Two Cheers for Democracy: A Small Reflection on Bastille Day

Two Cheers for Democracy: A Small Reflection on Bastille Day July 14, 2018




I find Bastille Day well worth marking.

Perhaps especially so these days…

Together with the Fourth of July it is one of the great markers of the beginning of a longing for a more or less genuine republicanism within human affairs.

Prior to this the idea was limited to very small states, and all of them flawed experiments. A powerful few were always, it seems, too powerful. I think immediately of Athens & such mercantile oligarchic experiments like Venice. Of course, even the big one, Rome, was never anything more than an oligarchy where the people’s “vote” were by blocks and had little direct consequence, and even that very limited republicanism only briefly…)

With the Fourth and with Bastille Day we celebrate the dignity of the human person and that wonderful hope for self-governance. The shadows of oligarchy continue, of course. That noted, with these revolutions people were also seeking paths to ever more democracy, a more authentic accountability to the lives of ordinary people.

In some ways Bastille Day is the more poignant of the two holidays, as it led to a revolution that was clearly marked by horrific excesses the American revolution largely avoided.

(Our American sins tended to be more subtle, excepting of course that one glaring contradiction of slavery…)

And yet, with these two revolutions, something happened, a seed was planted.

Of course we’re still speaking experiment. While kings are nearly all gone, totalitarian governments continue to be a major option in human governance. And today authoritarian leaders are popping up as the noxious weeds they are. For us it turns out the great danger is from within. The shadow of populism is a man on a white horse promising to protect us from some other, often an immigrant, sometimes simply the undeserving poor, always misdirection. Just give me the power.

So, yes, the experiment is still seriously flawed. The American experiment has always bent toward a republic of the important, its own form of oligarchic governance. And today we have a president who clearly wishes he were a tyrant, who sells that misdirection without shame. And, well, with an obsequious congress he pushes the line ever farther out.

And so, yes, a moment to think.

Perhaps back to that moment in the last third of the eighteenth century when something wonderful birthed.

And today we can think about it.

To that hope:

Two cheers! We need to wait a bit for the third. But, definitely two full throated cheers!


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