Sacred Democracy-Democracy: a Work in Progress

by: Posted on: October 08, 2013

Editor’s Note: In Philip Damon’s sixth Sacred Democracy column he provides an antidote to the mainstream media’s high-frequency buzz. For links to Phil’s previous columns visit his contributor page by clicking here.


Whenever election cycles come round at various levels of government, as well as popular initiatives on particular matters of urgency, opportunities arise to observe and to assess the state of democracy in our nation. Of course, it is the ongoing thesis of this line of columns that our democracy is an evolutionary work in progress that is far from fully realized, institutionally or among its citizenry. Thus, given that any work in progress is invariably a steps forward and a steps backward proposition, it mustn’t be any different for our own ballyhooed system of government—or its promise of the blessings of liberty and justice for all. Nor should there be any shame in that either. It is a process after all.

Indeed the primary shame with most works in progress, which are often in pursuit of an ideal of some kind, lies in the premature assumption that the ideal has been already achieved. And with the loftiest goals, such a presumption is often made at the very onset of the process. That is to say, the noble intention itself (or a high-minded structure that is established toward its enactment—say, a “constitution”) may be all it takes for a project to be declared a success. Furthermore, when it comes to our own republic, and the clash of opinions one often hears regarding whether it’s truly a democracy or whether it isn’t, the fact that it’s a work in progress is rarely ever taken into consideration. By either side.

Which makes the proposition worth considering that the shame in America’s case doesn’t rest on the flaws in its evolving democracy, but on the arguers themselves—and the contentious ideological camps they stand for. Therefore on the one hand one could say shame on those who become hushed and reverent over the “founding fathers,” who like the prophets of old were channeling the original founding father when presenting the U.S. Constitution to their emergent nation as if it were etched in stone. While on the other hand one could say shame on those who categorically dismiss the intentions of the male, land-owning slave-owners as the one-percenters of their day, who secretly weighted that very same Constitution in favor of commerce and contracts so that it could be read by the courts of the future to favor the rights of the rich and the powerful just like themselves.

Certainly much truth can be found on both sides of this useful debate, which tells me that either side—if cleaved to as gospel—is just as flawed as any work in progress. Because not only should a work in progress be presumed to be flawed, but the designers who’ve set that work in progress (however noble their intentions) must be so as well. Any work in progress is first and foremost an experiment, and as such must be learned from as it progresses. It may even be said that it is the learning that the experiment is truly about. Otherwise, without assuming the need for corrections, wherein lies the hope for progress? And looked at from this perspective, each step backward is needed for any to be forward.

According to the core wisdom of the sacred traditions, all of us as individuals are works in progress, which is to say experiments in the human possibility—which is true as well of the governing institutions we find ourselves a part of, whether they be democratic or autocratic. Yet while the blessings of privilege come with the former (as flawed as any democracy may be), there comes with those same blessings a solemn responsibility that is arguably greater than can reasonably be expected of a citizen (if that’s the proper term) of the latter. It is one thing, after all, to crave liberty and justice under tyrannical conditions, while it is another thing to enjoy those blessings when they are not available to all, which has been ever more increasingly the case in our own democracy over the past forty years.

The runaway increase in American inequality has been extensively documented and is easily Googled, which serves graphically to remind us that it is yet another thing to leverage the privileges of democracy with intent to deny anyone or any group a fair and equal access to the blessings of liberty and justice. Thus and naturally, this brings us back to the question of elections and popular initiatives in the current state of our democracy.

These institutions of suffrage are considered to be the cornerstones of a system of governance that served to buttress our moral standing in the world for over two centuries. Nonetheless, in the first entry of this thread of columns (“The Moral Blueprint”) I raised the question of whether the electoral privilege is itself sufficient to label a society a living democracy. Perhaps a qualitative criterion would be called for as well, I offered, meaning a certain attitude of amity and fairness for all in the hearts of the voters, not to mention in the minds of the keepers of the culture in all three branches of our government. Checks and balances, in other words, ought to be put to use fairly in the service of all, and not on behalf of those who’ve leveraged the privileges of the system unfairly in their own favor.

But upon closer inspection of the state of our electoral system—or even the most superficial of inspections—can this be said to be the case? Well, we know that across the country legislative districts have been unapologetically gerrymandered in order to give a particular political party an unfair advantage in congressional elections. We know that qualifications have been altered to disqualify or severely inconvenience elders, students, and minority voters—and this has been further enabled since the Supreme Court decided that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was no longer needed. We know the use of e-voting machines (DREs), which are corporately owned, has been challenged for their vulnerability to hacking and fraud without any means of verification. And we know that since the Court’s “Citizen United” decision, corporations are not only “people” but their money is “speech” and they are free to lavish as much of it as they choose and without disclosure on candidates of their choice. I’m sure that I’m omitting other forms of undue leverage of power and influence. Yet for these reasons alone, our hallowed institution of suffrage bears a closer and closer resemblance to those fledgling nations requiring teams of inspectors from the U.N. and our own country (say Jimmy Carter?) to deem them fair.

And when it comes to citizens’ initiatives—like the current I-522 in our own state of Washington regarding the simple labeling of the contents in our food—it is the money of Monsanto and Dow that threatens to carry the day with ads that make it sound like the villains in the story are those who would prefer to know if what they are eating has been genetically altered. (Just as they did in California a year ago, these companies who not so quietly are acquiring the patents to the seeds of all things that grow on the planet.) While in the meantime, where are the agencies entrusted with the interests of liberty and justice for all? Many of their regulators once worked for those very same corporations. Or will.

But didn’t I say democracy is a steps forward, steps backward process? A familiar catch-phrase of the mystical traditions is one that goes “As above, so below.” In future entries I’ll have more to say on the subtle resonance between the evolutionary scientists who have staked their claims on the exclusively material nature of reality (biological in particular) and those now contending there is a qualitative purpose to reality that propels nature (spiritual in particular) toward higher and increasingly more complex states of consciousness. For the time being, though, can’t we just entertain the idea that the spirit of democracy may be something like an evolutionary spark in human consciousness? If anything, its values would seem to qualify as ideals of a higher nature. And the growing emphasis on ideals of fairness in recent centuries seems to have paralleled a democratic momentum—its many fits and starts notwithstanding. So even if much is yet to be done institutionally, mightn’t each of us have an added incentive to aspire to those lofty ideals?


Photo: Read the Dirt

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