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Thoughts on American Democracy

Good afternoon.

I would like to thank the Taxpayers’ Association for the opportunity to discuss a few thoughts about American democracy.

I’m going to begin with a long prologue.

Some of you may remember a talk I gave before the Taxpayers’ when I served on the Constitution Revision Commission.

I noted that in his work, “The Tempting of America”, Robert Bork makes an important point. He states: “Many judges and Justices come to their duties with no particular philosophy of judging in mind.”  He notes that “most jurists have no particular philosophy before becoming a judge, and that once a judge they are too busy to develop one…. A judge works with whatever intellectual capital he accumulated before coming to the bench…”

When I was first elected to the Vero Beach City Council, I realized within months, both that I did not have a defined political philosophy and that one might be useful. I then began work to develop one that I thought would be consistent with my core beliefs and those of our community. What I came to was one centered around Liberty and Limited Government.

The thrust of the political philosophy I developed was not new, but was consistent with the American Founding and in one line, it is that the great mission of American Conservatism is to secure the conditions necessary for Liberty to flourish.

One of the works I read while developing this political philosophy was Ben Wilson’s, “What Price Liberty?” In it he states: “The great tragedy of modern times is how the notion of liberty has disappeared from our culture, and “as a society, we [have] lost the means to talk about liberty”. I’ll note that Wilson is British and he is talking specifically about liberty in Britain, but when he stated, “Liberty must be relearnt and rethought continuously… if we are to preserve it”, he sounded very much like Ronald Reagan when Reagan warned, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.”

A few months ago, I read James Kloppenberg’s, “Toward Democracy”, a very good overview of the history and development of democracy in the countries of the North Atlantic.

As I was reading Kloppenberg’s book, the obvious was made clear. Democracy is important in America, but I realized that I basically never discuss it, nor, with the exception of people debating whether we are a republic or a democracy, do I hear it ever being discussed.

Since reading “Toward Democracy”, we have begun the impeachment of our President. Both sides of the political aisle seem unable to engage in intelligent conversation. The need to win is all. Socialism, which has destroyed democracy almost everywhere it has been tried, is ascendant in American politics.

It seems to me, that now would be a good time for Americans to seriously discuss the meaning of Democracy in America.

What is a democracy? For today we can keep it very simple. Aristotle talks about three types of government, the government of the one, the few and the many. A democracy is a rule of the many, whether it is a participatory government with limited suffrage like that of Athens or the Representative Democracy of America today with its much broader, near universal suffrage.

A good place to begin a conversation about democracy is with Kloppenberg’s introduction, where he discusses three principles and three premises, which he finds to be at the heart of democratic systems.

The three principles are probably familiar to all of us here today, Popular sovereignty, autonomy and equality. The three underlying premises are deliberation, pluralism and reciprocity.

Starting with the three principles:

  1. Popular Sovereignty “holds that the will of the people is the sole source of legitimate authority”. Basically, majority rules.

  2. Autonomy is the second principle of democracy. Autonomy means self-rule. There are two important aspects to self-rule or autonomy. The first, is rule over oneself. “Autonomous individuals are in control of themselves, …they are sovereign masters of their wills …and not dependent on the wills of others.” In the words of James Madison: “We have staked our future on the ability of each of us to govern ourselves….” Second, self-rule or autonomy requires that the individual can play a meaningful role in the government of the community, at a minimum the ability to vote in meaningful elections.

  3. Equality is the third principle of democracy. Today it certainly means different things to different people, especially if one of those people is a progressive and the other a conservative. For purposes here, we will take our cue from the Declaration of Independence and assert that it is fundamental to American Democracy that we start with the belief that “all men are created equal”. At a minimum all citizens have a right to equality of opportunity. We all have an equal right to have a flourishing life in America.

Clearly the three principles can conflict, and in American history they certainly have, but as we will see below, at least some of the conflicts can be reconciled.

From Kloppenberg’s study of the history of democracies in the North Atlantic he draws three distinct premises, which he calls “the underlying pillars on which modern North Atlantic democracy stands.”

  1. The first premise is the necessity of deliberation. This premise recognizes that truth, for many reasons, is hard to come by. In a democracy we have to accept that we will all not agree on the truth, or the best path forward, or the right thing to do in most cases. As Kloppenberg states: “Only when all citizens broaden their perspectives sufficiently to weigh well, or to consider seriously, the views of others who disagree with them is democratic deliberation possible. In the history of Philosophy, the most famous method of deliberation is Socrates’ dialectic. Here two or more people have a conversation, with at least one participant asking a lot of questions. Socrates was famous for going around Athens talking to almost anyone who would respond, usually asking questions like: What is piety?”, “What is friendship?” and “What is justice?” His goal was to get at the truth of the matter.

  2. The second premise concerns pluralism and comes naturally from the principles of autonomy and equality. It recognizes that if we are all to practice self-government and have a right to have a flourishing life of our own choosing, there will be many views as to how life should be lived. Pluralism asserts the need to respect that the views of others may not agree with our own.

