The vast body of law which has been developed was unknown to the fathers, but it is believed to have preserved the essential content and spirit of the Constitution.... This is a growth from the seeds the fathers planted."

In this view, the founding fathers meant us to learn. They meant us to learn how to form a more perfect union, to establish justice, to insure domestic tranquillity, to provide for the common defense, to promote the general welfare, and to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. They founded a political community; a community learning together to discover and achieve the common good, the elements of which they set forth, but did not elucidate, in the Preamble. The reliance on us to continue learning is evident in every line of the Constitution and in the brevity of the whole.

The Constitution is to be interpreted, therefore, as a charter of learning. We are to learn how to develop the seeds the fathers planted under the conditions of our own time. This political botany means that nothing we have learned and no process of learning could be unconstitutional. What would be unconstitutional would be limitations or inhibitions on learning.

Learning is a rational process. Law is an ordinance of reason, directed to the common good. If the Constitution is to teach us, and we are to learn under its instruction, the dialogue that goes on about its meaning must be about what is reasonable and unreasonable, right and wrong, just and unjust. The question is not what interests are at stake, not what are the mores of the community, not who has the power or who is the dominant group, not what the courts will do or what the legislature has done, but what is reasonable, right, and just.

What are the prospects of learning?

Not too long ago the Resource Guide for English and the Social Studies for the tenth grade in Pasadena announced: "In the tenth grade, study is concentrated on the growth of democracy, and especially on the form of government which developed. Such a study should be brief and to the point, in order to allow time for the unit on Driver Education."

We have triumphantly invented, perfected, and distributed to the humblest cottage throughout the land one of the greatest technical marvels in history, television, and used it for what? To bring Coney Island into every home. It is as though movable type had been devoted exclusively since Gutenberg's time to the publication of comic books.

William Berkeley, governor of Virginia in the seventeenth century, said, "Thank God there are no free schools or printing, for learning has brought disobedience into the world, and printing has divulged it. God keep us from both." We are combining Berkeley's ideal of no communications at all with the democratic ideal of communications for everybody by having mass communications without content. In the same way it sometimes seems as though we were trying to combine the ideal of no schools at all with the democratic ideal of schools for everybody by having schools without education.

Lincoln once referred to us as the "Almighty's almost chosen people." Whether he meant that the Almighty had given us careful consideration and decided to pass us by, or whether Lincoln was simply being modest, I do not know. He probably meant that the Almighty had provided us with all the materials necessary for us to display a great experiment on a world stage. He was not forcing us to play such a role. But He was giving us a chance to be the last best hope of earth.

If we look at ourselves in this light, as trustees for democracy, the means for which have been lavishly supplied to us, we have not been doing very well by ourselves or others. Domestic and foreign policy appear to be conducted without regard to the democratic history or intentions of our country. Now that the Cold War may be over, foreign policy seems to be carried on in the light of the needs of the munitions makers, the Pentagon, the C.I.A., and the multinational corporations. These corporations must, among other things, be allowed to make enough money to bribe foreign governments, political parties, and purchasing agents. Domestic policy is conducted according Jo one infallible rule: the costs and burdens of whatever is done must be borne by those least able to bear them. What is the price of gasoline to me? To a blue-collar worker who must commute two hours a day - usually because he can't find a home nearer to his job - the coming price of gasoline may have all the charm of a heart attack.

Against the poor, and especially the black and Chicano poor, the forces of what we call the community are massed. Since the poor are a majority of the people, we must say that the political community required by democracy has disappeared and that what we have is what the Athenians called a timocracy, a government by money. We must say also that the political community must be restored. If it isn't, we shall experience a period of disruptive violence the like of which we have not seen since the Civil War.

The procession of corporate executives who have pleaded guilty to violating the laws of this country and who have admitted spending millions on paying off foreigners, suggests, like Watergate, that wealth and college degrees have no connection with morality or with the common good. The power of wealth includes the power to get a college degree. But a college degree provides no assurance that its recipient will have any faint glimmer of the dedication to the common good that democracy demands.

We are without leadership because that dedication is missing - political power is simply power, the object of which can be either good or evil.

Contrast this to Werner Jaeger's description of the consequences for democracy of the conviction of the greatest Greeks that they were the servants of the community. Jaeger says, "In that atmosphere of spiritual liberty, bound by deep knowledge (as if by a divine law) to the service of the community, the Greek creative genius conceived and attained that lofty educational ideal which sets it far above the more superficial artistic and intellectual brilliance of our individualistic civilization." The Athenians did not have much of an educational system. They did not need one. They learned from the City, not merely what it was, but what it ought to be, a political community dedicated to the common good.

So to Abraham Lincoln this was a government not merely of, by, and for the people. It was a government dedicated to a proposition. The proposition was that all men are created equal. This proposition, which we neither understand nor apply, is likely to be the battleground of the future as it was in Lincoln's day. At that time the most conspicuous manifestation of inequality was slavery. Democracy demanded that all men be free; justice made the same demand. Today freedom and justice demand that equality be applied to opportunities for each citizen to achieve his fullest possible development. This means equal educational opportunity. It also means access to the legal system, to the health system, to housing. The political community cannot be restored or maintained unless minorities and the poor are given that equality to which this community was originally dedicated.

