All regimes, democratic or not, rely on trust to varying extents in order to function. Part of what makes democracy so especially fragile is how broadly it asks us to share our trust; how big a leap of faith we must make. To trust in democracy is to trust that the common citizen will be morally decent and discerning. It is psychologically difficult enough to make such a leap on behalf of utter strangers, but the difficulty is greatly compounded by the many clashing narratives that divide a body politic into various struggling tribes. Now more than ever, the fate of democracy depends on our ability to extend our trust across those divides.
On her personal blog, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig wrestled with the notion that a person can have needs that no marriage can perfectly meet. Rather than conceding that one ought to be permissive with infidelity—or worse, promote polyamory—Bruenig argues on behalf of a perspective that acknowledges tragic circumstances without letting them define the story.
The Christian view, in other words, acknowledges and realizes tragedy without permitting it to define an entire worldview, thus permitting all kinds of travesties, like the destruction of monogamy in marriage. Yes, the Christian frame agrees, there are tragic situations: but the needs which must go un-met or the desires un-fulfilled have no finitude because human life itself continues. Desires and needs that conflict with the good and the good of others are the result of a temporary disturbed order, but with God order is undisturbed, and the Christian hope points to eventual unity with that order. The un-met need, I mean to say, is only the primary ethical concern when you imagine need-meeting to be the totalizing, final frame of human existing.
As the quote makes clear, Bruenig approaches this question from a theological perspective. One need not be Christian or a theist in any sense, however, to see how destructive it can be to allow what is tragic to define our entire worldview—in marriage, or anywhere. Indeed, the impetus for Bruenig’s piece is a perfectly secular movie “Take This Waltz.” She quotes the following line from it: “Life has a gap in it. It just does. You don’t go crazy trying to fill it like some lunatic.”
I would like to suggest that a body politic always has a gap in it, as well—whether we’re talking about a democracy or any other system. This is the crux of the famous Winston Churchill quote about democracy being the worst system except for the rest: the problems with democracies as they actually exist in the world are all too obvious. And some problems can be managed more readily than others.
How the Gaps of Democracy Promote Distrust
One problem that will not go away is this: we live in a time in which numerous rival and incommensurable narratives flourish. These narratives are tied up in membership in particular communities, and they often play a part in defining people’s identities as well as their sense of purpose. The present state of things can be traced largely to the spread of the Internet and the media of the late twentieth century. The thread goes back further still, to the invention of the printing press, and the subsequent beginnings of mass literacy, and the Reformation.
Modern pluralism writ large, and liberal democracy, grew in the soil of this turmoil. But how it came about is less important than the simple fact that this conflict of visions cannot be done away with; it is and will remain the reality on the ground. This means that a democratic government will be responsive to at least some constituents who subscribe to a narrative that you may find repulsive. Similarly, it will be responsive to the constituents who share your narrative, which others may find repulsive. This is the gap at the heart of democracy, the one so many go mad trying to fill.If you let this gap define your entire view of democracy, or even a particular democracy, you will inevitably fall into pessimism and cynicism. This attitude is pervasive right now; we live in a time when negation has replaced aspiration as the primary driver of political activism. No small part of the problem comes from aspirations that demanded too much too quickly and for too little. Tired of seeing such cosmic demands disappointed, the public tips increasingly towards open revolt.
Trust Can Keep Us Together When We Disagree
There will always be a gap. Even if everyone is highly educated, discerning, and acting in good faith, conflicting narratives will nevertheless keep any one group from dominating the path of reform for long and stand in the way of big changes. Even if most public servants and elected officials have the best of intentions, ugly choices will be made because such choices are an unavoidable part of the system they’ve inherited, or indeed, any alternative. We make our faith in democracy contingent on ignoring this fact at our own peril.
Legitimacy requires faith, and the legitimacy of democracy requires a special sort of faith. It requires faith in persuasion, rather than force. It requires our military to have faith in the civilian government which oversees it—in our case, a faith that exists in no small part due to the perceived legitimacy of government “of the people.” And it requires trust, a special sort of faith, that even when we disagree with one another, we are doing our best to see and promote what is right.
Such trust is more readily found from a position of humility: you could be wrong, even in those situations where more people agree with you than those you disagree with. To return to the analogy with marriage, it is also easier when we stop keeping score and instead are generous with our forgiveness and in remembering when those we disagree with have behaved honorably.
The story of democracy should not be defined by our inability to ever find perfect agreement and move in perfect harmony. It should be defined by an astonishing commitment to peaceful transfers of power over bloody coups, and the virtue of open conversation over the vice of a single narrative, violently imposed from above.