What Is American Democracy?


By PROFESSOR E. G. WALKER, Hiram College

Delivered at Lecture Forum on "The Impact of War," at Hiram College, Hiram, Ohio, February 22, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. IX, pp. 29-31

TODAY that question is no longer a merely academic one for on its answer in the hearts and minds of workers and soldiers, of capitalists and laborers, of citizens everywhere, may depend the outcome of the war and certainly of the peace after the war. The faults and shortcomings, the deficiencies and weaknesses, the strains and stresses, of our democracy constitute a grave danger in war and an even greater, though less clearly seen, danger in peace and they cause us to wonder whether they are the inevitable accompaniments of democracy which are to prove its undoing.

To define and evaluate democracy implies a detached point of view which participation makes difficult if not impossible. And yet participation is the absolute prerequisite for understanding or even catching a glimpse of the variety and richness of the meaning of democracy. Its meaning is too varied, too complex to be expressed in a catch-word or a slogan. Its meaning as well as its problems is constantly changing, changing with the part of the country affected, with the experiences, needs and education of the individuals concerned, with the time or period considered. Many citizens confused and distraught with the problems and defeats of the present long for the simple life of the long ago—not too long ago. Few of them would go back, if they could, to the time of Lincoln or Jackson or Washington though there was a democracy then. Yes, there was a democracy in 1750, in 1650, or even before that. Perhaps it would not be called the American democracy. But our democracy had and has its roots deep in Europe:—in England, Holland, and France; in Italy, Sweden, and Germany. In short, in all the countries of Europe.

The individualism and moral integrity which characterized most of the settlers escaping from conditions intolerable to them was deepened and increased by conditions in America. The sparse settlements; the ever advancing frontier; the hard and frugal life; the dangers from disease, Indians, animals; the toil and sweat required to clear the land and break the prairies; the necessity of dealing with thieves and outlaws cultivated hardihood and resourcefulness, deepened independence and individualism already strong in the blood of most Americans. To ask for help was a confession of weakness, except such help as might be obtained from their neighbors by the free exchange of labor. Interference or restriction of their individual rights by state or national government aroused bitter resentment. They developed, too, a rampant idealism. This was the greatest country on earth; it confirmed the individual in his right to free land and all its resources. It gave him his chance; he was on the make.

In the main, Americans until about the turn of the century were farmers and their political ideas were built around an agrarian civilization. By that time a change had come over America. It had long been developing and grew with great rapidity after the 90's. Manufacturing and cities replaced the farming and the farm in importance. With this change two new and disturbing problems arose connected on the one hand with the growth and power of great corporations and on the other hand with a new class of laborers dependent on factory owners for work and wages.

The corporations appealed to the government to establish them in their power, seemed in fact, as owners of the government, to order it to do their bidding. The individualism and independence of the workers were gone or seemed of no avail. No longer was there free land available as an escape. And so they too appealed to the government to arrest the growth or destroy the power of corporate wealth that the individual might have a chance to survive. Despairing of help from the government, they began to organize to protect themselves, calling on the government to legalize their organizations and defend them in what they conceived to be their inalienable rights. Not content with what they secured, they demanded more and obtained it. Their success causes some to think that the laboring class now owns the government and orders it to do their bidding. What happened to the laborers, happened to the farmers. They, too, no longer able to survive as individuals organized, asked aid, and received help from the government. The manufacturers, laborers, farmers, and many another group no longer depending upon individual resourcefulness and integrity, not even upon their own organizations, sought the aid of the state and the nation. Our ideas of the functions of a democratic government and of the place and importance of the individual have, to say the least, undergone a radical change under the impact of social and economic forces but that does not mean that the democratic spirit has been lost or lessened or that the country is going to the bowwows.

All this is to omit reference to the influence of great thinkers, great statesmen, particularly to the patron saints of democracy. Perhaps one should say to the patron saint, Thomas Jefferson, whose writings, teachings, and actions had almost as much to do with setting the course of democracy and giving it permanent meaning as the social and economic forces so hastily sketched above. I pass by his interest in and contribution to public education as one of the prime means of making democracy secure, nor do I mention his insistence upon local self-government for I want to call attention to a statement of his own which is at once a clear exposition of what he aimed at and a terse phrasing of the essential characteristic of democracy. "I have taken an oath on the altar of my God of eternal hostility to every form of tyranny over the mind of man." Yes, that's it; that is the essence of democracy. The mind of man, not some men but all men, to be free from the most galling of all tyrannies in the conviction that he, the common man, would cherish his heritage and pass it on to his descendants. Any external freedom without this inner freedom, this mental liberty is utter nonsense. If there is a statement of a more profound trust in the common man or a keener realization of the essence of democracy, I do not know it. We may have departed far, as I have indicated, from the ideas of democracy current at the time of Jefferson and prevalent till yesterday, but amid all our cynicism and disillusionment, our faith in the sanity and good judgment of the common man; in his moral integrity, opposition to injustice, anddevotion to the common welfare when once he is informed and sees the issue; in the progressive perfectibility of man and his society has not been lost though at times it has been hard to keep the faith. On that principle is democracy based; on that faith it survives.

