“What can I do? What can I do to help our democracy?”

Some on the far left argue that democracy as we experience it is not the opposite of authoritarianism; rather, it is just a more discreet form of it. Equality is not an ideal we strive for but a lie that serves to sustain power even as it masks it. And freedom? That is nothing more than what late-stage capitalism allows it to be. Whatever comes after what we have now is not entirely clear, but it will be more genuinely egalitarian, and it may well have to emerge from the ashes.

For many more on the right, democracy is not a lie, but a threat. It is the means by which groups with different backgrounds, values, and objectives can exercise their rights and gain power. They fear that such a possibility endangers their status at the top of the cultural, economic, and political food chain. At minimum, these Americans are eager to manipulate something less than equality so that it preserves the past and manifests something less than equality and majority rule. For these Americans, any democracy that demands a larger, and for that matter more authentic, measure of equality is not worthy of respect, let alone defense; it is something to be cordoned off. 

Neither side is likely to find anything relevant or useful in what follows. I can live with that. For there are many more Americans who feel no such disrespect. On the contrary, they take great pride in American democracy, and they earnestly want to see it endure. These Americans survey the current condition of that democracy and react with grave concern, even dread. Many times over the last few years I have been asked by people who feel this way – students, friends, and people who have found out what I do for a living – “What can I do? What can I do to help our democracy?”

This is the right way to frame the question. Of course it is impossible to ignore the slow-moving train wreck that is all around us. And it is equally difficult to ignore the actions of those whose pursuit of power, money, or status only furthers us along that path. Many argue that the correct response is political reform; changing our political institutions and procedures and electing representatives whose commitment to democracy overrides their rank self-interest. I don’t disagree. But structures and procedures can only operate within a primary agreement about what behaviors we can rightfully expect from each other.  Likewise, politicians respond to incentives, and right now the incentives line up to preserve and even exacerbate an appalling status quo. In what follows, I argue that the prerequisite to reforming our politics is the reform of our own actions and behaviors.

The late conservative firebrand Andrew Breitbart insisted that “politics is downstream from culture.” In other words, if you want to change the former, you first have to attend to the latter. For Breitbart, this meant that Republicans should have been more worried about making movies and writing songs than they were about voter registration in some congressional district. My assessment of what is unsatisfactory about our culture, let alone how we should work to restore it, diverges significantly from what Breitbart would and did say. But regarding this one very general point, at least, I agree: politics is downstream from culture. The sorry condition of the former therefore reflects and stems from the sorry condition of the latter. What’s more, I agree that restoring that culture is not a job merely or even primarily for politicians. It is a responsibility that falls on all of us as citizens. For all of us, therefore, the appropriate question is the one that comes before questions of political reform: What can I do?

If you have that same question – if you are concerned about the condition of our democracy right now, you want that democracy to endure for yourself and for your children, and want to know what you can do to help sustain it – then this is my effort to respond. To paraphrase the philosopher Philippa Foot, in the army of democratic virtue, we are all volunteers. If you want to be one of those volunteers, keep reading.

Again, democracy allows human society to accommodate the inescapable fact of disagreement. It provides the means for channeling and constraining conflict, thereby avoiding the Scylla and Charybdis of tyranny and civil war. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, conflict will overwhelm our constraints. That ever-looming possibility is why democracies are fragile. This has always been so, but now we all know it to be true.

Tribalism is one basic, inescapable feature of human existence that crystallizes these difficulties. All human beings are driven to form groups, to cooperate within them, and to distrust and disparage outsiders. Now to say “all,” “basic,” and “inescapable” means that tribalism is not a category that defines some subset of human beings. It does not refer specifically or even primarily to a group of people in New Guinea or the Amazon. Nor does it refer to members of the nearly six hundred federally recognized tribes in the United States who use that word to describe themselves. For my purposes, it is a neurological term, reflecting the basic wiring of all human brains. Tribalism is part of our evolutionary blueprint; it manifests itself irrespective of the time, place, or culture in which humans find themselves. No matter who we are or where we live, we are all tribal. 

From “The Seven Democratic Virtues: What You Can Do to Overcome Tribalism and Save Our Democracy” by Christopher Beem