Shortly after the inauguration of Donald Trump, in what amounted to an ongoing editorial about his administration, The Washington Post situated the slogan “Democracy Dies in Darkness” right below the paper’s masthead. It’s a bold pronouncement: not entirely inaccurate, but one that falls far short of encompassing the broader threat to the democratic order in the United States.
It’s more accurate to say that democracy dies in materialism, by which I mean our utilitarian attitude today that knowledge is rooted only in marketable skills. It changes our perception of democracy from being a way to secure abstract rights and liberties into a means by which we can have fewer limits on what we obtain, measure each other by what we have and block those who disagree with us.
A materialistic view doesn’t equip us to think deeply about human rights, civil rights, the role of government or human flourishing. It cripples our ability to think historically and critically, and so reinforces the tribalism that’s already transforming our politics into isolated echo chambers of certainty and hostility.
As a teacher I see this constantly. “I love history and I would major in it, but my parents won’t let me,” is one of the saddest things a student has ever said to me. What she meant was that she loved it and wanted to study it but her parents insisted she get a degree that would get her a job.
I’ve heard it more than once and it’s emblematic of our current approach to education: Skills — not the development of rational thought — are what students are after. There’s nothing wrong with making a good living, but it’s not the same as being educated. Wisdom and perspective, not skills, are the antidote for what ails us.
Unlike accounting, marketing or computer programming, which are skills, human rights, a free press and democratic government are ideas. Consequently, if those who believe in democracy don’t stay conversant with ideas and how they should influence us, an appreciation of the subtleties that allow democracy to work will dissolve. We’re already seeing it every time we turn on the news.
Abraham Lincoln watched it dissolve in the early years of his presidency, but he understood that the real foundation of the U.S. was an ideological enterprise, not a material nuts-and-bolts one. For him, the Declaration of Independence was a more important founding document than the Constitution, even though that’s what the inconclusive political fights leading up to the Civil War had all been about.
The Declaration of Independence by contrast was rooted in abstract ideas about rights, government authority, power and liberties, and it provided the measure of what we ought to do. As he stood at Gettysburg distilling for the crowd the reason they had to keep fighting, Lincoln drew on this. “Four score and seven years ago,” he began, taking his listeners back to 1776, not 1787.
Lincoln knew the only thing that could bind the nation together was its “mystic chords of memory,” as he later put it, not any material well-being or the Constitutional interpretation of the interstate commerce clause. But if I tried to justify my history courses by invoking mystic chords of memory, I’d be laughed out of most administrators’ offices. I can’t imagine the reaction of that one students’ parents if she were to inform them she wanted to spend her four years at the university studying mystic chords of memory.
It’s not that everyone back in Lincoln’s time went around talking about ideas seven days a week. But for a nation with its roots in ideas, understanding both our history and our present requires the ability to engage substantively with them. To see rightly where we are now and to understand the consequences of the choices we make requires us to measure our actions in light of the ideas on which our country is based.
That seems like a simple task. But our materialism makes it more difficult.
This column originally appeared in the Dallas Morning News on Friday, May 11, 2018