On Being Liberal and Secular

democracy-3Democracy, in giving power to its citizens to weigh in on their own government and decision-making is, by definition, liberal. A liberal worldview allows for pluralism, the inevitability (or even desirability) of human differences, the idea that there can be a multiplicity of views and the intrinsic value of all human life. A secular society separates the institutions of the state from the institutions of religion and does not allow discrimination of anyone based on religious beliefs.

Liberal, secular democracy is a very complex balancing act between governing institutions and procedures; society’s culture and values; and a diverse and heterogeneous citizenry and is premised upon an extraordinarily hopeful and even optimistic view of society. It pushes against thousands of years of tribalism and presupposes that people can transcend the egocentric and socio-centric limitations that make them distrustful of those who are different and outside their clan. This makes the practice of democracy a complex and, often, delicate negotiation between competing interests, views and values. Citizens in a democracy appreciate each other’s basic human rights, are tolerant of differences, even when these are deemed to be offensive to their own ways of thinking and living, and recognize that, except in the direst of circumstances, nobody should be deprived of their personal dignity, intellectual autonomy or physical freedom.

Tribal, ethnic, religious or racial affinities and loyalties make it difficult for societies to be genuinely open, free and pluralistic. Pluralistic societies can exist only when the institutions and the citizenry itself accept that rule of law, reason and negotiation are the tools that will be used to address competing ideas and interests, not emotion, self-interest and tribal loyalties.

A tolerant and open citizenry presupposes a society that encourages critical thinking, dissent and the courage to challenge one’s own tribal instincts and narrow self-interest. There are no free rides or shortcuts to fostering a free society. 

The work of strengthening democracy

Many in democracies are oblivious to their own political history and the sacrifices which helped create a democratic society. Others are ignorant of the complex networks of laws, mechanisms, and social and political assumptions that allow us our freedoms and safety. Today many cannot distinguish facts from fiction or credible news sources from sloppy or manipulative ones. We do not even know who to trust anymore. The work of a democratic society is never done, After years of neglect and decay democracy is in danger not just in the USA but elsewhere. This calls upon all of us who care for open, free and equal societies to pay extraordinary attention to it and invest mightily to protect and heal it. The cost of not doing so is not, as some traditionalists would imagine, reverting back to some glorious mythical past or, even a new anarchic egalitarian heaven but social collapse or tyranny.

These freedoms and rights come at a price. Democracy is a slow and cumbersome process and aggressive pressure to accommodate new rights and demands can make a democracy vulnerable to internal and external threats. A democratic system is constantly required to balance demands for change as well as order and continuity. While fear of change, or impatience with the pace of change can reduce trust in the democratic system itself, hasty unilateral decisions, except in times of dire emergencies, can weaken the process and increase the tendency towards unilateral or autocratic functioning. Sustainable change in a democracy comes through dialogue, persuasion and negotiation.

At Citizen Demos we are under no illusion that there are any simple answers or solutions to this problem. Least of all do we imagine that our approach or our work alone will solve the problem. Much needs to be done on many fronts- the institutional, the economic and the electoral process. We do however believe strongly that the culture of democracy– the minds, hearts, dispositions and skills of its citizens is vital. Unless the quality of the citizenry is commensurate with the responsibilities that come with living in a democracy and the enjoyment of its rights, democracy will lose its way and be easily replaced by oligarchy, chaos or tyranny. Citizen Demos was created to help people living in a democracy navigate these difficult times.

We do not see Citizen Demos as an organization or a project, it is a cultural and intellectual movement. Its mission is to:

  1. Educate citizens about what it means to live in a democratic society.
  2. Educate citizens in critical thinking, reasoning and truth seeking.
  3. Build trust and collaborative capacity in neighborhoods and communities.
  4. Bridge divides between polarized groups in society.
  5. Find creative ways to influence decision-makers and those in power.