Opinion: Divisions, decisions, democracy: Overcoming the demand for only one way

The sun rises behind the U.S. Capitol Building, seen from Pennsylvania Avenue, on Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021.

The sun rises behind the U.S. Capitol Building, seen from Pennsylvania Avenue, on Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021. Kent Nishimura/ Los Angeles Times/ TNS


Published: 06-15-2024 6:30 AM

John Buttrick writes from his Vermont Folk Rocker in his Concord home, Minds Crossing. He can be reached at johndbuttrick@gmail.com

Recently, I participated in a discussion about the purpose of possessing guns. Some asserted that the sole purpose of firearms was death. Others declared that guns could be used to help people “feel safe” and provide security. We were stuck. Both sides clung to their particular point of view.

We were left only with the question: When a person feels strongly about an issue, should they stay with it at all costs or is it ever ethical and acceptable to modify a strict point of view for the sake of including more people in an agreement?

This experience demonstrated one of the causes of the country-wide division that is affecting our society. It is the prevailing belief that it’s dishonorable to consider changing or modifying a personal conviction. Taking this stand requires being convinced that there is a high road that cannot be overrun by another point of view on a subject or a movement.

The thoughts and actions of others can only be viewed as inferior, weak-minded, and unworthy of being considered. There is only one way to pursue the truth of a situation. With no respect for the opposition, the divide is complete and unable to be breached.

At present in the political world, American democracy is being undermined by a Congressional culture that prioritizes and solidifies a commitment to personal beliefs and a commitment to leaders who demand loyalty. This manner of standing firmly on a political or personal conviction, no matter what, suggests a preference for an aristocracy or a monarchy. Political leaders are becoming convinced that they know better than the people they represent. As Plato argues in the Republic, the best government would be led by a minority of the most highly qualified persons — an aristocracy of “philosopher-kings.”

However, the flaw in this approach is the resulting immoveable divide between these leaders “who know best.” Adamant convictions have led to frequent gridlocks in Congress, and a challenge to the effectiveness of representative democracy.

This challenge reverberates off the walls of the halls of Congress. When citizens or political leaders are divided on an issue, as they often will be, the choice seems to be a win/lose process or both sides considering a third way. In a representative democracy the third way would be to listen to the wisdom of the citizenry.

This possibility would not dishonor the firm commitments of senators and Congresspersons. It would free up the deliberations and open up possibilities for enlightened decisions. Thus, “a minimum condition for the continued existence of a democracy is that a substantial proportion of both the dēmos (village) and the leadership believes that popular government is better than any feasible alternative.”

Democracies and republics are both forms of government in which supreme power resides in the citizens. Respect for the citizens’ contributions to government results in a rich pool of possibilities. These possibilities may override the egos of those leaders who purportedly “know best.”

Thus is the possibility that one may deem it ethical and acceptable to let a strong conviction become one of the contributing voices of the village and the American citizenry. This democratic way gives strength and credibility to those with strong convictions. Faithful ethics includes standing strong on one’s convictions but with the understanding that its truth will take its place among the many voices in a democracy.

In a representative democracy, leaders are expected to discern the wisdom of their constituents. That expectation can be a factor during elections. We need to elect leaders who are able to modify their egos enough to be able to govern in a representative democracy. In doing so, they will be a strong component in bridging the divide that has disrupted our society and government for too long.