Recommitting to the American Experiment for a More Perfect Union Through We The People
While 2020 sputters along, unsure of what next crisis will unleash upon us, the upcoming general election and the COVID-19 pandemic have sparked a dualism of nostalgia for democracy and a rabid questioning of what a democracy is in American public discourse. Both sides of the pendulum hold the same value in focus with vastly different conceptions. One side wishes to return to the “normalcy” of a romanticized patriotism (though no one can place just where exactly that is) while the other wishes to see democracy live up to its proposed (yet constantly floundered) ideals.
It was constantly referred to in last week’s 2020 Democratic National Convention: “We the people in order to form a more perfect union.” If there is a working definition of what the aims of democracy might be, it is perfectly encapsulated in this sentence. America’s political debates have been a constant questioning and renegotiation of who “we the people are” and what a “more perfect union” might look like. This is why I cannot totally leave behind the founding documents, though I support their continual updating, despite their flaws and the deep inconsistencies of the men who wrote and signed these words. I often chuckle at the thought of the unsuspecting Founding Fathers wholly unaware of the beautifully aspirational sentence they wrote. All that any civil rights movement in the United States has asked for is a fulfillment of these words. Who could imagine that the most radical aspect of “We the People” was to demand its extension to everyone?
And so, in 2020, we are grasping for ways to reimagine, reconvene, renegotiate what it means to live in an indivisible, democratic republic. The platitudes and party lines have often faltered in the pursuit of this goal (perhaps this is why the Biden campaign made such a big issue out of defecting Republicans). Many are disillusioned as current politicians resemble more like car salespeople and corporate lackeys than they do genuine leaders of the common good. The disaffection of voters largely stems from the feeling that the plutocratic corporate elites run the country for the economy rather than the people. After all, the common good is not as good for the bottom line. This year offers a chance for a democratic (intentional lower case) revival as “we the people” are beginning to see just how tenuous the future of our democracy is.
As true today as they were at the 2004 publication of Cornel West’s “Democracy Matters: Winning the fight against imperialism,” West outlines the three piranhas that are devouring American democracy and causing entrenching imperialism as free-market fundamentalism, aggressive militarism, and escalating authoritarianism. Free-market fundamentalism places the unfettered and unregulated market as idol and fetish. Corporations are hailed as economic saviors rather than subjected to democratic scrutiny, which trivializes the concern for the public interest. Plutocrats put fear and insecurity in the workers and create money-driven officials deferential to corporate profit over the common good. Aggressive militarism posits the military and police as salvific, often fashioned out of the cowboy mythology of the American frontier fantasy that employs a lone ranger who spares no enemy. Finally, escalating authoritarianism posits the xenophobic, controlling leader as salvific against the deep fear of outside violence, terrorism, and global change. The wide-awake person in today’s American democracy cannot disagree with this assessment from West: “We are experiencing the sad American imperial devouring of American democracy.”
Damn it. So… what do we do now? These issues aren’t Manichean (good vs. bad, us vs. them); the assessment of them in this way is what’s led to their flowering in society, the “We this people and you that people” mentality. West isn’t surprised that this deep questioning of American democracy has arisen in the face of a wanna-be “Supreme Leader” and a massive cultural reckoning with racial justice. In fact, it is precisely because of the Black Lives Matter movement that many in America are being reawakened to deep democracy: “Race is the crucial intersecting point where democratic energies clash with American imperial realities in the very marking of the grand American experiment of democracy.” As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1840: “If America ever undergoes great revolutions, they will be brought about by the presence of the black race on the soil of the United States, — that is to say, they will owe their origin, not to the equality, but to the inequality, of conditions.”
And so we must return to the three traditions West outlines that fuel deep democratic energy: the Socratic tradition’s commitment to continual questioning, the Jewish Prophetic tradition’s commitment to justice, and the Blues Tragicomic commitment to hope.
