Trump supporter

Supporters of former US President Donald Trump gather near his residence at Mar-A-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, on August 9, 2022.

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Speaking Hopefully for Democracy's Future

Not everyone is willing and open to dialogue, but we can remain hopeful that enough are democratically inclined to build community and hold authoritarianism in check.

It is tempting to despair when politics are torn with acrimony and polarized to dysfunction—when democracy itself is menaced by an authoritarian force from within the body politic. Despair runs deeper than pessimism. Pessimism expects the worst of possible outcomes, yes, but without giving up entirely. Despair is a loss of all hope for the future.

Hope prompts and sustains action through dark times. It gives meaning to life lived under the cloud of adversity.

Should we abandon all hope of repairing our politics? Is democracy doomed? Elzbieta Matynia says no to despair and yes to hope, at least for now. It is up to us to use our imagination to overcome indifference, bridge our differences, and revive democracy.

She says this with special authority and exceptional understanding, which comes from witnessing nonviolent resistance to the tyranny of a communist regime in eastern Europe, an academic career of thinking deeply about how to produce democracy, and a particular sensibility for the convergence of politics with arts and humanities. We should listen to what she can tell us, from her unique vantage point, about restoring democracy.

Hope prompts and sustains action through dark times. It gives meaning to life lived under the cloud of adversity.

Matynia is a political sociologist at The New School for Social Research in New York City and founding director of the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies. Her interest focuses on “the state of today’s democracy,” including in the US, where it is “aspirational” but “failing” its citizenry. She writes about democracy’s decline but also the enactment of democracy by citizens.

She was born in Poland and studied sociology there while living under communist rule. These were her formative years of “life as a citizen,” she writes, before she left to teach and ultimately stay in the United States because she could not return to “Poland under martial law.”

While in Poland, Matynia studied the underground theater movement against communism. She was impressed by the positive impact of its peaceful character. “Speech action” could replace violence, and authoritarianism could be defied peacefully, she came to see upon later reflection.

That was then. What about now?

The outbreak of brutal wars in today’s world, Matynia observes, would seem to confirm that warfare is the only way to defend democracy. The mounting battle, however, is between hope and despair, trust and suspicion, within the US and beyond where voices are being silenced and minds closed.

Leading a meaningful and responsible life means critically engaging what we think we know. The absence of questioning is the source of what Matynia calls “mis-knowing,” that is, of knowing something erroneously and acting on it wrongfully. Knowledge is socially produced. It isn’t a private affair. If we live in a knowledge silo or information bubble, our susceptibility to mis-knowledge intensifies and the potential for violence increases.

How might a calamity of mis-knowing be prevented?

Reflecting on the sources of mis-knowing can help to illuminate and ameliorate an acutely conflicted world. The image of a bridge figures prominently in Matynia’s idea of how to reflect together critically and constructively. Literature helps us to imagine building bridges over walls that separate us from one another (“Tribute to a Bridge: The Bridge on the Drina, Evo Andric´,” Social Research 89.2, 2022).

A bridge is where people can meet each other, where they may pause to rest and converse with other travelers. In conversation they might begin to feel at home with one another and become more trustful as they talk and listen to each other’s stories. The bridge is a public square, a place that facilitates initial contact, encourages being with others who are not necessarily likeminded, and provides opportunities to see the world from different perspectives.

Exchanging stories is a start toward restoring a broken democracy. It can bring about a gradual removal of personal filters and lead toward shared interests and common ground. Citizens can chip away at mis-knowing in the “vital space” of greeting, meeting, and conversing, where they can discover each other and broaden social knowledge. It is a process that takes time to develop.

Rather than Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, with its dark-humored regret over losing what was previously taken for granted in life, Matynia opts to speak up hopefully for a nonviolent democratic renewal. She envisions a recommitment to democratic principles of tolerance, rights, and the rule of law. Her literary sensibility and sociological insight converge on a dramaturgical notion of performing democracy by conducting public dialogues that bring about agreements even in agonistic contexts. True dialogue does not incite hate or violence, but it can release a “robust civic creativity” as citizens talk, learn, and reason together.

Today’s U-turn toward the darkness of authoritarianism, fueled by an attack on pluralism, renders the future of democracy uncertain. The need is ever greater for citizens to meet in public spaces where they can “interact through speech.” We the people, all of us, share the guilt, Matynia insists, of neglecting to speak and listen to one another and of allowing nothing to exist between the poles of political opinion.