With this account of the background of present day democracy, which, I admit, has been over-simplified, I want now to state, or rather to restate, some of what I may call the essential characteristics of American democracy.

I. American democracy is exploratory and experimental.

The practices and ideas of a democracy cannot long remain fixed, static. Its changing policies is what keeps our faith in it alive. Any thinking person must be aware of the fact that the political possibilities of a democracy have been very imperfectly explored. Much remains to be done in this area. But when we consider what a democratic society may mean in the development of culture and in the stimulation of man's intellectual and artistic achievement, in the development and sharing of economic resources, in the growth and capacity for moral action, there seems room for almost endless development.

New needs, new abuses, new difficulties, new and ominous dangers which we might and do expect from the tentative and provisional character of our society do not dismay us. They force us to rethink our way and lead to a tendency, perhaps too ready a tendency, to try something new.

Appeals to past practices, to previous statements by great and little patriots fall on dull ears, as they ought, for the most part. For democracy is dynamic, experimental, ongoing. We must burn our own fingers. We are going to do this or that no matter what anyone thinks. Usually no one does. Wishful thinking, satisfaction of our feelings and prejudices rather than careful intelligent planning characterizes much of our life. Frequently, some think usually, our efforts leave us worse off than we were. We are sometimes up, more often down. But we need only look back to know that by this stumbling, fumbling, halting process we do make progress, slowly it is true, but it is the only way by which progress can be made. This is the profound truth of all modern thinking: namely, that truth itself is never fixed, that values are not eternal, that progress, learning, insight depend upon the experimental nature of the attack. Democracy seeks not only to free man's mind from all tyranny but to free all society through the application; of the scientific method to its problems. It is for us all but particularly for the bold and adventurous spirits, the penetrating intellects to seize hold of the possibilities of the advancement of man and his society and bring about a development of democratic society paralleling that of science. If our society remains democratic we know to a positive certainty that there can be no rest for weary man; only constant and strenuous effort to reach an ever receding goal. It is toil and defeat, toil and success or there is for us no security, happiness, or progress.

When we stop to survey the torturous way we have travelled during our national life we are sure much progress has been made and we hope, nay, we are certain, that we shall occasionally in the future find ourselves on a yet higher, more sunlit plateau.

2. The second characteristic of American democracy is, or was, a firm belief that it has a moral mission. The missionary zeal of the early patriots was unmistakable. They would convert the world and they did make considerable progress in that endeavor. Even the frontiersman was a tough and zealous fighter to secure for his great country what he regarded as its "manifest destiny." What has become of the notion that as a democracy we have a missionto perform, second not to Christianity, itself, but as a complement to it, a fulfillment of it, albeit in an earthly and political way? That mission is to make all men realize the significance of the individual, the sanctity of human rights, to establish the fact that man's happiness is to be found not in peace and security but in danger and struggle, to enkindle in all individuals and all groups a zeal to place the general welfare first and the welfare of special groups a poor second.

It is surely evident that the moral progress of a people proceeds out of their joint efforts to use all the intelligence, knowledge, and power they can assemble for the benefit of all. Of this we have long been dimly aware. But the immediate demands of our own peculiar needs and the needs, fancied or real, of the groups to which we belong have confused us and obscured the main idea. What has been even more obscure is that the distinctly American practice of washing its linen in public is a moral adventure. Political linen, you know, must be washed. If it is washed in private, no moral awakening can result; if it is washed in public then we can all see whether it is clean. We, Americans, call the entire public to the wash—often it's a mere white wash—to see the linen scoured and hung on the line. As we stand there watching the process we laugh and pass jokes about how dirty the linen is and we smile with joy when we see how presentable the scouring has made it. But we are sobered, too, for that linen is our linen. We must wear it and there are stains which will not come out. We wonder whether the stains are caused by the sweat, toil, and tears incident to hard work; by boils and carbuncles which a lance may cure. Or do those garments carry the tell-tale evidence of cancers which spell for our democracy inevitable doom? The facts must not be blinked. There are serious disorders on the "body politic" which may be fatal. Three will be discussed.

