(This post is part of a weekly series for Know Thyself 2019, a 365 day journal project. Start here!)
This week’s journal topic: Democracy
Have you been following the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong? Democracy is once
again a hot topic in the news. What is meant by the word ‘democracy’? Generally, when people refer to democracy they mean that the government represents the “will of the people”. There are many ways that a government can be democratic and represent the will of the people, but no type of democracy is more famous than American-style democracy. For this week’s topic, we look at Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address – memorized by American schoolchildren every year – to understand the foundation of American-style democracy.
It’s not essential that you understand the background and entire text, but just for your reference, I’ve quoted it below:
Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Here’s the scoop on Lincoln’s view of democracy!
A nation “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…”
Notice the word “liberty” there? Lincoln is talking about a liberal democracy, a democracy based on the belief that freedom is a principle that a government should uphold. He goes on to name a second principle, equality. In a nation founded on equality, one person should not be required to justify his existence and presence to another. A person stands in his own right simply because he is a person.
Citizens are “to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which [the fallen soldiers] have thus far so nobly advanced…”
In a liberal democracy, the people aren’t just to benefit from a government dedicated to the principles of freedom and equality. Lincoln is pointing to citizens to remind them that they have a responsibility to protect and uphold their liberal government. It’s not alright to sit around and wait for things to keep improving! No, you need to protect and uphold democracy. Some people forget that the government is not merely an entity that has responsibilities to citizens; rather, the citizens also have responsibilities towards their government.
Liberal democracies are “government[s] of the people, by the people, for the people, [and] shall not perish from the earth.”
As famous as this line is, it’s a bit obscure what he means by it. What is a government “of the people”? He’s referring to government that is comprised of persons who are citizens. When Lincoln refers to a government “by the people”, he means that the government is fairly elected by the people. Finally, the liberal democratic government should represent the aims of the people – to uphold liberty and equality.
Given all the great things that Lincoln talks about, you’d think that democracy is obviously the best political system. But even if it generally is a really great system, there are some very smart people who disagree and prefer other political system. For example, the ancient Greek philosopher named Plato thought that philosophers should be kings and make all the decisions. In some countries today, democracy doesn’t mean that the government represents the people’s interests, even if the people vote to choose who gets elected.
- Do you always vote? Why or why not?
- Why do you think so many people like liberal democracies? Do you?
- If you had to choose between a safe but undemocratic society and an unsafe democracy, which would you live in? What if the safe but undemocratic society was run by really smart, honest people?
- Do you think that all adults (as your society defines it) should have the right to vote? What about people in jail? Homeless people? Bigots?
- Can a citizen legitimately disobey the law in a democracy (whether because she doesn’t want to or because it violates her right)?
- Should there be an IQ test before people have the right to vote? (Keep in mind evil geniuses and kind-hearted fools!)
- Imagine that government representatives were elected, but all negotiations within government took place behind closed doors. Do you think that governments would still represent the voters?
How to Get the most out of Know Thyself 2019:
Don’t rush through the questions. Do one question every day, leaving space to add thoughts later as you learn and evolve. The journal is designed to help you develop a consistent, daily practice of self-reflection.
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