Friday, January 18, 2013

The Discontented Democratic Soul

by Paul Mitchell, Guest Contributor

Photo courtesy of

What is it about this country that causes people to flip so terribly?  Regardless of political stance, it is impossible to ignore the fact that atrocities like those in Newtown, Connecticut and Aurora, Colorado seem to be happening more and more frequently these days.  In response to national tragedies, the people of this country instinctively do two things in quick sequence: they embrace and mourn with their neighbors for a few days, then look to the Federal Government to respond. 
Some demand that those with mental illness need to be monitored more carefully and some demand that guns need to be monitored more carefully, but all expect results.  The argument heats up and the brief bonds that we formed while in mourning quickly fade away.  You see − the natural tendency in a democratic society is to be "de-linked" from our neighbors, and the depth of our disconnect is what breeds the social deviance that we are seeing more and more.

In an Aristocratic government, lineage and one’s place in the world is clearly “linked” in a chain of class, wealth, and power.  Regardless of one’s standing, an individual’s place in society is well established from birth.  This is not the case with those in a democratic society.  Democratic souls largely have the capacity to decide their own fate, whether politically, professionally, or religiously.  Liberty and freedom are rights, and the main obstacle to success is usually oneself.  However, the endless possibilities and lack of clear direction can be overwhelming, and tends to lead to frustrations within the democratic soul that leads to a state of “de-linkage” – disconnecting from society.  In the early-1800’s French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about this condition in his critique, Democracy in America.  Tocqueville praised American democracy because, unlike France, America had an abundance of civil institutions.  Civil institutions and free associations, he argued, give the democratic soul something to connect to, so that it does not feel so directionless. 

This is not the case anymore.  There are now only two institutions in which most Americans today have fierce loyalties to: the Democratic Party or the Republican Party – neither of which are civil institutions.  Church attendance is way down; the Boy Scouts of America have increasingly lower enrollment; even public broadcasting and organizations like Planned Parenthood which were once fully funded by charitable private donations are now thrust into the political realm because of the funding they receive from the government.  We have replaced our precious linkages with fleeting linkages to things like political parties, social media, online gaming, and reality television; all of which are shallow and unfulfilling.

In America today, we are wandering, aimless democratic souls, lacking anything to link us to this country, this world, this life, or the next.  We live for the next tragedy just so we can feel like something binds us together as humans. With the exception of political rallies and protests, the only time we gather en-masse anymore is for a candlelight vigil.  The de-linkage that exists between each of us and society is simply staggering.

President Obama stated that he will “use whatever power [his] office holds” to prevent more tragedies.  We are going to hear a lot about gun control legislation and about mental illness in the coming weeks and months.  While we may need to examine both of these things, neither is the solution to the deeper questions: How can we each, as individuals, become re-linked to society? And how can we fulfill the deeper needs of our souls?  No gun regulation or changed stance on mental illnesses will stop further atrocities.  No government spending or tax cut will increase philanthropy and revive civil society.  Only when we as a nation decide to re-link with one another by examining the deeper condition of our American democratic soul will we be able to address the real problems that are causing more and more de-linked individuals to commit these horrific acts of violence. 

The author is an Education Abroad Advisor at Kent State University. He lives in Canfield, Ohio.

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