Democracy and Cultural Diversity
Yesterday the United States celebrated the 241st anniversary of the issuance of the Declaration of Independence, which essentially created a breach between the colonies and Great Britain. We call our selves a democracy, though we are not a pure democracy. We are instead a representative democracy. Although the Declaration declares that "all men are equal," this statement had a fairly narrow definition, which has broadened with time (and continues to broaden so that humankind is a much better word). Reinhold Niebuhr wrote of the vision of democracy the Founders had in mind. It was to be one without faction. Yet, as Niebuhr writes: "The founding fathers of America regarded “faction” as an unmitigated evil. The American Constitution was designed to prevent the emergence of the very political parties without which it has become impossible to maintain our democratic processes." [Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defense (Kindle Locations 1432-1433). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.]. So, parties emerged, with the parties of today not being the parties of the earliest American politicos. The earliest debates pitted those who valued a centralized national government (Hamiltonians) and those who envisioned a more libertarian form (Jeffersonians). One was urban the other rural/agrarian.
As Niebuhr notes, democracy emerged from the Middle Ages as a way of dealing with the issue of cultural diversity. He writes in The Children of the Light and the Children of Darkness:
The individualism of the eighteenth century is rather curious in the light of the experience of the seventeenth century. The democracy of England was essentially the achievement of that century. The cause of its emergence was the inability of the nation to solve the problem of cultural diversity on other than democratic terms. With the disintegration of the religious and social unity of the medieval period, the various economic and religious groups expressed each its own characteristic religious and economic convictions with great freedom. Most of them hoped to have their own position prevail within the entire nation; but none were strong enough to achieve this end. Of the religious groups only the Independents and Levellers genuinely believed in religious toleration. The others finally accepted it as the only solution for the variety of religious and cultural movements which had developed and which could not be brought back into the pattern of cultural uniformity. [Niebuhr,The Children of Light (Kindle Locations 1435-1442)].
Faction/Party emerged because we lack political/cultural uniformity. The question that we wrestle with concerns our ability to navigate this diversity. As he notes, most groups that ultimately espoused diversity and tolerance did so because they could not make their position prevail in the country.
As we begin the 242nd year of America's existence as an independent nation, I would ask us to consider how we might learn to live together in a way that gives room for our diversity? It is impossible to go back to a time of homogeneity, unless we choose to segregate ourselves from the rest of the nation and world. Or, we could as the Nazi's attempted, return to a primitive homogeneity. However, as Niebuhr notes that the effects were perverted, Thus:
It is no more possible for a mature and highly elaborated community to return to the unity of its tribal simplicity than for a mature man to escape the perils of maturity by a return to childhood. The fact that primitivism results in perversity and that coerced unity produces sadistic cruelties (in place of the uncoerced unities of genuinely primitive life) is a tremendously valuable lesson for our civilization. It ought to teach us that we must go forward, and cannot go backward, in solving the problems with which higher forms of communal maturity present us. [Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: (Kindle Locations 1467-1472).]
While some will (and are) seek to turn back the clock and impose cultural uniformity on the nation, but it cannot do this without doing serious damage to the national psyche. So, let us embrace the future and with it our cultural/ethnic diversity, so that we might move into the common good of the nation and world. Perhaps such a vision will enable us to breakthrough the divides of the moment.