From Whence Democracy?

We are being told these days that democracy has had a good run, but now it is time to move on. Time to face up to the fact that our old, rusty, worn-out democratic republic is obviously antiquated and incapable of churning out the changes we so desperately need. Let’s cut down on those bothersome rights, deep-six that archaic Constitution, and slip into something far more comfortable. You know, something compassionate, caring and forward-looking. Sounds simple!


Before we toss democracy into history’s dustbin, I think it might be wise to take a closer look.

Let’s start by going back to the beginning. Remember this? “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

This is the first line of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, penned by Thomas Jefferson in 1776. From this, two things have always jumped out at me. The first is Jefferson’s use of the term “all men,” and the second is the idea that the truths he listed were — and presumably still are — “self-evident.”

We understand now that Jefferson was not referring to all men at all, but specifically white men, and that women were not even within the realm of consideration. Fortunately, over time, these omissions have been rectified, and the current principle — that all people are created equal — is now the gold standard for rights across Western democracies.

That Thomas Jefferson did not actually mean what he wrote has been justly criticized. And that belies another truth not often acknowledged: democratic thought is now, and has always been, evolving conceptually. Jefferson’s limited democratic principles were a product of his limited American culture. As American culture evolved, so did our inclusive conception of democracy. In that sense, democracy should be thought of as developmental, and like all things developmental, it had to start somewhere, right? But how exactly did democracy get started in the first place? From whence democracy?

Developmental psychology tells us, for starters, that human maturation is itself developmental, that is, it consists of sequential stages of growth. These phases affect how we, as individuals, see and comprehend the world around us – our worldviews. “These stages are psychological and cultural levels of development,” writes Carter Phipps, author and co-founder of the Institute for Cultural Evolution. They are “levels of consciousness that individuals pass through in their personal evolution and that societies pass through in their cultural evolution.”

The general worldview most of us share today is fundamentally modern and is not the worldview shared by most societies of the past. A psychiatrist, Dr. Clifford Anderson, explains: “Placed in a historical perspective, this model suggests that before the 20th century most adults in the general population remained psychologically arrested in childhood. Although they continued to grow physically, their thinking remained concrete or literal. The stages of life in which higher thought forms are constructed simply never occurred — an inference that partially explains the harsh, rigid world our ancestors constructed for themselves.”

In other words, in the United States until the 19th century, most individuals did not develop beyond the most fundamental psychological stages we now understand all people pass through as they mature to adulthood.

When understanding the differences between then and now, the importance of Anderson’s observation above cannot be overstated. As we have continued to evolve (improving our food supply, educational opportunities, medical care, clothing, housing, etc.), our collective worldview has leaped forward since the American Revolution. Dr. Anderson writes: “Over the past century, we have witnessed more collective movement along our maturational path than has been seen over the entire previous span of human history.” Note that he said, “Over the entire previous span of human history.”

This dramatic shift in worldview has had an enormous impact on how our thinking today differs radically from most of our ancestors’ general worldview, just 200 years ago. For many Americans today who are unfamiliar with our historical struggles, this has unfairly warped their perceptions of our history, making yesterday appear shameful simply because our past was less developed than our present. But as Emily Dickinson once wrote, “Today makes Yesterday mean.” Or, put differently, in an evolving society, the present always makes the past look shabby.

So, personally, I will let Jefferson rest in peace. He offered a political statement acceptable for his times, not a universal dictum fit for eternal scrutiny. A careful reading of the founder’s correspondence suggests that while most understood the moral, philosophical and societal dilemmas slavery represented, they did not know how to solve them politically. Like politicians today, they simply kicked the can down the road, hoping some other generation might find a solution.

But what about “self-evident?” How was it that Jefferson could proclaim these truths to be self-evident when for the prior 12,000 years of civilization, almost no one seemed to have noticed that compelling fact?

The answer is that as we mature, we pass through the developmental phases mentioned above by Carter Phillips, with each new stage expanding our comprehension of the world. I recommend Swiss psychiatrist Jean Piaget’s groundbreaking study detailing his findings, which can be found in virtually any library beside many others in support of them!

Piaget divided human development into four stages, the last of which he named formal operational. He called the phase prior to this concrete operational, a period in which thought patterns — as outlined by Dr. Clifford Anderson above — remain “concrete or literal.” A simple example of concrete operational is the child (or in some cases the adult) for whom all things are either up or down, but nothing in between.