  3. The third premise is the ethic of reciprocity. This premise contains in it the idea of treating others as you would be treated. Members of a democracy should have respect for one another.

We now have three basic principles, popular sovereignty, autonomy and equality and three underlying premises, deliberation, pluralism and reciprocity.

Right off the bat, any member of the Taxpayers’ Association might ask, “What about Liberty?”

While not central to all North Atlantic democracies, Liberty is central to America’s democracy. America’s was a conservative revolution meant to preserve the colonists Liberties as British subjects. The Sons of Liberty were among the first to organize the fight to secure these liberties. The pamphlets written prior to the revolution were filled with references to Liberty.

The Declaration of Independence states that “Life, Liberty and Happiness” are among the rights that “Governments are instituted among Men” to secure. The larger part of the Declaration lists the liberties stepped on by George III, which led to the revolution and the founding of America. The preamble of The Constitution of the United States of America lists as one of the six reasons for its establishment the desire to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity” and the bulk of the first ten amendments deal with many of the specific Liberties meant to be secured for the founders and their posterity.

When discussing equality, Kloppenberg states: “There is nevertheless an inevitable contradiction between the principle of equality and the democratic commitment to majority rule,” that is, popular sovereignty.

With democracies generally this may be so, but not with American democracy. American democracy is different and not always well understood.

A great example demonstrating how an apparent contradiction between popular sovereignty and equality melts away once the American founding is properly understood can be drawn from a letter to the editor written right before the Great Recession during the last building boom.

An Indian County resident wrote: “If enough people can form a community of their liking, i.e. middle- to high middle-class and above, so be it. That is freedom.”

What the writer expressed was the principle of popular sovereignty “that the will of the people is the sole source of legitimate authority”, that in a democracy, the majority rules. And that if the majority of the community wanted to use the zoning rules to keep the poorest half of American citizens out of the County, then that was fine: “That is freedom”.

It is not freedom in America.

And this is not my opinion, it is a fact of American history. We engaged in “a great civil war” to determine whether our “nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” was serious, that is, whether America actually meant it when she said in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal”.

What the letter writer says is that the majority of the community, determines the laws of the community, simply, majority rules. This is Stephen Douglas’s “Popular Sovereignty Doctrine”, basically “Unrestrained majoritarianism”. According to Douglas, his view of Popular Sovereignty was the basis of American democracy. Abraham Lincoln disagreed. Lincoln maintained that popular sovereignty was constrained by the rights proclaimed by the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln drew a moral line, arguing that slavery was a violation of the natural law expressed in the principles of the Declaration of Independence.

Unrestrained Popular Sovereignty vs. majoritarianism constrained by moral law was the subject of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, which Harry Jaffa has called “a dialectical preview of the Civil War.” Douglas and popular sovereignty versus Lincoln with the belief that the constitution was established to secure the rights proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence.

The Lincoln-Douglas debates is America’s greatest use of the dialectic. It was a series of seven debates over almost 2 months in the summer-fall of 1858, which took place throughout Illinois. Each debate lasted over three hours. Within days, each debate was transcribed and published in newspapers across America.

Lincoln won the debates and the north won the Civil War. In America, the majority, subject to the higher moral law embodied in our Founding documents, rules.

In America, equality trumps, popular sovereignty. This fact does not diminish popular sovereignty and American Democracy. I believe that it enhances American democracy in that when popular sovereignty, the will of the majority is constrained by the higher moral laws, it strengthens the equality of all American citizens and acts as a check on a democracy slipping into a mobocracy.

The final aspect of American Democracy that I will discuss today deals with what I consider to be the great miracle of the American Revolution.

Since the beginnings of western civilization, man has generally used one of two tools to mediate the information around him, that is, to make sense of and respond to the world he lives in. He has used philosophy and theology; reason and revelation.

Religion in ancient Greece addressed questions like who and why. The cause of thunder and lightning? Zeus. The cause of storms and earthquakes? Poseidon.

 In the Iliad, when a plague ravaged the Greek encampment, the cause was found by asking: who caused it? The answer, Homer tells us, was Apollo. And why did Apollo cause it? Because “Atreus’ son had dishonored Chryses, priest of Apollo.”

This method of understanding the world around us really had not substantially changed by the time I was in grade school in the 1950’s. The nuns at St Mary’s used the Baltimore Catechism, to help us understand the world. The first two questions: “Who made me? God made me. Why did God make me? God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, ….”

With the pre-Socratic philosopher Thales, the questions change from who and why to what and how. Thales has been acclaimed for beginning a more rational search for the nature of things. “What is the world?”, replaced, who made the world.

For many, the high point of Greek philosophy came with Socrates and his use of the dialectic. As Socrates says in the Protagoras, “In order to test Hippocrates I began to examine him and ask him questions.”

Socrates’ goal, the reason for his use of the dialectic, was, at all times to get to the truth of things.