What questions follow from Matynia’s corrective?

Matynia’s corrective for restoring faith in the institutions and practices of democracy begins with critical reflection and public conversation to attenuate the political alienation of mis-knowing one another. Its credibility rests on her formative experience, her supporting scholarship, and an aesthetic as well as conceptual grasp of democratic life. She locates the challenge before us in the choice of hope over despair, in not giving up yet.

Matynia’s commitment to public dialogue, I want to suggest, applies most hopefully to resisting authoritarianism by speaking across the democratic divide. Her call for dialogue, to my way of thinking, pushes tough questions to the forefront of considering how to move forward.

Where are the gathering places for conversations between citizens otherwise opposed to one another? How do such conversations move from greeting to gaining deeper understandings of competing perspectives on political matters when the divisions run deep? How far can these conversations go toward achieving a working agreement in the near or foreseeable future? How widely can we reasonably hope any agreement to spread? Isn’t it the case that not everyone wishes for democracy? What can those who share a commitment to democracy, but hold strongly opposing views on what that entails, expect to achieve beyond respecting the right to disagree? Isn’t the challenge realistically one of building enough agreement among enough citizens to strengthen democratic culture, elect democratically grounded candidates to office, and sustain democratic institutions?

These questions occur to me and probably to other citizens who would resist the rise of authoritarianism: When and where to engage in conversation, with whom, how, and with what goals?

What is the best way to move forward?

The toughest question may be whether and how to address the segment of the citizenry that does not wish for democracy.

Matynia’s answer is that the foremost matter is one of balancing democracy’s commitment to freedom, individual rights, and self-realization with a corresponding commitment to community and social solidarity. “Today’s freedom needs solidarity,” she maintains, if democracy is to escape from being relegated to history (Matynia, “Is Liberal Democracy Already History? East European Politics and Societies 34.3, 2020).

A raging neoliberal capitalism that prioritizes economic freedom exclusively has demoralized the sense of community and concern for the collective wellbeing of a pluralistic polity. It has pushed the public good out of view and beyond political imagination at the cost of uncertainty, fear, anger, hatred, and violence. The body politic has lost sight of justice in a singular quest for individual advantage. The middle ground of freedom and community has withered. The willingness to manage differences well enough to address major issues has collapsed.

This loss of solidarity is how democracy is killed (Matynia, “How to Kill a Democracy,” Social Research 86.1, 2019), but the health of democracy depends as well on a robust contestation of opinion. “Democracy is an agonistic space,” Matynia notes, “a site for tensions and disagreements, where dogmas are confronted, prejudices are challenged, and consensus is not a given.” For this to be a healthy agon that fosters democracy by ministering to mis-knowing, it must be a “dialogically engaged contestation” rather than a monologue.

Can democratic renewal rest on a hope for dialogue and solidarity with those who share no investment in democracy? Perhaps, but not likely, I think, at least not in the short run of exigent circumstances.

There is a persistent and strong authoritarian minority in US political culture that has been mobilized by demagogic means. An antidemocratic force of perhaps a third of the citizenry resides beneath the surface of society (K. Stenner & J. Haidt, in C.R. Sunstein, Can it Happen Here?, 210, 215-17), providing the base for a regime of minority rule. While the cause of democracy is not advanced by demeaning authoritarians, trying to build solidarity with them through healthy dialogue is unlikely to bear fruit in the near term, if ever.

Pragmatically, then, the immediate challenge is to muster the dispersed majority that still believes in democracy or is at least amenable enough to be engaged and activated. This is where healthy dialogue and deliberation can make a positive difference now and strengthen democratic culture over the long haul.

This practical appropriation of Matynia’s idea is just that, a variation on her theme. It tempers her vision of crafting solidarity by dialogue with the constraints of circumstance. Not everyone is willing and open to dialogue, but we can remain hopeful that enough are democratically inclined to build community and hold authoritarianism in check.

To borrow a closing thought from Howard Zinn, we don’t have to wait for utopia to act in the present on behalf of a better world; living democratically now as we think we should and to the best of our ability is itself a marvelous victory for a “future that is an endless succession of presents” (A Power Governments Cannot Suppress, 2007, 270).

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