At Wednesday night’s debate Donald Trump refused to say that he would concede the election to Hillary Clinton if she defeats him in November. Then yesterday he said that he would accept the election results, but only if he wins.
The media is going crazy over Trump’s remarks. Last night on CNN, historian Douglas Brinkley, political adviser David Gergen, and law professor Alan Dershowitz were talking about how Trump’s comments, if he acts on them, undermine American democracy. These commentators and others are correct. The peaceful transition of power is vital to the success of American democracy. On November 8 the people will speak through the ballot box. They will elect Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. Democracy works when the loser concedes to the will of the people.
What strikes me the most is that the media is just waking up to the fact that our democracy might be in trouble.
Let’s remember that for a democracy to thrive, citizens need to learn how to live together with their differences. Today, sociologists, cultural critics, and public intellectuals often connect the success of democratic life to the cultivation of a civil society. A civil society is one in which citizens foster a sense of community amid their differences. Such a society, as writer Don Eberly describes it, “draws Americans together at a time of social isolation and fragmentation.” A successful democracy rests on our ability to forge these kinds of connections and behave in a civil manner toward one another.
A democracy needs citizens–individuals who understand that their own pursuits of happiness must operate in tension with obligations and responsibilities to a larger community. Citizens realize that their own success, fate, and ability to flourish as humans are bound up with the lives of others. Such commitment to the common good requires citizens who are able to respect, as fellow humans and members of the same community, those with whom they might disagree on some of life’s most important issues. It requires empathy, the willingness to imaginatively walk in the shoes of our neighbor. As Mary Ann Glendon puts it, “A democratic republic needs an adequate supply of citizens who are skilled in the arts of deliberation, compromise, consensus-building, and reason-giving.”
The sixteenth-century writer Montaigne once said, “Every man calls evil what he does not understand.” Our everyday lives will always be filled with disagreements and misunderstandings, but a democratic society will survive only if we are able to live civilly with them. We are correct to believe that in the United States we have a “right” to our opinions and beliefs, but there are also times when we must rise above private interests and temporarily sacrifice our rights for the greater good of the larger community. Such a view of the common good, which the late Pope John Paul II called “solidarity,” requires that we see others, even those who we may believe are “evil,” as neighbors and “sharer[s] on par with ourselves in the banquet of life to which all are equally invited by God.” To put an alternative spin on Montaigne’s quote, “The more you know about another person’s story, the less possible it is to see that person as your enemy.”
Because we all have our own views and opinions, civil society requires conversation. We may never come to an agreement on what constitutes the “common good.,” but we can all commit ourselves to sustaining democracy by talking to and engaging with another. As author and activist Parker Palmer puts it, “Democracy gives us the right to disagree and is designed to use the energy of creative conflict to drive positive social change. Partisanship is not a problem. Demonizing the other side is.”
The inner working of this kind of democracy is described best by the late historian and cultural critic Christopher Lasch in his book The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy. His description of the mechanics of democratic conversation is with citing in full:
“The attempt to bring others around to our point of view carries the risk, of course, that we may adopt their point of view instead. We have to enter imaginatively into our opponents argument, if only for the purpose of refuting them, and we may end up being persuaded by those we sought to persuade. Argument is risky and unpredictable, there educational. Most of us tend to think of it…as a clash of dogmas, a shouting match in which neither side gives any ground. But arguments are not won by shouting down opponents. They are won by changing opponents’ minds–something that can only happen if we give opposing arguments a respectful hearing and still persuade their advocates that there is something wrong with those arguments. In the course of this activity, we may well decide that there is something wrong with our own.”
These are the virtues necessary for a democracy to thrive. I am glad that the media is talking about the fate of democracy. The peaceful transition of power is important, but there is so much more needed to making democracy work.
(This piece is drawn partially from my book Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past).