Today I gave a sermon on the state of democracy in the United States and pointed out my concerns with what appears to be systematic violations of the rights of detainees in Iraq and Guantanamo bay in breach of guarantees contained both in Iraqi legislation and in international law and standards. As I mentioned in my sermon, Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, writes that mistreatment of detainees at the hands of the United States and allied forces cannot not be reduced to a failure of training, discipline or oversight, or reduced to a failure of training, discipline or oversight, or reduced to “a few bad apples,” but reflects a deliberate policy choice embraced by the top leadership. For more on this, I wanted to refer anyone who is interested to the work of Simon Hersh who has written a series articles for The New Yorker and published Chain of Command : The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib. I, of course, encourage folks to read up on the issue of democracy in the United States and come to your own conclusions about where we are at and where we are going. Please feel free to post comments and further information in the comments section.

The Boston Globe article that I read from in my sermon is this one and details some of the allegations of torture and abuse from Iraq. It was actually written by a self-described “war hawk” who is calling on fellow war hawks and conservatives to speak out against the abuse.

For an excerpt of the article from Harpers that calls for the impeachment of President Bush you can go here. The full article isn’t available online but I encourage folks to get a copy and see if you came to the same conclusions that I did.

Now for what I consider to be the more exciting part of this blog entry — I thought I would refer folks to some resources on rebuilding a democracy that is receptive to the citizenry.

When I am not being a student or an student intern minister, I do research for a wonderful organization called The Kettering Foundation. It is a research organization that asks, “What does it take to make democracy work as it should?” While the website has greatly improved recently, it still doesn’t provide tons of information for those who are just browsing. But a lot of the work the Foundation does centers around the very sort of thing I suggested this morning — making space for a new sort of democracy that moves away from “politics as usual” toward a democracy that is built on relationships between citizens working together to solve the problems that we face as a society. If you are interested in reading more on what is going on in this country when it comes to this movement, you’ll find some books and articles abstracted below.

Boyte, Harry C. “The Stirrings of a New Politics,” in Everyday Politics: Reconnecting Citizens and Public Life,” Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

Harry Boyte is a professor at the University of Minnesota and does a lot of work with reviving and reclaiming citizenship. Sometimes I think he is a bit idealistic about “how things used to be” in the good old days of a better democracy, but nonetheless, I think he writes lots of exciting and helpful things about possibilities for a new kind of democracy. This chapter outlines some of the most daunting challenges to democracy in our time, and provides a vision, already in its nascent stages, for a different kind of politics that counters the challenges that U.S. American democracy currently faces. Boyte offers “everyday politics” as an alternative to the current politics as usual. Whereas politics as usual frames the citizen as a consumer of democracy, everyday politics makes a place for citizens as co-creators of democracy. Here, citizens are engaged at all levels of politics, working “in diverse environments learning the skills of political work with people unlike themselves on the public tasks of communities, the society and the world.” This approach puts citizens back at the center of politics, reinstilling a sense of efficacy and agency. Everyday politics rests on the idea that the work of governance can be reclaimed by citizens, and that in order for democracy to function as it should, it must be reclaimed by citizens. Key attributes of this involve a deprofesionalization of politics, and a move away from viewing democracy as primarily based in an electoral system. Rather, democracy must be practiced and understood as an ongoing part of life – an everyday part of life – for all citizens.

Fiorina, Morris with Samuel Abrams, and Jeremy Pope. Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America, Longman, second edition, 2005.

I referred to this book in my sermon. It is one of the two that I will list here (the other is One Nation After All) that paints a picture of a less polarized United States. Fiorina analyzes long-term public opinion data to contest the argument that we are deeply divided as a nation. He argues that, despite the media attention to and political rhetoric about “culture wars” and the polarization of the U.S. citizenry, in reality the vast majority of Americans are tolerant and moderate in their political views. He notes that the book’s conclusions support those of Alan Wolfe in One Nation, After All, “but report similar findings based on an examination of the views of tens of thousands of Americans questioned in national services” rather than Wolfe’s intensive interviewing of 200 middle-class American families. Fiorina attributes that perception of a divided nation to special interests groups, political parties, politicians and the media that capitalize on, and often promote, perceived cultural divides to advance their own interests, living little room for the nuance, understanding of complexity, and moderation that characterizes the views of most Americans.

Wolfe, Alan. Chapter VII: Morality Writ Small, in One Nation, After All : What Americans Really Think About God, Country, Family, Racism, Welfare, Immigration, Homosexuality, Work, The Right, The Left and Each Other, Penguin Books, 1999.

The other book I referred to. Wolfe’s book is based on two-hundred interviews with middle-class people in the United States. In the final chapter of his book, Alan Wolfe concludes that the so-called “culture war” is being fought, not by average Americans, but primarily by intellectuals. He points out that the polling which appears to show a divided populace, asks questions in such a way that leaves no room for the expression of a middle-ground. It is on this middle ground, a place of firm but empathetic morality, where Wolfe argues that the vast majority of Americans stand. With the exception of homosexuality, there is wide agreement on immigration, poverty, religion, family and morality. Wolfe notes, “The two sides presumed to be fighting the culture war do not so much represent a divide between one group of Americans and another as a divide between sets of values important to everyone.” That is, middle-class Americans, on the whole, struggle with the same sets of issues and, while often having personal preference for their own lives, are highly tolerant, empathetic and surprisingly undivided as to how other can morally live their lives in the American context. I sure hope that he is correct.

Brooks, David. “Age of Political Segregation,” Editorial Desk, The New York Times, June 29, 2004.

Although I am not a huge Brooks fan (okay, I really don’t like him) I did find this relevant to thinking about how we can better “do” democracy, particularly as Unitarian Universalists which tend to have a higher than average education level. Brooks notes that, according to several studies, the higher level of education that an American attains, correlates with the likelihood of being more polarized. He believes that this is because as Americans become more educated, they have more access to information which can reinforce the position that they already hold. Further, the higher the educational attainment, the easier it is to surround ourselves with people just like us, thus reinforcing our political beliefs. As a antidote to this political segregation, Brooks suggests that a national service program where youth are required to serve, with others not just like themselves, in a part of the country unlike what they are used to, might help to expose people to other viewpoints, challenging the ones that they already hold and preventing the stabilization and reinforcement of their current political inclinations. He further suggests that we might consider adjusting the primary system so that it doesn’t reinforce polarization, as it seems to in its current form. I think the article is just a good reminder that we need to engage with folks that are different than us.

Oh! I could go on, but perhaps that is enough for now. Coming soon: Links to organizations working to transform our democracy into something we can be proud of and thinking about democracy and Unitarian Universalism.

Much peace, Elizabeth

3 Responses to Democracy

  1. froggie2 says:

    Thanks for all the information on building a better democracy. There is so much to worry about right now – it is good to make connections based on a more hopeful outlook.

    Tricia at FUUSM

  2. Peter Ing says:

    I’ve known some people, more than one and less than a hundred, that had such beautiful thoughts and ideas that it seemed a shame that they couldn’t have total authority over the entire population. It seems that democracy is a good way to water down the possible horrors of bad leaders. What’s sad is that it really limits the truly gifted who could lead us to the pinnacles of thought and experience where people are valued for their being and not their bucks.
    Thanks for leaving the lights on.

  3. Excellent blog! Do you have any recommendations for aspiring writers?
    I’m planning to start my own site soon but I’m a little
    lost on everything. Would you propose starting with a free platform
    like WordPress or go for a paid option? There are so many options out there that
    I’m totally confused .. Any ideas? Thanks a lot!

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