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I inherited a sickly Phalaenopsis when my mother-in-law passed that must have been around 15 years old. In other words, towards the end of the natural lifespan of an orchid. But in her memory, I wanted to see if I could somehow bring it back to life. I carefully cut away all the dead roots and growth, repotted it in mostly sphagnum moss with a light covering of bark, and then watered and fed it carefully. And sure enough, it has produced a couple of new leaves. My goal, if I can bring it back to health, is to use some keiki paste so that we can have descendants of what I have named, Phalaenopsis Doriensis.

That’s pretty much how I feel about democracy these days. To say that it is withering is an understatement. Moribund seems closer to the mark. 

Saving The Roots

If we are going to save the flower of democracy, we need to tend to its roots. Sadly, that’s easier said than done. All of the countries that Trump touts are States in which democracy withered and died. (Well, maybe not North Korea.) As Levitsky & Ziblatt documented in their seminal How Democracies Die (2018), authoritarians use democratic means to cut off the roots.

Democracy Put Simply

Simply put, democracy is that system in which every individual is free to choose how they wish to be governed. The problem with putting things simply, however, is that it skates over the enormously important distinction between political and psychological freedom. Without the latter, individuals can be swayed to give up the former. All the while under the delusion that they are doing so of their own free will.

These are the issues that Susan and I are looking at in the Gray Brain Lectures that we are currently recording. When ancient survival systems deep in the subcortex are hyperaroused, they curtail our ability to think before we act. When the latter occurs, we get swept up in strong emotional currents. If then pressed to explain or justify our actions, we revert to programmed talking points.

The Forces at Work

If democracy is to survive, it is urgent that we recognize the forces at work that rob us of what Alexander Hamilton defined in Federalist no. 1 as our powers of “reflection and choice.” But you cannot revive those powers via those powers. You cannot use Reason to battle the lack thereof, no matter how loudly you shout. Instead, you need to do Self-Reg.

Reason is not to be confused with “giving reasons” – especially when they are nothing of the sort. Reason is the ability to listen and ask WHY. Not just of the speaker, but also of oneself – of one’s own convictions as well as theirs. Reason is being able to speak with and not at each other. Reason is recognizing yourself in the one you denounce as the Other. Reason is being able to trust one another to keep our word. This, as Hobbes recognized, is the moral foundation of democracy: “Being trusted, his performance is called keeping a promise, or faith; and a failing of performance if it be voluntary, a violation of faith.” 

Hobbes believed that humans cannot trust in this kind of trust. Hence, they require the “great LEVIATHAN, that mortal god to which we owe our peace and defence.” For 250 years America has proved him wrong. And will continue to prove him wrong if they can revive that faith.

Inheriting & Caring for Democracy

Photograph of a Phalaenopsis Orchid with pink petals and green leaf in a clear plastic pot on top of a ladder.

But democracy, in the words of Tom Boyce (2019), is more like an orchid these days than a dandelion. Partisan opponents need to be treated with kindness and compassion, just as do orchid kids. This too is an issue that Susan and I look at closely, in our new course Enhancing Resilience. We are especially interested in the question, What has happened to all the kids – especially teens – who were once dandelions? The same point applies to our current political crisis. What has happened to all those people raised to treasure the freedoms that democracy affords?

As a democrat, you must respect another’s choice, however much you may disagree. But we need to ensure that they are actually choosing and not simply regurgitating. I want my children to inherit and take care of Phalaenopsis Doriensis. Just as I want them to inherit and take care of the democratic freedom with which my generation has been blessed. I want them to have the freedom to choose, psychological as well as political. I want them to be Self-Reggers.

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