On Democracy

How the candidates stack up to the principles of democracy.


I arrived at Indiana University in the Fall of 1967 with the intention to begin and complete a PhD program in the philosophy of education. I was nearly 30 years old, and had stumbled down several other potential life paths, only to fall off of them again and again. Fortunately for me, my undergraduate philosophy professor, Elizabeth Steiner Maccia, had never lost confidence in my ability, and I had followed her to Indiana University from The Ohio State University. I had a good analytic mind, and she saw a place for me in the newly emerging field of the logic and methodology of educational inquiry. She and her spouse, George Maccia, both held academic appointments at Indiana, and were well-known in their professional circles.

Dr. Elizabeth helped me plan my program, and explained to me that I needed to take a variety of courses that not only gave me competence in my chosen field, but also exposed me to the views of the other philosophers of education in the department. Consequently, since Indiana University had an excellent doctors program at the time, I was to gradually introduce myself to the thinking of several other leaders in the field, A. Stafford Clayton, Stanley Ballinger, and Philip G. Smith among them. In particular I was very taken by the leadership and thinking of Phil Smith, who could trace his intellectual heritage through several generations of the followers of John Dewey.

Democracy involves respect for individuality, confidence in human intelligence, and the right and responsibility for appropriate participation.

I really hadn’t given too much systematic thought to the topic, Democracy and Education, which Dewey had mapped out so magnificently in his 1916 publication by the same name. Phil Smith had given a lot of thought to the topic, so much so that he had penned a foundational book on the topic that was published by Harper & Row in 1964, just three years before I arrived at Indiana. Many think that the best way to learn something is to teach it. As part of my teaching assignment I was to teach the introductory philosophy of education course to undergraduate education students, and Phil Smith’s book was the required text. I spent many evenings reading and pondering that book so that I might appear competent to teach it the next morning at 8 am.

I once asked Phil for a good definition of democracy. He replied, I don’t think I can give you a better one than the one that appears on p. 243 of my textbook. I was slightly mollified at the time, but I went immediately to the book and looked it up. It is worth quoting the core of that definition here:
Democracy involves:

  1. Respect for individuality and for the conditions that promote the growth of human personality
  2. Confidence in human intelligence, formed and informed through the process of free, autonomous inquiry
  3. The right and responsibility for appropriate participation in investigation and resolution of problems of shared concern

I believed in these principles then, and I believe in them now. Whatever we may finally determine democracy to be—and Phil stood ready to modify his definition if need be—democracy is a fragile and precious social arrangement that has been realized to varying degrees at certain places on this planet from time to time.
Reviewing these principles has helped me to see why today I so celebrate the candidacy of Hillary Clinton for president. I will discuss this following the points above.

  1. I have seen an appalling lack of respect for individuality in the Republican primary race and an even greater intolerance of the conditions that promote the growth of human personality in the Republican candidate for President, Donald Trump. I also have seen within the campaign of Bernie Sanders for president an increasing lack of respect for individuality, and in some instances I have had to tolerate what I consider to be hate and fear motivated deliberate smear attempts on Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. I think Bernie himself has struggled to stay on the side of respect for individuality. However, it does concern me that some of his supporters say at least that they are “ready for the revolution.” Revolutions come in many varieties, but the best kind are the ones that do not sacrifice respect for individuality for achieving social change. I prefer to put my confidence in working within the existing system, which God knows needs improving. I base this hope on the following belief: in true political revolutions democracy is seldom replaced by democracy. Clearly, Clinton is a uniter, not a divider, and I eagerly await her leadership.
  2. Many of my values are actually to the left of Clinton’s. I support radical freedom of the press, radical privacy in an impossibly public world, radical trimming back the overgrown pot guts of contemporary wealthy capitalist robber barons, guaranteed minimum annual income for adults. I could go on, but you get the idea. So how can I possibly justify supporting Clinton over Sanders? It’s simply this: my support for Clinton is based on both political and intellectual reasons, as is my support for Sanders. I can do this because in the long run I have “confidence in human intelligence, formed and informed through the process of free, autonomous inquiry.” I’ve been happy with Bernie’s courageous holding out, keeping these more radical ideas out there for the moderates to deal with. It is Sanders who gets to decide, in this democracy, when he will speak and when he will shut up and get with the program. In my opinion, we need for progressives to become as actively involved with the democratic process as their clearly anti-intellectual antithetical radical right opponents.
  3. The last 50 years have seen unparalleled cultural conflict and war in this country and in the world. People of color, women, queer people, poor people and imprisoned people have gradually rediscovered their voices and avenues to and of social power. The dominant straight white Anglo-Saxon male Protestant (SWAMP) culture of privilege has become increasingly organized and amazingly successful in beating back these democratic advances. We simply cannot have “appropriate participation in investigation and resolution of problems of shared concern” when we have gerrymandering of congressional districts, unnecessary voter restrictions that actually diminish the right to vote, state governments wrecking personal rights and state economies, climate change denying, and other restrictions of guaranteed individual rights. I do not blame Republicans for our current problems. But I DO blame both the Republicans and the Democrats who have not spoken out for democracy and defense of individual rights when it was difficult and even dangerous to do so. Our participation in this democracy is a right AND a responsibility. Stop blaming parties and other people for causing problems you are experiencing. Get out there, vote, organize, participate and then sleep at night with a clear conscience that you have done as much that day as you can.

Author: Jim Andris

Retired gay married early adopter. Cooking, cleaning, fixing. Makes good music occasionally; U name it. Churchy dude. Likes to think about things, too much, sometimes. Dump Trump. Trying not to do too much harm. Revisiting blogging. Looking for a new handle on things. Exploring genderqueer.