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Defining Democratic Values
Clark Moeller, exerpted from It's a Matter of Values, published June 2000 -- The mission statement of the Pennsylvania Alliance for Democracy refers to "democratic values." This section, "Defining Democratic Values," is intended to refresh our understanding about why democracy is important and to list and explain the seven values that we believe are essential to all democracies.
    Benefits of Democracy: In contrast to countries run as theocracies such as Iran, communist governments such as China, the Fascist dictatorship in Chile under General Augusto Pinochet, or the dictatorship in Iraq, democracies like the United States offer their citizens seven major benefits.1 These benefits include:
    • More political equality;
    • More rights, such as free speech, press, assembly, and due process;
    • Greater freedom from the coercive pressure of government, employers, and from those churches which would like to impose their religion on others;
    • Democracies foster more opportunities to exercise our moral responsibility in society by being a volunteer, participating in community associations, working through synagogues or churches, and running for elected office;
    • More control over our basic self-interest, such as what career to follow, where to work, where to live, and what type of housing we want;
    • Greater economic prosperity, a condition that has enormous implications for economic justice. Currently, some European democracies are doing a better job than the United States on economic justice – on ensuring the health of women, providing nutrition for children, and creating housing for the poor.
    • Established democracies do not go to war with each other.2 This benefit is unique to democracies. Wars destroy more life, liberty, and potential for happiness than almost any other social or political phenomenon. War is the ultimate destroyer of economic justice.
    As more of the world's populations have sought these benefits, the number of democracies has increased throughout the world. Between 1870 and 1990, the number of democratic nations increased from 1 to 65, from 2% to 33% of all existing nations.3 Since 1990, many other nations have begun to develop the procedures for democracy even as they struggle with deeply held cultural traditions that conflict with democratic values. Russia and Indonesia are examples. Many long-term, regional conflicts are being addressed through nonviolent means because democratic values are governing the process. The negotiations in South Africa, between Israel and Palestine, and in Northern Ireland provide recent examples.
    Our constitutional republic is but one type of democracy among others, such as the various forms of parliamentary government. However, the underlying values are the same for all democracies. What varies from one form to another are their management procedures, which are based on practical considerations. For example, voting among the members of a town council is necessarily different from voting among citizens in state or national elections. The degree of directness in representation differs between our Congress and the British Parliament, and between our Senate and House. The procedures for selecting candidates to stand for office are managed differently in different political parties.
    Despite these procedural differences, seven values must be held and practiced by a people for any democracy to survive. These include: diversity or inclusiveness; tolerance; dissent, the right to be heard; truth as found through a search for objective, factual information; compromise as a means for resolving problems; election by the people; and freedom and rights for citizens.
    These values and the behaviors that support or undermine them are outlined below.
    Diversity: A democracy that is a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people" includes as members all adult, law-abiding citizens whatever their differences in economic status, level of education, race, heritage, religious belief, sex, or sexual orientation. In short, the existing adult population, regardless of its diversity, is eligible to participate in the government. This is fundamental to the concept of democracy.
    The key difference between a democracy and an oligarchy, for example, is the degree to which most citizens believe or know they are fully enfranchised to vote. The elite of an oligarchy often are threatened by the disenfranchised within their country. In contrast, the elected leaders of a democracy are more concerned about threats from outside the country.
    The behaviors that undermine diversity as a value include practices that diminish or marginalize the impact of people's participation in government. Participation in government can be reduced, for example, by gerrymandering congressional districts, or by threats and intimidation aimed at discouraging minorities from voting or legal immigrants from seeking citizenship.
    Tolerance: Tolerance of individual and group differences is essential to the function of a democracy. Tolerance as a shared social value guarantees that we all can exercise our rights to life, liberty, and participation in the process of government. Without a tolerance for diversity, there can be no government "of the people, by the people, for the people." Without tolerance it is less likely that dissent, debate, negotiation, and compromise will happen.4
    The right wing currently disparages tolerance as an excuse for relativistic thinking that undermines moral principles. In reaction, some progressives are changing the emphasis in their rhetoric from "tolerance" to "respecting the dignity of others." However, tolerance is not the same thing as "respecting the dignity of others." Tolerance is more hard edged. It asks us to put aside our prejudices for the moment to do the essential work of governance we all need done so we can get on with our lives. Tolerance grants the other person equal rights at a procedural level. For democracy to work, we do not need to like the other person, their family, or their children. However, participating with them in the debates and negotiations that are so essential to our democracy make it more likely that we will transform mere tolerance into mutual respect.
