“An enlightened and virtuous people, who are blessed with liberty, should look with profound attention to every occurrence which furnishes proof of the dangers to which that cause is exposed. . . No people blessed with libertcould be deprived of it, if they were not dupes and instruments of their own destruction.”
– James Monroe
“Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”
– John Adams
Our so-called “founding fathers” believed that the ultimate guarantor of democracy was an informed and responsible citizenry. Education and accountability were to be the foundation for a new venture in social democracy that would model for the nations of the world a transformative structure for government: a political entity to champion and defend the dignity and avowed rights of individuals, founded by and grounded in the willful acceptance of responsibility of individuals worthy of that avowal. As profound in concept as it was simple in expression, this would be government of, by, and for the ones governed, guaranteed by the rule of law, reified in the laws of those governed by governing, and shielded from the false or vile intrusions of personal power, group identity, monied interests, social position, or religious suppositions.
It was and is profound in concept. Likewise, it was and is easier to proclaim in rhetoric than it has been to effect in actuality. Often the intensity and persistence of the intrusions have been more determinative than the tenacity and preparedness of citizens. Indeed, the espoused foundations, education and accountability—both of which require the highest level of vigilance—frequently have been the points of ultimate weakness.
The American “dream” is intact. Philosophically, such dreams are “possibilities”. They are neither true nor false in themselves. They are testable and realizable. Reality is the measure of their meaning, truth, and value. The American dream, like any other, cannot be left in the murky substrata of dreaminess, but must be brought to the light of day, again and yet again. Further, each time that dream lapses back into carelessness or forgetfulness, those menacing intrusions negate the realization of the dream.
The current “manifesto” derives from the author’s belief that the American dream is violently at risk and that the vulnerability is foundational, that is, we have failed to educate our citizens as democracy functionally requires, and our citizens in turn have been co-opted by conflicting interests and preoccupations to the point of being irresponsible guarantors of their own freedoms. Lovers and guardians of freedom must be alarmed at the prospect that democracy’s promissory note might get called! Am I being alarmist and melodramatic? Well, sounding the alarm and raising consciousness of imposing threat and impending danger are significant features of vigilance.
As every adventurer’s alter-ego knows: “better safe than sorry!” There is no contradiction in the belief that the “new venture”—now 243 years old and a little time-worn—could profit from critical examination and renewal. My series will attempt to provide that critical study.
Thomasson is executive director of The Woodside Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Crookston. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.