There are those who think that the recurring evils of democracy become ever greater, more deadly; that their accumulated effect is certain death. While others believe that the problems of democracy have become so vast and complicated that the common man can no longer pass judgment on them; that some dictator, political or technical, must solve them for us.

Loss of faith in the moral surety and progress of the common man is a cancer which eats out the very heart of a democracy. However, the problems with which we must deal are, I believe, neither insoluble nor too great for the combined intelligence of democracy. They are, in fact, no greater than those of the past; they are merely nearer at hand. Every crisis and every defeat may make democracy more effective, more secure. The loss of faith, not the difficulties, is the deadly disease. If our experience as a nation has any meaning at all, there seems to me to be every reason why we should continue to believe in the success of democracy in finding a fair and equitable way of dealing with the issues facing it. Assuredly we can have no greater faith in the despotisms or dictatorships.

In the next place many raise a question whether on the one hand warring, selfish interests do not dominate our social and political life, not only making it impossible to consider the common zeal, but resulting inevitably in one or another faction securing control for a shorter or longer time with a public-be-damned attitude. Again the problem is expressed as the inability of mankind in general to be greatly enamored of abstract justice or the common welfare. As a result, they argue, some selfish demagogue, someone seeking power; some dynamic character, dramatizing himself, speaking half truths, appealing to passion—some Huey Long, some Aaron Burr—not to mention well known men now living—may seize power, thwart the avowed purposes of a democratic people and even make himself dictator. Again I have to say these are great dangers and if that is the correct interpretation of them a democracy, our democracy must fail. Whenever we reach the stage where legislators and the people who choose them have neither the vision to see the welfare of the people clearly nor the fortitude to labor incessantly for that purpose, then we may completely despair. In our darkest moments we think we have drifted to that abyss. However, it may not be out of place to point out that while there is incessant danger from demagogues and from those whose purposes they serve, there are Roosevelts and Churchills who dramatize themselves; that while public opinion forces a Churchill or a Roosevelt to alter policies, shuffle and reshuffle cabinets and will displace them, as it has other men, for new favorites, only the assassins bullet or a bloody revolution can get rid of a Hitler or a Mussolini. The fact that we have found a measurable success in keeping the common good in mind in the past; have awakened in time to prevent the demagogues from gaining too much power, the isms from engulfing us is at least some assurance that we can do so in the future.

A third and greater danger is that we think that freedom and equality, twin slogans of our democracy, refer to an outer environment whereas they refer primarily and fundamentally to the inner life. "I am not saying that the outer should be ignored. Rather it must be the servant of the inner and to this end it must be whipped into such shape and behavior that its service will be adequate and dependable." The external world may be so ordered that the free development of the inner life is easier or more difficult but the purpose of our concern about the political, economic, and educational institutions, about law and order is not to make farmers happy or workers secure, not even to burden every one with a load of all the gadgets and trinkets an industry can create even if that be falsely called a high standard of living or the "American Way." Its purpose is to set free the mind of man. "Eternal hostility to every form of tyranny over the mind of man." If that is our oath, our passion, democracy will weather all storms.

Yes, American democracy has a moral mission in the world. We may have lost sight of it in our crazy infatuation for money and power, in the sloth and ease that has possessed our people; in the numbering and deadening effect of wide spread poverty; in the internecine strife of capital and labor. That mission must be revitalized, made real to every person, to all groups of people if our democracy is to survive.

I place then these two as the essential characteristics of American democracy, namely: the tentative, experimental, way in which we deal with all questions and the sense of a moral mission which dominates our democracy now as it has in the past. These are the intellectual and moral concepts of democracy without which all its forms and practices have no meaning and no permanence.

All means of education, whether public or private, whether elementary or collegiate, whether home or school, whether pulpit or press, must be geared to the common task of impressing on every person the ideals of democracy:— The progressive perfectibility of man and his society wherein there shall be achieved that equality and freedom long dreamed of as man's ideal—equality of opportunity calculated to unleash and give creative development to man's intellect and spirit and freedom and security—the only freedom or security he can have or use—to work out his individual and social salvation under the discipline of moral