As the year comes to an end, E.J. Dionne writes a meditation on Democracy. He starts with first principles:
In embracing democracy, as the historian James Kloppenberg has written, we are standing up for three contested principles: popular sovereignty, autonomy and equality. We are also embracing three premises: deliberation, pluralism and reciprocity.
Certain things follow from those three premises. We rarely think of those premises and what they entail. Dionne gets down to specifics:
A devotion to democracy thus ought to affect how we treat others. We often have to deal with hierarchies, but we should never internalize them. Those at the bottom of formal authority structures see things and know things that cannot be seen from on high. We should, as Pope Francis has said, seek the wisdom available only on the peripheries. We learn from experience — and from the news — that the distributions of virtue, compassion and judgment are not correlated with the distributions of power and wealth.
Democracy, finally, is rooted in two intuitions, about our aspirations to transcendence, which allow us to imagine a better world, and about our proclivities to sin and failure, which require limits on the power any of us can wield. Thus Reinhold Niebuhr’s aphorism: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”
Dionne -- who is a practising Catholic -- speaks in religious terms. However, he does not transform democracy into a religion. And he warns that when elites control the levers of power, democracy is in danger:
Something to think about as the old year ends and a new one begins.