    Behaviors that undermine this fundamental democratic value include language that demonizes people and groups, fosters a climate of racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, sexism, or xenophobia, that demeans those with disabilities, or that scapegoats minorities for problems for which they bear no responsibility.
    "The third rail of American politics is religious intolerance," noted the sociologist Alan Wolfe, Director of the Center for Religion and American Life at Boston College, during the 2000 primaries. "In aligning himself [George W. Bush], with those who convey the message that to be a good American one has to be a good Christian, Mr. Bush reminds voters why they distrust politicians who cannot keep the realm of God distinct from the realm of politics."5
    Dissent: The right to dissent and debate, to be heard, is an essential value for democracy. Dissent and debate depend on the tolerance of others in the community, particularly the tolerance of those in leadership positions. Behaviors that undercut dissent as a value include the use of threats, demagoguery, and violence to intimidate, to quash the right to be heard, or to interfere with debate, negotiation, and compromise. However, on a more systemic level, the corporate control of the media and the consolidation of media ownership within a region, have reduced the diversity of opinions in public debate – particularly on television and in newspapers. Criticisms are seldom heard about corporations that control television or print media. Criticisms of the unethical practices of a newspaper or its one-sided presentation of issues usually get no media exposure when the paper dominates a media area.
    Truth: Discovering the truth of a matter using objective inquiry is a democratic value in our constitutional republic. Discovering and disseminating such truth is not now, and has never been, a practice associated with theocracies, dictatorships, communistic governments, or oligarchies.
    The framers of our Constitution recognized that informed citizens were essential to their new democracy, so they protected the individual's right to free speech and the freedom of the press in the First Amendment. They also protected religious liberty in the First Amendment by separating the power of the state from the influence of the church. In so doing, they defined the search for objective truth as a democratic value.
    First, "truth" as determined by rational investigation was assigned to the state side of the church/state wall of separation. The "truth" as found in religious texts handed down by church authority, or reported as personal religious revelation, was assigned to the church side of the church/state equation. Thus, by separating the claims of religion, some of which are mutually exclusive, from public policy debate, the founders opened the way for reasoned discussion and compromise in the work of our government. However, there are "truths" that are common to many religious traditions and to a secular perspective as well, so disagreements can be merely semantic.6
    Second, this concept of truth is supported in our Constitution by an independent judiciary. The court system determines what is true through an adversarial system that presents facts, hears uncoerced testimony of witnesses, calls for judgment by a jury of peers, and follows a due process guided by an impartial judge.
    Third, even before the Constitution was written, the colonizers of America in the 1600's and 1700's believed an educated citizen, who could tell fact from fiction, was essential to colonial government. Taxes were levied to support public schooling in 1635 in Boston. Today, public education is thoroughly institutionalized at every level of government.
    In summary, freedom of the press, speech, and assembly facilitates the dissemination of ideas and news; public education helps citizens interpret the news; and an independent judiciary strives to find justice based on objective inquiry.
    Behaviors that conflict with discovering truth by factual discovery include interfering with an individual's or the public's right to know the facts of a situation or to hear the full range of ideas on an issue. The "public well of trust" can be poisoned with disinformation, fabrications, and deception; by violating sunshine laws; by interfering with or compromising the public's access to information in public libraries, public school libraries, or on the Internet; and by appealing to revealed religious truth (faith) in dealing with public issues instead of conducting a finding of fact.
    Compromise: Compromise is accepted in a democracy as an approach to resolving conflict. Negotiation and compromise can only take place if debate is tolerated and there is common agreement about how fact or truth is discovered.
    The negative behaviors that undercut compromise as a value are those that undercut the right to be heard – the use of intimidation, demagoguery, and violence to silence those who should be heard, or to interfere with debate, negotiation, and compromise.