But formal operational opens a whole new way of perceiving the world. During the Enlightenment (17th through 19th centuries), this developmental stage began to percolate across Europe and America as never before. “Time-honored certainties crumbled: Old assumptions about the authority of kings, the structure of the universe, even the very existence of God, were called into question.”

While the Medieval mind lingered in the “concrete or literal,” a new cluster of conscious abilities appeared across large populations due to the arrival of formal operational thought patterns: inductive and deductive reasoning, introspection, symbols and metaphors. The capacity to think of what might be and take the place of the other was now available to many people. As a result, human worldviews evolved rapidly, and modern science was born.

The ability to take the other’s place meant whole populations were able to “walk in someone else’s shoes” and understand others as they understood themselves. In the West, this comprehension ultimately shook the foundational walls of the ancient regime because, almost immediately, it became illogical to think of kings and their courts as superior to anyone else. As a result, the concepts of religious toleration and freedom of thought suddenly became, well, “self-evident.”

If it is “self-evident” that we are all “created equal,” ought not we have the same, equal rights? Emerging from this intellectual upheaval, the first notions of democracy naturally burst forth. Put simply, democracy is the social (governmental) construct of the formal operational phase of human development, the phase most of us still live in today. In that sense, democracy is not merely another form of bureaucratic architecture, but a natural, logical and inevitable human developmental expression, wherever that development has been fortunate enough, or allowed, to emerge.

Our universal nature, duties and rights became suddenly “self-evident” to the formal operational mind. It emerged and was captured by Thomas Jefferson’s pen in his second-story Philadelphia apartment in June 1776.

Unfortunately, the natural evolution that caused this sea change in thought and culture has remained somewhat of a mystery to thinkers of all stripes. Typifying this confusion, American conservative Jonah Goldberg wrote in Suicide of The West: “Around the year 1700, in a corner of the Eurasian landmass, humanity stumbled into a new way of organizing society and thinking about the world. It didn’t seem obvious, but it was as if the great parade of humanity had started walking through a portal to a different world.”

Mystified by this momentous transformation, Goldberg continued, “Following sociologist Robin Fox and historian Ernest Gellner, I call this different world ‘the Miracle.’”

But this transformation was no more a “miracle” than was the emergence of language, agriculture, mathematics, art or civilization itself. In the American colonies — like no other time before in the history of the world — and for almost 150 years, the colonists were permitted to run their local affairs, as long as they obeyed British rule. Every colony developed a legislative body. Many towns had local or village councils where citizens could meet, voice, debate and vote their concerns. This unique system was the incubator for new American democratic norms and procedures.

Democracy appears to be an integral aspect of our evolving universe, encoded into the developing psychology of humankind — a radical, societal manifestation gifted us by the vast symphony of life. It is an expression of a sudden, more profound understanding of our common humanity, and a vibrant demonstration of humankind’s blossoming compassion and expanded capacity to reason. It was not an odd coincidence that the human species demonstrated “more collective movement along our maturational path” during the rise of democracies than ever before because the democratic environment promotes progress like no other.

Human development — psychological, intellectual, and spiritual — requires thinking, exploring and rational experimentation. In today’s world — still frightfully full of repressive police states, all hostile to free-thought and expression — guaranteed rights under a constitutional format is the only bulwark that supports these essential elements. But just like the environment, national infrastructure or our own good health, democracy can be misused, compromised or even destroyed by those who either do not understand its essential nature or actively agitate for its destruction.

Indeed, as we peer across the globe today, it would not be an overstatement to suggest that democratic institutions still sit perilously atop a simmering volcano of volatile human passions: greed, envy, ignorance, power, lust, hatred — all eager to tear down what they do not understand. These days, even the fundamental, democratic maxim credited to Voltaire — “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” — has been virtually turned on its head.

Almost frantic to move the world “forward,” today, some advocate the limiting or outright dissolution of our democratic institutions, suggesting they are holding us “back.” Toss the Constitution, shred the Bill of Rights, they say, and follow us into a new landscape of wondrous possibilities. Authoritarian in nature, ideologically utopian, all this seems to be an expression of what might be called the human naivety collective, a movement alive and well since the days of Rousseau. Ever notice that terms like “new normal” and “new forward” and “new economy” sound curiously like newspeak?

Devoid of any unifying vision beyond the literal worship of the state, this movement seems the mirror opposite of any positive or meaningful human progress. So, before we blithely toss critical aspects of our democracy into the garbage can, it may be wise to think long and hard about what we are discarding.



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