Essay by A.C. Nomen, Staff Writer
Jefferson once said, “The government you elect is the government you deserve.” This certainly makes sense, and if true, what does last night’s debate say about us? If you managed to endure the 90-minute breakdown in civility – which amounted to a series of denouncements, diatribes and maligned disputations, rather than a serious debate – you may be asking yourself the same question.
Democracies are fragile things; they breakdown and devolve, and to be clear, we are witnessing the breakdown of US democracy.
While some of us may believe this to be true, democracy was not invented by the founders of this nation. The word democracy is a combination of two Greek words, one meaning “common people” and the other “rule, or strength.” The idea of democratic rule dates back to the time of the ancient Greeks – as in BCE, which is like more than 2,000 years ago. Our nation was formed – officially – when our ancestors made the break with British rule on July 4th, 1776, which is a little more than 244 years ago.
From the times of the Greeks, the Romans and to our day, democracies have formed, flourished and foundered. Perhaps the more grotesque example of a failed democracy is that of the Weimar Republic, which fell apart and vomited-forth Adolf Hitler. To think we invented democracy, or that our system of governance is somehow immune to breaking down is mythological thinking and out right delusional.
While the paths to a failed democracy are numerous, they lead to the same place. What we are witnessing in this moment are the same pathologies that preceded the fall of Weimar Germany. But when we look deeply and search for the predicate – the basis, or kernel that leads to failures such as these – what ought to be considered is the matter of agency, which I would define as personhood.
What makes us human and provides us with agency, or the ability to act as human beings – spirit-beings, really – should not be undermined. Of course, it may be hemmed-in by laws, morality or ethics, but this is where problems start. Ultimately, agency ought to be governed alone by the most powerful force in the universe: love. If we got out of the way, let go of our egoistic tendencies, and let love take-over, agency or personhood would never be undermined, or taken away. Alas, this is not the case. In this system we are forced to rely on laws, some of which are simply wrong-minded, like the law that at one time said African Americans constitute 3/5 of a person.
Another centerpiece of this system is the notion of “homo economicus”, or “economic man”. This idea, born some 300 odd years ago is the predicate of liberalism, or in our day, neoliberalism. It’s an idea that reduces us to creatures that desire nothing more than wealth, or material things. While having adequate clothing, shelter and food are primary and necessary for our survival, the linear, economic man falls far, far short of adequately explaining human behavior. We are more than creatures that simply struggle for material goods. Yet, in this system, a system that reduces and commodifies all things, economic man leads undermines the notion of personhood. While we are certainly mammalian, we are more than animals that simply desire to aggregate things unto ourselves.
Where this notion of thingness plays itself out in a most egregious sense is in the work we do.
Like all creatures, we work – we do things with our talents, skills and abilities. This is primary. In this system, though, we trade our work hours for money, which is a commodity form (i.e., it is not something that should be sought for itself, but is rather convertible into the things we need, or want). We do this – trade our work hours – under a power structure that is largely autocratic. In other words, when we punch the clock, or start “working for the man”, we give-up our agency, or any power we ought to have to direct the fruits of our work. This power is given over to a relatively few persons, and in many cases only one. These are the folks who “own the means of production.” The relinquishing of agency over the most primary thing we do in the created order – our work – undermines, in a broad sense, what we truly are, which is spirit beings. We are more than the things we acquire. We love, and are called to see past the transactional, material world, to what transcends time. It is this transcendent “beingness” that sets us apart from the animal world. Spirit beingness, and the numinous things this implies, does a far better job of coming to understand what governs human behavior.
Fortunately, we can do something about this system. After all, we came-up with it and “we, the people” still have the power, rooted in our common humanity – our spirit beingness – to exercise our agency and fix what’s wrong with it. Though US democracy may be failing, it hasn’t failed – yet. If last night’s debate teaches us anything, it is this: On November 3, 2020 the survival of US democracy rests on whether we get out and vote.