HAYDEN HOLLINGSWORTH: Does Our Democracy Work?

Hayden Hollingsworth

“The thing about democracy, beloveds, is that it is not neat, orderly, or quiet.  It requires a certain relish for confusion.”  So said the late (and great) Molly Irvins of The Fort Worth Star-Telegram in her book You Got to Dance with Them What Brung You.”

Were she alive today she might change “confusion” to “chaos.”  There is certainly enough of that to confound even the most sanguine among us.

We are, by the reckoning of some, the longest surviving democracy in the history of governments but there is an alarming amount of evidence that it is unraveling with a heretofore unprecedented pace.  The current state of affairs seems so fraught with angst that it is easy to fall into a state of despair.  To let that become the default of the citizenry cannot be allowed to happen.

A seminal book by Parker Palmer, a sociologist, entitled Healing the Heart of Democracy was published in 2011 and met with great acclaim.  The subtitle, The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, gives an inkling of inspiration in trying to right the badly listing ship of state

One of the central points Palmer puts forth seems undeniably true:  We are not listening to one another.  If someone does not agree with a point of view, rather than listening carefully to see if there is the possibility of compromise, the rhetoric is ramped up to emphasize the previously proffered opinion.  That seems to be true in conversation between individuals of opposing philosophies and it certainly is true in the realm of politics.

Rather than take ownership of the paralysis that affects conflicting views, we frequently tend to blame “them.”  More often than not “them” turns out to be elected officials.  Certainly they are not without guilt, but the Constitution puts a different light on it.  The opening statement, “We the People. . . .” sets the stage on which citizens should be the primary players.  If the heart failure of democracy is to be corrected it will take a paradigm shift in the way we think, in the actions, and in the beliefs of ordinary people.

If that should happen, then “they” might be transformed into “us.”

In 1831 Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman, visited the United States and published a remarkable book, Democracy in America.  He predicted that democracy would fail if generation after generation of citizens did not develop what he called “habits of the heart.”

Palmer offers eight points that might facilitate such growth.  If We the People are to develop habits of the heart we need to expand our civic capacities in the following ways:

To listen to each other openly and without fear, learning how much we have in common despite our differences.

To deepen our empathy for the alien “other” as we enter imaginatively into the experience of people whose lives are radically unlike ours.

To hold what we believe and know with conviction and be willing to listen openly to differing views.

To seek alternative facts and explanations when we have reason to doubt our own truths or the claims of others, thus becoming better informed.

To probe, question, explore, and engage in dialogue.

To enter the conflicted arena of politics and develop a more three-dimensional view of the reality of the process.

To welcome the opportunities of collective problem solving.

To feel more at home on the face of the earth amid the differences of many sorts, better able to enjoy the fruits of diversity.

It would seem obvious given the events of recent history that such a revision in the hearts and minds of “We the People” offers the best, and perhaps the only hope for keeping the fabric of our democratic clothing in wearable condition.

Hayden Hollingsworth

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