The Spirit of Liberty & Democracy

The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interest alongside its own without bias...

Judge Learned Hand
The "Spirit of Liberty" Speech
I AM an American Day, 1944

We cannot possibly hope to make democracy work without finding common ground. And we cannot hope to find common ground without making democracy work. Both are incredibly complex and intertwined undertakings, so where should we start? It would be difficult to find a better place than by taking Judge Hand's sentiments to heart. The Spirit of Liberty is in fact the Spirit of Democracy. It is the spirit that is not so convinced that it is right that it is unable to truly seek to understand the conflicting views of others.

These two parallel and concurrent processes - making democracy work and finding common ground - are presented as distinct, but they are in fact interdependent. They amplify each other's successes and co-evolve in an incredibly complex and dynamic process that, to a substantial extent, defies both prediction and understanding.

Two long chains of organic molecules wind around and then bind to each other to form the double helix of our DNA. This is the biological foundation of every healthy living person. So too must the long chain of practical mechanisms that constitute our democratic system wind around and then bind to the long chain that is the living spirit of our national life. This is the social foundation of every healthy living democratic society. Only by combining a much-improved system with a restored spirit of democracy can we hope to prevail. This is the basis upon which together we can build hope for our future.

Without a shared sense of communal identity, without a moral commitment to build a better life with and for each other, without a spirit of civic duty that compels us to fulfill our obligation to add to and not just take from our shared bounty of opportunity and freedom, without this spirit, our democracy cannot be restored. You remember, don't you? The phrase resonates in our memories of a far more hopeful time. "Ask not what your country can do for you..."

The formal structure of democracy, no matter how much improved and how competently run, will be nothing more than a dead and empty form unless we give our renewed and wholehearted commitment to the animating sentiments thus described.

By co-evolving the restored health of our working democratic system with a restoration of the spirit of democracy, we can work our way out of the mess we're in and reestablish a government, and a social contract, capable of both tackling the daunting problems we face and seizing the incredible opportunities on offer.

Published: August 2019
Revised: July 2023

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