Democracy is the Rare Exception in World History

A note from Mr. Becker while he’s on the other side of the world watching the Presidential election from afar. 

Dear Gunnery Community,

I hope and trust that this finds you well. Today’s election has stirred a lot of thinking, discussion, and debate on our campus, throughout the United States, and around the world. It is strange for me to be away from school, home, and the U.S. on the eve of such a memorable moment. As such, I wanted to send this reflection.

Most of all, students, I want to emphasize that in this election cycle you’ve seen American democracy at its worst. It doesn’t have to be this way. But it will remain this way unless you decide to do something about it. While elections will always be a spectacle of some sort, they do not have to be blood sport. Ideally, an election should be an open discussion and debate about ideas, policy, leadership, the future, and history (I’ve included a couple of resources toward the end of this letter that relate to this). Instead, at least for this election, it’s come to look more and more like a football game or a boxing match. While that’s entertaining and good for ratings, it isn’t good. But the media will feed us whatever will keep us interested so we have no one to blame but ourselves—not even the major party candidates. I can’t recall who said this first, but democracies get the candidates they deserve. Both conservatives and liberals who are surprised that the populism and rhetoric, hate-filled and otherwise, of various candidates (not just Trump and Clinton but also Sanders and others) resonate with millions of Americans need to get over their surprise and find ways to engage them with a more positive, constructive message. Easier said than done, I know, but I think this will be an important theme of American politics for the next ten to twenty years, at least.

It’s also important to remember that it’s possible to be either liberal or conservative without defending the Democratic or Republican candidates. I fear that even some of our discussions on campus have devolved into attempts to defend people—candidates—rather than evolving as attempts to understand liberal or conservative ideas—where they’ve come from, the premises on which they rest, and the policies that result from them—and to try to convince each other to adopt them. As a result, we know a lot more about two polarizing people and less about what we actually believe is best for government and the demos—the people government is for and is supposed to represent. If I have one hope for our discussions on campus, beyond just that we would continue to have them on a variety of important topics, it is that we would collectively develop a better understanding of the roots of liberal and conservative ideas, their traditions and sources, the ways they’ve changed over time, and—this is the trickier part—their relative merits. This is only possible if we find ways to do this both inside and outside of the classroom and in ways that represent the best of all parts of the spectrum of ideas.

Finally, I want to ask all of you to consider ahead of time how you will respond once the results of the election are in. Just as it’s a problem that much of this election has been conducted—by the candidates, the media, and the electorate—as if it’s a football contest and not the exercise of a precious privilege of American democracy, the proper response to victory is not the type of celebration that follows a touchdown. We have to hold ourselves to a higher standard than what media—traditional, social, and otherwise—has set for us. This, as with every American election, is an opportunity for sober reflection upon the fact that democracy is the rare exception in world history. The peaceful transition of elected power was a relatively revolutionary idea in the late 18th century. As Lin Manuel Miranda’s King George sings in Hamilton after learning that George Washington will not run for a third term,

They say
George Washington’s yielding his power and stepping away
‘Zat true?
I wasn’t aware that was something a person could do
I’m perplexed
Are they gonna keep on replacing whoever’s in charge?

While democracy has become more common in the two hundred and thirty years since America’s founding, it is not inevitable. Moreover, almost by definition, especially in elections for the U.S. President, close to half of the country will be disappointed (and, this year, disappointed is an understatement) with the result. The future of the U.S. depends on what we used to call “civil society” and a belief in and commitment to the “common good.” These are ideas that we need to return to—including the word “civil.” That’s a long way of me asking you to be civil to one another on Tuesday night, Wednesday, and the days that follow.

I am including three resources related to the election for those who want and can give time to them. First, a link to an article by two well known social psychologists on how Americans can heal the wounds created by this election (“A Truce For Our Tribal Politics”). It puts a lot of things in context. Second, a link to a discussion between E.J. Dionne (a moderate liberal) and David Brooks (a moderate conservative) that puts electoral politics, especially this year, into perspective. Finally, pasted below, excerpts from a 1990 article in Harper’s magazine by the historian Christopher Lasch, “The Lost Art of Political Argument”. 1990 feels like ancient history to most of you students but it actually wasn’t so long ago. Lasch’s comments about the requirements of public debate and reason may help us chart a way forward, starting with discussions on our campus. As I reread/listen to them, the similarities and overlaps between the three pieces are striking.

Thank you for letting me go on (if you’re still reading). I’m sorry not to be with you but look forward to seeing you at the end of the week. In the meantime, be well and enjoy life together.

Peter/Mr. Becker

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