The Spirit of Democracy in America

democracy in america

The ethos of democracy as government of the people, by the people and for the people has long been recognized worldwide. The Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, abolitionist and civil rights movements, one person one vote and separation of powers all shifted the balance of power from feudal autocracy to democratic rule.

But there is a deeper dimension to democracy that should not be overlooked. As democracy shapes society it nudges and broadens its citizens’ horizons. It tutors their sense of pluralism and encourages them to be suspicious of the powers deemed ‘natural’. Citizens learn that prevailing power relationships are mutable, that they are never permanent and that they must keep an eye on those who wield the state’s authority because a moment’s inattention can devolve into a lifetime of misrule.

As such, democracy is a dynamic political system. It changes as societies evolve and it changes because the people who live in democracies change their expectations and desires. Those changes in turn shape the democratic system. For example, the more democratic a democracy is, the more its citizens expect good governance. Good governance requires that elected officials are transparent, responsive and accountable to the people. Good governance also necessitates that elected officials are free of conflicts of interest and that there is a mechanism to hold elected officials accountable.

The proximate source of the’spirit’ of democratic restlessness that Tocqueville observed is in how democracy enables struggle by groups and individuals for greater equality. His own peripatetic journey through the young American republic opened his eyes, broadened his horizons and changed his understanding of democracy.

Tocqueville did not anticipate that the democratic’spirit’ would give rise to self-conscious democratic art and literature. He was not expecting the palpable ethos of equality with liberty expressed in simple body language, tobacco-chewing customs and easy manners to give rise to an openness to paradoxes and a fascination with juggling opposites. But that is precisely what democracy in america reflects.

What’s more, the’spirit’ of democracy has evolved to encompass an ethos of activism. That’spirit’ is evident in the many ways citizens use their freedom to reclaim the public realm, fight corruption and address climate change, among other things. However, the most profound expression of the’spirit’ of democracy today is found in the way the United States uses its democratic values to seek out and promote democracy abroad – a practice that can be extremely damaging to countries with more fragile democracies, causing chaos and instability as it divides and destroys them. It’s time for the US to do a bit of soul-searching about how it uses its democracy and to focus on how it can help create a more harmonious, prosperous and stable world by demonstrating what democratic practice looks like in the real world. Not by imposing its own vision of democracy on others, but by offering to share its economic wealth and cultural values. It’s a task that will require cooperation and mutual respect.