National Commentary

Democracy & Virtue

CNN’s Fareed Zakaria has one of the most engaging Sunday morning politically-themed interview shows on all TV. He is not a showman. He is not out to win an audience with a special something. He’s serious, clearly well-educated and dedicated to his task, which is not simply to be an interviewer or a journalist. It is not to be a newsman in the usual sense. No, it has become clear that his goal is to use his skills and acumen for the purpose of making the world a better place.


His latest documentary, if relegated to late Sunday nights, is called “The Fight to Save Democracy,” and it is a compelling hour-long special with a lot of old black-and-white newsreels showing the world of the 1930s. It was the period that saw the rise to power of Hitler and his genocidal regime, and of the rise of authoritarians cut in general mold all over the world, including in the U.S., where figures like the pro-fascist anti-Semite Father Caughlin captured the hearts and minds of millions of Americans with his charismatic and spellbinding radio broadcasts.


The theme of the documentary is the fragile nature of democracy, and how common, actually, it has been for cultures to toss it overboard in favor of strongmen who rule with an iron hand. The German case, of course, is exemplary. During the 1920s, Weimar Germany was a republic which had allowed for the achievement of great advances in human rights and creative progress. But still, it did not succeed to deter the rise of Hitler, who languished during much of that same period but took to his rise to power in the context of the global Great Depression of the early 1930s and who swiftly undid all the progressive gains in human rights virtually overnight.


The appeal of Father Caughlin in the U.S. was a testament to the awful responsibility that people have to fight to defend the institutions of democracy, centered on notions of the rights and enfranchisement of all human beings regardless of race, sex, religion, class, or other features that might otherwise distinguish them. Democracy, as promised by the founding documents of this nation secured by the defeat of an autocratic monarchy in a revolution, promised these things as universals from the beginning, even if it took centuries for such promises to be fully extended to all persons, in fact.


The virtue of democracy is that it empowers the maximum number of human beings by enfranchising them and giving them full access to the resources that can make them powerful contributors to the wider society. Three hundred million great minds empowered and set to work can do a lot more to advance the well-being of our species on this planet than three million.


The penetrating question that Zakaria asks at the conclusion of his documentary on fighting for democracy is embedded in the notion that perhaps we as a people cannot count on a government rooted in a separation of powers to guarantee equity among us. It is too apt to succumb to one form or another of autocratic demagoguery as we’ve experienced only too well in the last five years.


He asks the bold question whether it is our task as a culture to defend our values by raising the challenges of responsibility and even virtue to achieve this.


“Can a system really work without people acting responsibly and virtuously,” he asks, and concludes that, in fact, that emparting such values in persons is our only guarantee of democracy’s success.


Yes, this is true because the very notion of democracy is an ideal one that calls on citizens to extend their sense of fairness and enfranchisement beyond their selfish self-interest to an “enlightened self-interest” that sees the goal of society as the extension of equal rights to everyone.


Simply put, you can’t have democracy without virtue.


The last 70 post-World War II years have seen our culture eroded by a conscious onslaught of nihilism and cruelty in all its popular cultural forms. Whoever has been behind this has been an enemy to democracy, itself, and reversing that trend is vital to democracy’s hopes of survival.