Life, Liberty And The Pursuit Of Happiness
We live in a time when the call for freedom and democracy echoes across the globe. The drama surrounding the extraordinary political changes in Europe obscures the remarkable degree to which the promise of democracy has mobilized peoples throughout the world. This worldwide phenomenon belies the skeptics who have contended that modern democracy is a uniquely Western artifact that can never be successfully replicated in non-Western cultures. The institutions of democracy can legitimately claim to address universal human aspirations for freedom and self-government.
Yet freedom's apparent surge during the last decade by no means ensures its ultimate success. Chester E. Finn, Jr., professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University and director of the Educational Excellence Network, said in remarks before a group of educators and government officials in Managua, Nicaragua: "That people naturally prefer freedom to oppression can indeed be taken for granted. But that is not the same as saying that democratic political systems can be expected to create and maintain themselves over time. On the contrary. The idea of democracy is durable, but its practice is precarious."
Democratic values may be resurgent today, but viewed over the long course of human history, from the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century to the rise of one-party regimes in the mid-20th century, most democracies have been few and short-lived. This fact is cause for neither pessimism nor despair; instead, it serves as a challenge. While the desire for freedom may be innate, the practice of democracy must be learned. Whether the hinge of history will continue to open the doors of freedom and opportunity depends on the dedication and collective wisdom of the people themselves--not upon any of history's iron laws and certainly not on the imagined benevolence of self- appointed leaders.
Contrary to some perceptions, a healthy democratic society is not simply an arena in which individuals pursue their own personal goals. Democracies flourish when they are tended by citizens willing to use their hard-won freedom to participate in the life of their society--adding their voices to the public debate, electing representatives who are held accountable for their actions, and accepting the need for tolerance and compromise in public life. The citizens of a democracy enjoy the right of individual freedom, but they also share the responsibility of joining with others to shape a future that will continue to embrace the fundamental values of freedom and self-government.
Citizens cannot be required to take part in the political process, and they are free to express their dissatisfaction by not participating. But without the lifeblood of citizen action, democracy will begin to weaken. Citizens of democratic societies have the opportunity to join a host of private organizations, associations, and volunteer groups. Many of these are concerned with issues of public policy, yet few are controlled or financed by the government. The right of individuals to associate freely and to organize themselves into different sorts of nongovernmental groups is fundamental to democracy. When people of common interests band together, their voices can be heard and their chances of influencing the political debate increased. As Alexis de Tocqueville, the great 19th-century French political observer, wrote, "There are no countries in which associations are more needed to prevent the despotism of faction or the arbitrary power of a prince than those which are democratically constituted."
Voting in the election of public officials is the most visible and common form of participation in modern democracies and also the most fundamental. The ability to conduct free and fair elections is at the core of what it means to call a society democratic.
The motivations of voters are as numerous as the societies and interests that they represent. Voters obviously cast their ballots for candidates who will represent their interests, but other factors influence voter preference as well. Party affiliation is one: Individuals who identify strongly with a political party are much more likely to vote than those who identify themselves as independent or nonpartisan. Indeed, in systems of proportional representation, voters may only be able to vote for a political party, not for individual candidates.
Political parties recruit, nominate, and campaign to elect public officials; draw up policy programs for the government if they are in the majority; offer criticisms and alternative policies if they are in opposition; mobilize support for common policies among different interest groups; educate the public about public issues; and provide structure and rules for the society's political debate. In some political systems, ideology may be an important factor in recruiting and motivating party members; elsewhere, similar economic interests or social outlook may be more important than ideological commitment.
Party organizations and procedures vary enormously. On one end of the spectrum, in multiparty parliamentary systems in Europe, political parties can be tightly disciplined organizations run almost exclusively by full-time professionals. At the other extreme is the United States, where rival Republican and Democratic parties are decentralized organizations functioning largely in Congress and at the state level. This situation changes every four years when national Republican and Democratic party organizations, relying heavily on volunteers, coalesce to mount presidential election campaigns.
Political parties are as varied as the societies in which they function. The election campaigns they conduct are often elaborate, usually time-consuming, sometimes silly. But the function is deadly serious: to provide a peaceful and fair method by which the citizens of a democracy can select their leaders and have a meaningful role in determining their own destiny.
In a democratic society, citizens have a right to gather peacefully and protest the policies of their government or the actions of other groups with demonstrations, marches, petitions, boycotts, strikes, and other forms of direct citizen action. Protests are a testing ground for any democracy. The ideals of free expression and citizen participation are easy to defend when everyone remains polite and in agreement on basic issues. But protesters--and their targets- -do not agree on basic issues, and such disagreements may be passionate and angry. The challenge then is one of balance: to defend the right to freedom of speech and assembly, while maintaining public order and countering attempts at intimidation or violence. To suppress peaceful protest in the name of order is to invite repression; to permit uncontrolled violent protest is to invite anarchy.
There is no magic formula for achieving this balance. In the end, it depends on the commitment of the majority to maintaining the institutions of democracy and the precepts of individual rights. Democratic societies are capable of enduring the most bitter disagreement among its citizens-- except for disagreement about the legitimacy of democracy itself.
Democracy implies no specific doctrine of economics. Democratic governments have embraced committed socialists and free marketeers alike. Indeed, a good deal of the debate in any modern democracy concerns the proper role of government in the economy. Nevertheless, it would be fair to say that the proponents of democracy generally regard economic freedom as a key element in any democratic society. This fact has not precluded economic issues from becoming the chief force dividing--and defining--the "left-right" political spectrum as we know it today.
Democracies make several assumptions about human nature. One is that, given the chance, people are generally capable of governing themselves in a manner that is fair and free. Another is that any society comprises a great diversity of interests and individuals who deserve to have their voices heard and their views respected. As a result, one thing is true of all healthy democracies: They are noisy.
Former U.S. president George Bush described the wide array of volunteer organizations in the United States as "a thousand points of light." The metaphor could also serve for the diversity, or pluralism, of democratic societies everywhere. The voices of democracy include those of the government, its political supporters, and the opposition, of course. But they are joined by the voices of labor unions, organized interest groups, community associations, the news media, scholars and critics, religious leaders and writers, small businesses and large corporations, churches and schools.
All of these groups are free to raise their voices and participate in the democratic political process, whether locally or nationally. In this way, democratic politics acts as a filter through which the vocal demands of a diverse populace pass on the way to becoming public policy.
Democracy itself guarantees nothing. It offers instead the opportunity to succeed as well as the risk of failure. In Thomas Jefferson's ringing but shrewd phrase, the promise of democracy is "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Democracy is then both a promise and a challenge. It is a promise that free human beings, working together, can govern themselves in a manner that will serve their aspirations for personal freedom, economic opportunity, and social justice. It is a challenge because the success of the democratic enterprise rests upon the shoulders of its citizens and no one else.
Government of and by the people means that the citizens of a democratic society share in its benefits and in its burdens. By accepting the task of self-government, one generation seeks to preserve the hard-won legacy of individual freedom, human rights, and the rule of law for the next. In each society and each generation, the people must perform the work of democracy anew--taking the principles of the past and applying them to the practices of a new age and a changing society.
The late Josef Brodsky, Russian-born poet and Nobel Prize winner, once wrote, "A free man, when he fails, blames nobody." It is true as well for the citizens of democracy who, finally, must take responsibility for the fate of the society in which they themselves have chosen to live. In the end, we get the government we deserve.
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