"Fundamentally, Democracy is like Love, it has to come from within," observed Shashi Tharoor, under-secretary general for Communications and Public Affairs at the United Nations. One can supply the soft music and the candlelight, but you can't force it on others for it to be true to them and their heritage.
Such was the spirit of several discussions throughout Aspen's IdeasFestival which emphasized not only the spirit of democracy, but also its relevance in a world where concepts of diversity and inequality and inequities are often challenged by the prevailing order and an increasingly global world.
"Democracy without food on the table means nothing," Aspen artist-in-residence Anna Deavere Smith said in introducing a terrific July 4th panel on Democracy and Citizenship, quoting remarks by Michael Canham of South Africa's Washington embassy, during a seminar at Aspen over the previous weekend.
Harvard University Professor of Government Michael Sandel, who has tought 10,000 students political philosophy in his course on justice, suggested the metaphor for increased disparity in America as with other parts of the world was epitomized by the advent of skyboxes in baseball stadiums. Where a quarter centry ago and before everyone would cheer or jeer from grandstand seats, and get equally soaked by rainstorms whether they were wealthy or not, skyboxes have changed all that.
"I would call it 'skyboxification,'" he said.
"Democracy begins when you stop differentiating between your children and theirs," he said, echoing Mandel's concerns on how Skyboxification only further stratefies society.
In the same blue ribbon panel - few at IdeasFestival were could not be so described - Stanford historian David M. Kennedy described how the number of people actively deployed by the U.S. military in Iraq and elsewhere was now 1/25th the active forces deployed in of World War II; that our current cost of war is less than 4% of gross domestic product, compared with 40% for World War II; and that only 6.5% of U.S. military enlistees between 18 and 24 years old have had any college education, compared with 50% in the general population, and 42% were minorities.
Kennedy cited the data to demonstrate how the cost of going to war, especially for elites in power, has greatly diminished, lowering both the threshold and the accountability, since the United States could "now deply history's most lethal force without breaking a sweat."
Kennedy described this as a compound assymetry, noting the effectiveness could be guaged by the extraordinarily lethal and accurate, precision weapons now in use. He cited a World War II bombing raid which involved 108 aircraft dropping 648 bombs to destry a single target, compared with 38 fighter aircraft which destroyed 159 different targets on the first night of the U.S. war in Afghanistan in 2001.
"If we're fighting wars with other people's children, which is what we're doing, then democracy doesn't have the weight of accountability...and there is not a shared sacrifice," concurred Sandel, adding that President Bush's response when asked if Americans were sacrificing was to point to long security lines at America's airports. "So, we're waiting at lines at the airport, sacrificing, while we're outsourcing the military."
In addition to the equity considerations, Sandel argued this was important to the nature of Democracy in our time because political leaders have been tending to give people what they want, rather than showing the vision and leadership to provide people "what they ought to want."
The Harvard professor argued the result was to impoverish Democracy, because it "confuses the role of the consumer with the role of the citizen," and ultimately diminishes the communitarian concept of citizens alternately struggling and collaborating to reach a common good.
This had broad, sweeping effects on society, including the education system which he also suggested bore the cumulative effect of skyboxification. Only 3% of those attending the top U.S. colleges and universities are from the quarter of Americans who rank poorest, and the bottom half by wealth only comprise 10% of such students, he noted.
"If you were born poor and you want to rise to the medium income of your society...the American dream, you have a better chance of doing that if you live in Canada or France or Denmark...than you do in the United States," he concluded.
Mandel argued that shared exepriences are a fundamental requirement of a strong democratic society, arguing we need accept higher taxes on those who can afford it, and revived leadership, to rebuild our civic infrastructures and to re-energize our public schools, museums, downtown centers, our military, etc., so that they once again become venues "where people from different walks of life will bump into each other."
Princeton historian Sean Wilentz stressed further evidence of growing citizen indifference - steady declines in voter participation from around 80% in the 1840s despite opening the voting lists to previously disenfranchied women and blacks, for example. His remarks echoed comments made by Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer at another discussion in which he said more than activist judges, America was hugely in need of activist citizens.
Indeed, Harvard's David Gergen, who has advised five presidents from Nixon to Clinton, said he had not felt the state of our democracy has been as fragile as it is today since he worked for Nixon under Watergate as a young man, at that scandal was very localized in one branch of government and perpetrated with involvement of about ten people.
"Every other institution worked well," said Gergen, refering to the media, especially the Washington Post which broke the story, Judge Sirica on the judicial side, and Congress.
Today when people describe political life in Washington, he said, "the word on most everyone's lips is its dysfunctional."
"We've spent an awful lot of time thinking about how we export democracy overseas. In my judgement we ought to spend less time doing that and spend more time repairing our democracy at home," asserted Gergen, who is director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Picking up on Mandel's theme, Gergen added:
"You can live your whole life in a skybox right now. You can wall off a lot," he said. "About our kids and grandkids. We want to make sure they're going to be in the Skybox. Almost all of us do that. It's a natural thing."
Gergen attributed much of his own success, however, to getting out of the equivalent of the skybox, i.e. his own personal background, when he joined the Navy and grappled with being in charge of 50 servicemen for two years, overseeing their issues, ranging from venerial diseases to late bills. He advocated at least a year of serious national service for America's youth - two years for those wanting management training that could also help boost leadership skills.
Flamboyant French journalist, author, activist and philosophier Bernhard-Henri Lévy cited Sartre, Camus, Jean Jacques Rousseau and of course Alexis de Touqueville in explaining how the current U.S. administration had undermined democratic principles at home and abroad. He said in researching America he had become most appalled by the asocial spread of home schooling in America, which he said would result in parents being sent off to jail if they tried it in Europe.