The exclusion of minorities and the poor from the political, economic, and social system means that the diversity out of which the community is formed is so restricted that the rich and the majority cannot learn through the community. We should ponder the words of a justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, who said the other day, "A homogeneous community . . . is culturally dead, aside from being downright boring."

Hence the basic theoretical question with which the Center is now dealing is equality in relation to freedom and justice. Take any subject on which we have worked in the last six months: the revision of the federal criminal code; the possibilities of accommodation as against those of litigation; planning; electoral reform; the press, its freedom and its responsibility; the penal system (now called corrections); the community and the schools; the British experience with the privatization of profits and the socialization of losses; growth and the right to housing; and world organization. The central issue has been equality in relation to freedom and justice. These appear to be the central elements of the common good.

Democracy today has all the problems Tocqueville saw in it, but it has them on a world scale. The atrocities of which the C.I.A. has been guilty may not show that democracy is impossible worldwide. But they do show that merely having a democratic form of government is no guarantee that atrocities will not be committed.

We know that freedom, justice, and equality - the common good - must be preserved worldwide because all our problems are world problems. But we have not even begun to think about them as such. Sixteen years ago I was able to say that reality was concealed from us by our current remarkable prosperity, which resulted in part from our new way of getting rich, which was to buy things from one -another that we did not want because of advertising we did not believe at prices we could not pay on terms we could not meet. We know better now. Perhaps we shall learn also that our preoccupation with Russia is also somewhat exaggerated. Russia has played a curious double role in our lives as the devil in our world and as the standard by which we measure our own progress. If we weren't getting ahead of Russia, or falling behind her, how would we tell where we were? History will smile sardonically at the spectacle of this great country getting interested, slightly and temporarily, in education only because of Sputnik, and then being able to act as a nation only by assimilating education to the Cold War and calling an education bill a defense act.

The pursuit of the common good on a world scale presents special difficulties. When nations see something to gain, the pursuit seems bound to fail. The Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions plunged into the oceans eight years ago. What I have principally learned from the resulting studies is that there is no apparent limit to the greed of those who want to exploit the oceans, which used to be called the common heritage of mankind.

Of course we have to keep trying, and we have to see the world situation as it is, and not as this morning's headlines present it. The French historian and philosopher, Etienne Gilson, describes what is actually going on as follows: "The throes of the contemporary world are those of a birth. And what is being born with such great pain is a universal human society. .. . What characterizes the events we witness ... is their global character. . .. The unity of the planet is already accomplished. For reasons economic, industrial, and technical, reasons all linked to the practical applications of science, such a solidarity is established among the peoples of the earth that their vicissitudes are integrated into a universal history of which they are particular moments .. . These peoples are in fact parts of a Humanity .. ., something of which they must now become conscious in order to will it instead of being subject to it, in order to think it, with a view to organizing it."

World order is not, then, something that we can ignore or pay attention to as we choose. It is here, and it will be good or bad depending on whether or not we will it instead of being subject to it, and whether or not we think it, persistently, patiently, in spite of the newspaper headlines, with a view to organizing it.

As we have learned to our sorrow from the Vietnamese and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, things do not always go our way merely because, as Mr. Nixon liked to say, we are the most powerful nation on earth. Power is more complicated than it used to be. We are going to have to learn how to live under unprecedented conditions.

When it comes to learning through the political community, the object is to learn how to be a responsible citizen, enjoying liberty under, law. The freedom of the individual must be protected, but in addition the citizen must grow in responsibility if our country is to become conscious of itself as a part of Humanity and to think Humanity in order to organize it. Individual freedom and liberty under law are not incompatible, and they are both indispensable.

Law is a great teacher. It does not represent that minimum of morality necessary to hold the community together. It stands rather for such moral truth as the community has discovered that can and should be supported by the authority of the community. The conception of law as coercion, or the command of the sovereign, or the expression of power, or what the courts will do leads to the conclusion that it is proper to do anything that nobody can compel you to abstain from doing - or that you can get away with.

Some such misconceptions must have been in the minds of our governmental agencies that have planned crimes against our citizens and against other nations and their leaders. These offenses suggest either that our officials are hypocritical when they talk about the rule of law or that when they use the words "rule of law" they don't know what they are talking about.

The principles of world law are the principles of thinking Humanity in order to organize it. I think they will be found to be the principles embodied in the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States.

We must revive, reconstruct, and learn to operate the political community in the United States because the task we confront on our two-hundredth anniversary is nothing less than the organization of the world political community. We have thought that we have had hold of some truths that would mean something in the universal history of mankind. The founding fathers rightly believed that the truths in which America was conceived would stir the aspirations of all men everywhere. And so they did until it began to look as though we were losing our grip on our original ideas and ideals.

If today we are called on to exemplify these truths, we have to keep our hold on them. We have to keep learning them. We have to learn all they can imply for today and tomorrow. Only if we can do this is democracy possible. Meanwhile, the proposition to which the Declaration of Independence and Lincoln dedicated us now extends to the whole world. Once more, on a new scale, Americans have the duty of forming a more perfect union, which will involve establishing justice, promoting the general welfare, and securing the blessings of liberty to ourselves and all the people of the earth.