Democracy Ain’t Easy

“The Libertarian cause from the time it first attracted wider support during the southern schools crisis, was never really about freedom as most people would define it. It was about the promotion of crippling division among the people so as to end any interference with what those who held vast power over others believed should be their prerogatives. Its leaders had no scruples about enlisting white supremacy to achieve capital supremacy,. And today, knowing that the majority does not share their goals and would stop them if they understood the endgame, the team of paid operatives seeks to win by stealth. Now, as then, the leaders seek (John) Calhoun-style liberty for the few – the liberty to concentrate vast wealth, so as to deny elementary fairness to the many.”

These words are the conclusion of Nancy MacLean’s history of the radical right’s design to overtake personal liberty and redefine democracy for only the wealthy. The book is called Democracy in Chains and describes the work of Dr. James McGill Buchanan, a political economist charged by wealthy Virginians to create a legal framework for keeping Virginia schools segregated after the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1955. Buchanan was the founder of the Thomas Jefferson Center for Political Economy and Social Philosophy at the University of Virginia. Its mission statement held up the principle of Liberty, as defined by laissez-faire libertarian thought, over Security, as defined by the molders of Roosevelt’s New Deal. Its vision was to train a new school of social philosophers to provide a theoretical foundation for the establishment of a colonial Virginia style oligarchy.

Buchanan and his cohorts developed a school of thought called Public Choice theory. It proposed to study the motivations behind the choices that are made by public officials. At UVA they formed the Public Choice Society which attracted a range of scholars. In his journal Dr. Buchanan wrote that it “takes the right wing onus off of us, and it establishes our claim to scholarship, so to speak.” To further substantiate that this was no far-right movement of radical economists, Buchanan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1986. It’s no wonder that Reagan conservatives latched on to his thinking.

How are they doing? What we are experiencing today is not some shallow political campaign to win elections, this is a deep-rooted belief that men of substance are the only ones rightly qualified to lead the nation. Public Choice theory leads to the inevitable conclusion that the desires of the masses can only be met by the leadership of wealthy, powerful people in both industry and government. It is not the “liberty and justice for all” that many of us hold as our social vision.

I’m always suspicious of conspiracy theories. I suspect the reason so many are being pushed through social media is so the real conspiracy will be overlooked in the flotsam. But this deep philosophical approach to defining democracy for the wealthy few relies upon the politics of fear. It relies on pitting our people against each other with impassioned social movements; it relies on undermining our faith in a democratic system that relies on the good will and integrity of poll workers; it relies on pitting communities of citizens against each other. Without too much difficulty, we can trace movements such as the Tea Party, anti-abortion, and the Prosperity Gospel back to this fundamental social philosophy. Fear is the power that divides us and those with great wealth depend upon it to retain their power. This is not unique to our times.

Nor is it unique to one side of the aisle. I am, in fact, using fear right now to get your attention and to mold your listening to my message. Fear is one of the two driving emotions in our lives. Love is the other one. Fear manifests itself in other emotions that we have:

hate is driven by a fear for safety
envy is driven by a fear of being excluded
greed is driven by a fear of want
lethargy may be driven by a fear of failure.

Fear is the power that divides us, that separates us from each other. In the wilderness, separation can be good if you are being eyed by a predator. But we humans have overcome the wilderness by coming together in community. We gather for mutual safety, knowing that people working in coordinated effort can overcome common danger. Safety is just one way that communities serve the common good.

Let’s spend some time considering what that is – the common good.

In 2004 the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace wrote: No expression of social life – from the family to intermediate social groups, associations, enterprises of an economic nature, cities, regions, States, up to the community of peoples and nations – can escape the issue of its own common good, in that this is … the authentic reason for its very existence.

Antonia Argondoña, Chair of Corporate Social Responsibilty and Corporate Governance at the IESE School of Business at the University of Navarra in Barcelona, Spain describes three types of goods:Extrinsic goods are external to a person. They include not only the material goods of our lives but also some intangible goods like the recognition and approval of colleagues. Intrinsic goods are internal to a person. They include personal job satisfaction, acquisition of knowledge and new capabilities, and interactions with other people. Transcendent goods are goods that a person pursues for the benefit of other people, for the purpose of building appropriate relationships.

It would be simple enough to put these goods into a needs-like hierarchy and say that one must acquire extrinsic goods before intrinsic goods can be attained. And intrinsic goods must be gotten before transcendent goods can be offered. In other words, the accumulation of material goods inspires the growth of self-satisfaction. And self-satisfaction must be fulfilled before we offer satisfaction to others. The truth, I believe, is more subtle than that.

In times of starvation and deprivation, people will seek transcendent goods by sharing what little extrinsic goods they have. Study and skill training engaged in for the pursuit of extrinsic goods may very well lead one to find transcendent goods. The meaning of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” becomes much more profound when we recognize that good people have enriched our own lives with both extrinsic and intrinsic goods.