In the 2400 years since Socrates both reason and revelation have been used in the west to get at the truth of things but generally one method or the other has been dominant.

For me, the great miracle of the American Revolution was the balance between reason and revelation. Philosophy and theology worked together, as they very rarely have, to build something better.

Never has the balance of reason and revelation been better demonstrated than in the words of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

There is the 150-year history of the American colonies, which helps explain why reason and revelation were balanced in 1776. The short explanation is that while in Europe the churches were generally hierarchal and part of the power structure, in America the hierarchy was minimal, where it existed at all, and the vast majority of the ministers actively helped develop the ideology of the revolution, were supportive of it from the start, and preached it from their pulpits.

The remarkable nature of America’s balance of reason and revelation becomes clear when one remembers what happened just ten years later, in France, reason reigned, and revelation was marginalized. There was a great revolution which ended with the Terror and thousands dead, followed by the tyranny of Napoleon.

What I see as one of the great threats to American democracy today is that the balance between reason and revelation no longer exists. Both reason and revelation have been denigrated.

Just a month ago Attorney General William Barr gave a talk at the University of Notre Dame. The Attorney General noted the importance of religion at the Founding and the Founders belief “that religion was indispensable to sustaining our free system of government”.

However, with revelation marginalized, Barr asks some important questions:

We are told we are living in a post-Christian era. But what has replaced the Judeo-Christian moral system. What is it that can fill the spiritual void in the hearts of the individual person? And what is a system of values that can sustain human social life?

Revelation has been marginalized and pushed out of the public square, making it almost impossible to use in public forums.

Philosophy is in no better shape. Deconstructionism and post-modernism are prevalent in American universities. At their most extreme they maintain: “Experience is the sole arbiter of truth. There is no universal truth. There is no universal truth, only truths particular to specific groups of people”. (Evans, p. 211) Alternate visions of history are possible, with each person’s narrative, regardless of the facts it is being based upon, as valid as any other, as “historical fact more or less disappears.” (Evans p.101)

If everyone has their own truth, truth is relative and essentially ceases to be, and there is no longer a basis for philosophy, which is the search for truth.

God is dead, having been successfully marginalized by secularists. Philosophy is dead having no place in the post-modern world. This matters.

It matters because without either reason or revelation to help people mediate their different experiences, to help them navigate from day to day through a complicated world, they have only one other tool to help them get through the day, their emotions.

In the movie Network, the protagonist, reason having failed him, used his emotions and he stood by the window and yelled: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.” Pure emotion.

Read a series of Trump tweets and you will find little reasoned thought or revelation-based wisdom. Tweets from the progressive world are no better.

Supposedly, according to the Corrupt Media, the Ukraine call “concerned” today’s Never Trumper witness. Was he on the same call that I was? Can’t be possible! Please ask him to read the Transcript of the call. Witch Hunt!

This is what climate change looks like. The GOP like to mock scientific warnings about climate change as exaggeration. But just look around: it’s already starting.
We have 10 years to cut carbon emissions in half. If we don’t, scenes like this can get much worse. #GreenNewDeal …

No facts, no truth or attempt to get at the truth. Simply emotion, blaming fires caused by deferred maintenance on climate change.

And my recent favorite from Tulsi Gabbard after Hillary Clinton suggested that Gabbard was a Russian asset:

Great! Thank you @HillaryClinton. You, the queen of warmongers, embodiment of corruption, and personification of the rot that has sickened the Democratic Party for so long, have finally come out from behind the curtain….

Pure emotion may make us feel better for a day. Pure emotion might be appropriate after your team has won the state football championship or your child has been accepted to the college of her choice. Pure emotion may appeal to your political base and that seems to be how politicians use Twitter and Facebook, using Twitter and Facebook to emotionally bond with their followers.

This may make the given politician and his followers happy for the moment and may help the politician win the next election but over time it undermines American democracy.

“You, the queen of warmongers, embodiment of corruption, and personification of the rot”, these words simply reject democracy’s three premises of pluralism, reciprocity and deliberation. They shut out any possibility of sitting down with the other person, who happens to be a fellow American, and having a genuine conversation with that person. Of sitting down and talking and, if not arriving at truth, at least arriving at sufficient common ground to craft a response to the issue, which satisfies the needs of the community. What you get instead is what has been reported in the past week, a Vero Beach man spitting on another man simply because he was wearing a MAGA hat. This isn’t democracy it is mobocracy.

Our American democracy is a great legacy from the Founders. Being mad as hell will not be sufficient to preserve it. Perhaps we should begin by respecting it more than we presently do and start treating it like something of value.

Thank you.

Republican Bob Solari is the Chairman of the Indian River (Florida) County Commission and is now serving his third term. In 2017, Solari was appointed to the Florida Constitution Revision Committee, a 37-member commission that reviews and proposes changes to the Florida Constitution. Commissioner Solari earned his undergraduate degree in philosophy from the University of Denver. He holds a law degree from Fordham University School of Law and an MBA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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