How did it happen that Americans strayed so far from democracy?

BRATTLEBORO — Thank you for printing Richard Morton's forthright description of his political and social beliefs and his journey through the recent electoral extravaganza. It might be the longest such piece The Commons has ever accepted, but it succeeds marvelously in painting a picture of what must be no insignificant swath of Republican voters.

It's a pleasure to encounter a Republican who needs and is capable of using more than 140 characters to express a full and complex train of thought.

Mr. Morton is articulate and clear. The people of the United States should be guided by Christians. In fact, not Christians broadly but specifically evangelical Christians, which, as he puts it, are “reliable.” I take that to mean that other Christians - Protestants, Catholics, et al - have a questionable moral foundation. If nothing else, Mr. Morton is sincere.

His writing includes no mention at all of concepts like democracy. Yet, I doubt he would, if asked, discard democracy. I imagine that Mr. Morton would, in fact, be an ardent supporter of democracy as long as its manifestations (laws, policies, structure, actions, etc.) were in keeping with or based upon an evangelical Christian interpretation of the Bible. He would see no contradiction at all.

It is unlikely he could tell us why the framers were careful and pointed in separating church and state, let alone the gist of their reasoning. If it turns out, as cosmologists increasingly think it might, that humanity may be but a billionth of intelligent life in the universe, Mr. Morton will feel no less certain that this very thin slice of intelligent life on this one planet, evangelical Christians, are the only beings in the universe who got it right. Nothing else could make sense to him.

There is a much more important insight that should be taken from Mr. Morton's opinion. How did it happen that Americans strayed so far from democracy?

Most of the founders and framers of our country knew two things. The first was that the democracy they were shaping was quite different from the political system the Colonists had just overthrown. And they knew that, for it to succeed and endure, citizens were going to need to understand it, believe in it, and be loyal to it.

They knew that democracy would not survive without an informed citizenry. If the populace didn't believe in it, they would not fight for it. The original purpose of public education was to create a strong, loyal, and active citizenry.

One will find just this at the very top of any list of purposes of seemingly every institution of public education in the country. French historian Alexis de Tocqueville was greatly impressed, in 1831, to find how deeply and earnestly Americans were engaged in their local democracies.

Or, at least, that was the way it was.

A funny thing happened. After World War II, as the military-industrial complex began gaining control of the country (as President Dwight Eisenhower gravely warned about), the purpose of education also began changing.

Developing children to fill the current needs of the labor force rapidly became the dominant mantra. The knowledge necessary for being a good and effective citizen was being replaced by the knowledge needed to get a job.

In a description of the book Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities by philosopher and University of Chicago professor Martha Nussbaum, her publisher says the author is “thinking about the aims of education has gone disturbingly awry both in the United States and abroad.”

“Anxiously focused on national economic growth, we increasingly treat education as though its primary goal were to teach students to be economically productive rather than to think critically and become knowledgeable and empathetic citizens.

“This shortsighted focus on profitable skills has eroded our ability to criticize authority, reduced our sympathy with the marginalized and different, and damaged our competence to deal with complex global problems. And the loss of these basic capacities jeopardizes the health of democracies and the hope of a decent world.”

Each year, The Economist does an analysis of the strength of democracy in all the countries around the world. It rates them from the strongest to the weakest, which are usually the dictatorships with little or no democracy at all.

In its 2017 edition, the United States fell one more notch, from 20th to 21st. More tellingly, it also crossed the line from the top category of “full democracy” to the category of “flawed democracy.”

Another observer noted that the mantle of “leader of the free world,” an honor bestowed for decades on the president of the United States, has now shifted to Angela Merkel of Germany.

I am grateful for Mr. Morton's opinion. He wanted to tell us about America, and he did.

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