To critique our current imperialistic dogmas, they have to be laid bare in their ignoble origins and arrested development, which certainly isn’t an easy process. This means revealing and not turning away from the painful horrors of subjugation that each of these have wrought. This is why our current reckoning with race is one that requires sober, full-faced attention. But doing this only means that they are better things ahead. While some may decry that the current questioning is unpatriotic, what those people are offering is merely a cheap patriotism that will never create a more wholistic “we the people” or a “more perfect union.” As West puts it: “Cheap American patriotism not only reflects an immaturity and insecurity… But also is an adolescent defense mechanism that reveals a fear to engage the world and learn from others.”
To save our democracy by transforming it into deep democracy, first, we turn to the Socratic. The Socratic commitment to questioning is a relentless self-examination and critique of authority with the generative intention for making them better through an endless quest of intellectual integrity and moral consistency. Socrates used the word parrhesia, fearless speech that unsettles, unnerves, and unhouses people from their sleepwalking. This is why the most ardent critiques of America are her most patriotic citizens. As Socrates said, “plain speech is the cause of my unpopularity.” America needs this plain speech and questioning in the face of confusing political sophistry that speaks but says nothing. To engage in this Socratic questioning isn’t to trash America but to tease out the traditions in our history to allow us to wrestle with painful realities we often deny. The aim is a democratic paideia, cultivation of an active, informed citizenry, to preserve democracy. And so we march, we critique, we vote for a better union, not because we hate America but, rather, because we sincerely love democracy and see what our union could be.
Second, we must employ the prophetic. The Jewish invention of the prophetic is a commitment to justice for oppressed peoples and an acknowledgment that God is, first and foremost, a lover of justice and not power. It is about human acts of justice and kindness attending to hurt and misery. This prophetic justice calls us to the causes of unjustified suffering and unnecessary social misery, which is both personal and institutional evil and the evil of being indifferent to these. One needs only to go and read Isaiah to see the wrath God reserves for those who turn a blind eye to others’ suffering. This tradition invites individuals to join in transforming the world through communities and condemns the false reliance on the force of power and the golden calf of wealth or the blood-soaked flag. “The especial aim of prophetic utterance is to shatter deliberate ignorance and willful blindness to the suffering of others and to expose the clever forms of evasion and escape we devise in order to hide and conceal injustice.” Prophetic justice in American democracy understands that we will only be free when everyone is free. It is a direct repudiation of the zero-sum game politicians use to keep us from building a coalition together. And while many of our prophetic voices have been killed, much like those in the Old Testament, we will always be ready to supply ourselves to the cause.
Finally, we must embody the tragicomic, a profound attitude towards life reflected in the works of people like Cervantes, Chekhov, the blues, and Toni Morrison. This blues sensibility reflects righteous indignation against suffering with a rhythm and a smile. The tragicomic blues is a hard-fought and earned way of life that unsettles and unnerves the history of white supremacy. But it is truly our opportunity for hope: “The black American interpretation of tragicomic hope in the face of dehumanizing hate and oppression will be seen as the only kind of hope that has any kind of maturity in a world of overwhelming barbarity.” The tragicomic sits on the edge of the American abyss without fear and does a deep-sea dive beneath the supposed American sunshine and emerges with a blood-soaked hope and tear-stained smile, as West describes it. It’s a hope that understands that, despite the chaos and suffering, the next morning will come with the chance to start the fight all over again. It is to push back against the weariness that opponents of real democracy expect us to have and assure them that we are in this for the long haul.
Putting “We the People in order to form a more perfect union” into action is not going to be easy. We feel the effects of its stretching, probing, and pushing. Transforming America from cheap patriotism to deep democracy has become the rallying cry of the 2020 election and the great battle of the 21st century. What we think (Socratic), how we care for others (Prophetic), and how we commit to the longsuffering hope in democracy (tragicomic) matter more than ever.
We don’t need cheap optimism. Instead, we need “a bloodstained Socratic love and a tear-soaked prophetic love fueled by a hard-won tragicomic hope.”
This is how we the people will create a more perfect union.