    Voting: The quintessential act of democracy is voting, regular voting by citizens who fairly elect representatives to form a government. These representatives then govern by effecting compromise among competing interests within the population.
    The value of the individual's vote and the integrity of the voting process are undermined by practices such as ballot stuffing and dishonest vote counting. Currently, one of the most serious trends discouraging voter participation, according to Keystone Research, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is unregulated campaign financing.7 Keystone found an inverse relationship between unregulated campaign financing by special interests and the number of voters who actually vote. Apparently, as prospective voters feel the importance of their vote diminished by the influence of special interest campaign donations, they are less inclined to participate as active voters.
    Freedoms and Rights: The primary benefits for citizens in a democracy are their legitimate freedoms and rights. The vitality, and even the survival, of a democracy depend on the willing support of most of the citizens for their society's laws and public policies most of the time. This support depends on many people's sharing in the benefits of democracy most of the time, and on their belief that they are progressing toward the time when everyone will benefit equally.
    In the United States, we have the constitutionally protected freedoms of religion, speech, assembly, and the press; the right to due process under the law; the right to bodily integrity and privacy in matters such as reproductive rights; and equal opportunity in employment, housing, and public access. These legal freedoms and rights of the individual are balanced with the country's need to achieve internal tranquillity and external security.
    Behaviors aimed at undercutting these valued freedoms and rights include efforts to rewrite the First Amendment's separation of church and state provision, as well as legislative attacks on reproductive rights, public schools, gay and lesbian rights, intellectual freedom, and other civil rights.

A Final Note
    The democratic values and standards outlined here are embedded in our culture. They are so deeply embedded that we may have lost sight of the all-embracing influence and utility these values have for progressives. After all, democracy and its values were historically, and still are, very liberal ideas. The drafters of our Constitution and Bill of Rights used them to create a nation and a new form of government.
    So, let us speak often of democracy. As a people, we need to remind ourselves of who we are. We should teach our children the democratic values of inclusiveness and tolerance, and the importance of searching for truth and justice. We must teach by example, by acting on our convictions every day. We owe it to ourselves, because there are certain actions that embody in their doing our deepest, most dearly held values. In so acting, each of us validates that which is most authentic about ourself.

    1. Bellah, Robert N., Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (New York: Harper & Row, 1985) back to text
    2. Spencer R. Weart, Never at War: Why Democracies Will Not Fight One Another (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998) back to text
    3. Dahl, Robert, On Democracy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), p. 8 back to text
    4. According to a 1998 survey of middle class Americans, 83.6% believed "There are many different religious truths and we ought to be tolerant of all of them." And 80% believe,"There is such a thing as being too religious." (Wolfe, pp. 62, 83) And according to Corinthians 10:31-32: "Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God. Give none offence, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God."
    However, not all Americans are so tolerant: Bob Jones Jr. of Bob Jones University, for example, believes that "Jerry Falwell is ‘the most dangerous man in America' because of his willingness to work with Catholics, Mormons, Jews, and evangelicals through the Moral Majority." (Vinz, p. 11) Pat Robertson said, "These voices that are raised against Christianity, Christians have got to stand together and say see Americans become followers of quote, Islam is nothing short of insanity...the Islamic people, the Arabs, were the ones who captured Africans, put them into slavery, and sent them to America as slaves. Why would people want to embrace the religion of the slavers?" (Interfaith Alliance) back to text
    5. Wolfe, Alan, "Under God, Not Indivisible," New York Times, Sunday, 27 February, 2000, Op-Ed sec., p. 17 back to text
    6. Robert Wuthnow, on the crossover between religious and secular: "The blending of language from psychology, therapy, and recovery literature with the language of religion makes it difficult to determine whether spirituality of the inner self is similar to traditional religion or a radical departure from it. The subtle mixing of language is especially evident in popular books that have played a large role in defining spirituality in the 1990s." (Wuthnow, p. 157) back to text
    7. Howard Wail, Democracy in Pennsylvania (Harrisburg, PA: Keystone Research, 1999), p. 6 back to text