With the rise of any community must inevitably come the rise of government. There must be a way to maintain harmony within the community and to respond to threats from outside the community. The natural hierarchy of the family dominated our governance systems for millennia. While the women nurtured and protected the children, the men would protect the boundaries of the communities land. Usually a dominant male would take on the primary decision-making role in order to make expedient decisions. A beneficent leader was honored and adored, an abusive leader was killed and replaced. So it went, so long as the geography of the community was well defined, it could be adequately defended.

This system persisted through the development of nations and empires. So long as leaders provided extrinsic goods (think of the Roman’s who tempered the population with bread and circus), citizens could develop a culture of intrinsic goods. Of course, the transcendent goods were reserved for the emperor as the one favored by the gods.

The model of the single ruler didn’t always satisfy the intrinsic goods of the citizens. In Athens and Rome, the democratic form of government arose as an alternative to the one powerful ruler. What’s important to note is that these democratic republics never asserted that the masses of people should be considered as equal and allowed to vote.

The American experiment with democracy differed. After shunning the oppression of a single ruler, the American aristocrats enticed us through the centuries with that one phrase – “All men are created equal.” Of course, in the beginning it meant all white men of property. Over time, however, the universality of the phrase has become the call sign of the American democratic form of government. “All men” transformed into all people, including women, those formerly enslaved and suppressed, those who immigrate from other nations. A fundamental ethic of our public spirit, if not our public face, has been the inherent equality of all persons. “We the people” means everyone, regardless of gender, race, or station. (We’ll hold the conversation about convicted felons for another time.) It affirms the theological notion that we are all children of God, all created from the same stardust. That underneath the layers of identity we harbor, we are of the same soul.

It is incumbent upon our democratic form of government to protect the common good. The common good being the extrinsic, intrinsic and transcendent goods that serve our community as a whole, not just a select group of individuals. Democracy in its finest form gives expression to a common spirit made up of the cumulative thoughts, feelings, and ideas of its constituents. A common spirit that embraces common good and provides a fundamental way of life for all citizens. It is a spirit we expect our elected representatives to reflect in the larger community.

Common good has been replaced by an albatross around our collective neck. The ideal of personal liberty and personal responsibility has been so loudly expressed in recent years that the ideal of community has diminished. Personal liberty has been perverted to mean that every problem I experience is my own and I must solve it without the help of others, or I am a bad person. This message has been repeated over and over by the Libertarian media megaphone that I am ashamed to acknowledge I even have a problem. So many social problems could be resolved if we knew that we could seek help without shame.

At least, that is how it sounds in national and social media. In my work as a hospice chaplain, I discover a different world. I discover that when people come together over a common problem, such as a dying loved one, regardless of their social and political stands, those meta-conversations are less important than the issue at hand. There was a group of young UU’s who traveled to Biloxi MS after Hurricane Katrina to assist in the cleanup. The only available quarters were in the parish hall of an Episcopal church. The church was lead by a senior minister and his junior assistant. The junior assistant engaged the youth in conversation and was later overheard speaking to his senior. “Those children don’t believe that Jesus died for their sins. Some of them don’t even believe in God! What are they doing here?” The senior minister responded patiently, “They’re helping.”

In the First Epistle of John appear these words, “There is no fear in love, perfect love casts out fear.” Love is the other fundamental emotion that drives us as humans. Love is the power that brings us together. Love is instinctive in newborn infants as they seek to bond with a primary adult, usually the mother. Love brings us together in intimacy, love brings us together in family, love brings us together in community. Every religion that has ever been sustained in human civilization has been founded on love. We come together here to worship in love. The love of serving others, an act which brings us together, builds bonds between us. When we come together in some activity, if that activity is to have any value it must ultimately serve the common good.

As I bring this to a close I want to lift up one more point. The importance of the common good in the upcoming election is utmost. The soul of our democracy depends upon it. Voter suppression, partisan court packing, innumerable voting challenges … all of these will be employed so that the voice of the people will not be realized and the common spirit will not be represented. I urge you to engage in getting people out to vote. Start up a GOTV campaign here. Partner with local organizations to ensure that every qualified citizen is registered, has correct identification, and access to the polls. The far right knows that the only power that can stop them is the power of numbers at the polls. The Wisconsin UU State Action Network is partnering with UU the Vote nationally and WISDOM on the state level to make resources available to you on the local level for phone-banking, text banking, letter and postcard writing, and neighborhood canvassing. But the work has to be done one-to-one, person to person, soul to soul. As Parker Palmer says, we have to break open our hearts to engage the participation of those seek a better community.

Our fifth principle affirms the right of conscience and the use of democratic process in our governance. We believe that democracy requires that all participate and that all be heard. We know the power of speaking out when some in our communities are excluded from the process. We know the power of working together with other communities to achieve the liberation of all souls in service to the common good. Each of us has a voice, and we know that sometimes it is the lone voice that can redirect us when we stray from our path. In all of this, we know that it is in the transcendent good of human relationship that we will each find our freedom.

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