In his final essay, published on Thursday in The New York Times, Rep. John Lewis of Georgia offered welcome words of encouragement and wisdom for everyone protesting discrimination and injustice. He also made a crucial point about our political system, one that bears repeating as we face powerful threats to self-government and the rule of law.
“Democracy is not a state,” Lewis wrote. “It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.”
Americans have lived with democratic institutions for so long that it’s become easy to think of democracy as something that is defined and embodied by those institutions. But the Constitution and Congress and elections and courts aren’t democracy themselves as much as they’re instruments for its realization. Democracy itself is something larger and more expansive; it is an ethic, a way of living and, as Lewis wrote, an act, something that you must do in order to summon it into existence.
I am reminded, by all of this, of John Dewey, the American philosopher and psychologist who devoted his long career to the explication of life in a modern industrial democracy and its implications for a wide range of social and political activity.
In “The Ethics of Democracy,” an 1888 essay written while he was teaching at the University of Michigan, Dewey described his expansive vision of democracy. Against contemporary skeptics who saw democracy as little more than simple majority rule by ignorant, isolated individuals, he argued that we should understand democracy as “a form of moral and spiritual association” that takes “personality” — meaning individual potential — as its “first and final reality.” Democracy recognizes the “infinite and universal possibility” within each person and seeks to foster its expression, not for “mere self-assertion” or “unregulated” desire but for “an individualism of freedom, of responsibility, of initiative to and for the ethical ideal.”
For Dewey, democracy was an ethical project for individual and collective flourishing. And a democratic society was one where each person could develop their “distinctive capacities” to the fullest and then use them for the sake of their communities.
Of course, Dewey knew that American democracy was far from this ideal. And to the extent that the United States could be an example to the world, it was only if it demonstrated progress toward “securing and maintaining an ever-increasing release of the powers of human nature, in service of a freedom which is cooperative and a cooperation which is voluntary.”
The only way to make this happen, Dewey argued, was to live this democratic belief in the “potentialities of every human being” and work to “provide the conditions that will enable these potentialities to come to realization.” Decades later, in 1941, as the world battled fascism, Dewey wrote that democracy “is a faith which becomes sentimental when it is not put systematically into practice every day in all the relationships of living.”
The reason to connect Lewis to Dewey is to highlight and emphasize this idea of democracy as a social and ethical commitment, something that cannot be limited to the ballot box, something that must be lived and practiced in all spheres of life. Marching, speaking, deliberating, educating, persuading — these are just some of the actions that help make democracy real. They’re also the tools we’ll need to defend democracy against the looming threat of autocracy.
Just a few hours before Lewis’ funeral in Atlanta, President Donald Trump denounced mail-in voting, in one of his now regular attempts to delegitimize the upcoming election. He also raised the idea of pushing the election back, to another date. “With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history,” he wrote on Twitter. “It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote??”
There’s no legal way the president can delay or postpone the election. Its date is set by state and federal law and moving it would require a herculean political effort. Trump lacks the patience or capacity to coordinate. But that doesn’t mean his language isn’t dangerous. Trump is sowing chaos. He’s undermining public faith in the election process and building a constituency of supporters who will treat any result short of his reelection as evidence of fraud and misconduct. And he’s been backed thus far by an attorney general who repeats his false claims and gives ominously conditional answers to questions about honoring the democratic process. Asked during a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday what he would do if Trump loses the election but refuses to concede, Bill Barr answered “If the results are clear I would leave office,” a response that leaves open the possibility of unclear results and a contested outcome.
It’s fair to say that over the last 3 1/2 years our democratic “norms” have done little to restrain Trump’s most corrupt and authoritarian instincts. Our “checks and balances” have proven inadequate in the face of a president who sees the Constitution as merely a few pieces of paper. As we’ve seen with child separation on the border or secretive federal police in Portland, Oregon, Trump has tried to extend and expand his authority as much as he can, daring the political system to stop him each time.
But while many of our institutions have not been up to the task of confronting Trump, our democracy, meaning individuals and communities and civil society, has. Protest put Trump on the defensive in the days after he took office; protest drew attention to his abuses at the border; and protest over the last three months has helped galvanized many millions more against him. If Trump is defeated, and if he does leave office, it will be because Americans understood, and took seriously, the idea that democracy is a way of living as much as it is a form of government, that it is, as Lewis told us, an act and not a state.
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