Democracy Is a Habit: Practice It

Melvin Rogers at the Boston Review: “After decades of triumph,” The Economist recently concluded, “democracy is losing ground.” But not, apparently, in the West, whose “mature democracies . . . are not yet in serious danger.” On this view, reports of the death of American democracy have been greatly exaggerated. “Donald Trump may scorn liberal norms,” the reasoning goes, “but America’s checks and balances are strong, and will outlast him.” The truly endangered societies are those where “institutions are weaker and democratic habits less ingrained.”

It has become a common refrain, even among those critical of Trump’s administration. “Our democracy is hard to kill,” Harvard political scientist Steven Levitsky said in an interview about his new book with Daniel Zeblatt, How Democracies Die. “We do still have very strong democratic institutions. We’re not Turkey, we’re not Hungary, we’re not Venezuela. We can behave quite recklessly and irresponsibly and probably still muddle through that.”

Is democracy in the United States really so robust? At the outset of World War II, American philosopher John Dewey cautioned against so easy a conclusion—and the simplistic picture of democratic society that it presumes. In Freedom and Culture (1939), he worried that democracy might succumb to the illusion of stability and endurance in the face of threats to liberty and norms of decency. According to Dewey, we must not believe

that democratic conditions automatically maintain themselves, or that they can be identified with fulfillment of prescriptions laid down in a constitution. Beliefs of this sort merely divert attention from what is going on, just as the patter of the prestidigitator enables him to do things that are not noticed by those whom he is engaged in fooling. For what is actually going on may be the formation of conditions that are hostile to any kind of democratic liberties.

Dewey’s was a warning to be wary not just of bad governance but of a more fundamental deformation of society. “This would be too trite to repeat,” he admits, “were it not that so many persons in the high places of business talk as if they believed or could get others to believe that the observance of formulae that have become ritualistic are effective safeguards of our democratic heritage.”…

Dewey may seem like an odd resource to recall in our current political climate. For if we stand in what Hannah Arendt once called “dark times,” Dewey’s optimistic faith in democracy—his unflinching belief in the reflective capacity of human beings to secure the good and avert the bad, and in the progressive character of American democracy—may look ill-equipped to address our current crisis.

Yet this faith was always shaped by an important insight regarding democracy that many seem to have ignored. For Dewey, democracy’s survival depends on a set of habits and dispositions—in short, a culture—to sustain it. …

“The democratic road is the hard one to take,” Dewey concluded in Freedom and Culture. “It is the road which places the greatest burden of responsibility on the greatest number of human beings.” Precisely for this reason, Dewey believed the culture of democracy—the habits and sensibilities of the citizenry—in greater need of scrutiny than its constitution and procedures. For what are constitutions and procedures once you have deformed the ground upon which their proper functioning depends?…(More)”.