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Democracy Works: The seven democratic virtues

Chris Beem
Penn State College of the Liberal Arts
/
Democracy Works host Chris Beem

This week, we bring you interview that Democracy Works host Chris Beem did recently with the Future Hindsight podcast about about his new book, "The Seven Democratic Virtues: What You Can Do to Overcome Tribalism and Save Our Democracy."

In the book and in this conversation, Beem argues that American democracy is at a crisis point and to fix our politics, we have to change our culture first. We can all take part in creating a culture that cultivates democratic virtues.

Episode Transcript
Mila Atmos
Welcome to Future Hindsight, a podcast that takes big ideas about civic life and democracy and turns them into action items for you and me. I'm Mila Atmos. One of the most shocking things I've observed in the last five years is how the suggestion that America could descend into civil war has moved from the fringes of public discourse or a topic save for several bottles of wine deep into the dinner party conversation and to something more and more reasonable people wonder about out loud. It's alarming -- but our polarized, increasingly tribal, political culture shows few signs of reconciliation, and it feels particularly futile to look to politics and politicians to solve this crisis. Today's guest wants you to know that there is something you can do to help bring the nation back from the brink. And I'm all ears.

Christopher Beem is the managing director of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State and
associate research professor of political science and affiliate faculty in the Rock Ethics Institute. He's the co-host of the Democracy
Works podcast and the author or co-editor of five books. His latest book is The Seven Democratic Virtues: What You Can Do To Overcome Tribalism and Save Our Democracy. Welcome to Future Hindsight. Thank you for joining us.

Christopher Beem
Thank you, Mila. It's a pleasure to be here.

Mila Atmos
You call tribalism the democratic vice. And I think that's really interesting because you're sort of lashing the two things together. And tribalism is a term we throw around a lot. So could you let us know what you mean by tribalism and also how it intersects with democracy as a democratic vice?

Christopher Beem
Okay, tribalism does not refer to either Native Americans in America or to some undiscovered group in the Amazon. Tribalism is, at least the way I use it, it's a neurological category. We are all products of the African savanna somewhere between a million and150,000 years ago. And that experience is just etched on our brains, even in our genes. And what tribalism means is that we understood our survival to be inescapably linked to the survival of our tribe. And so we would always view the world and view any encounter we had with the world in terms of how it helped or harmed our tribe. And so that kind of dynamic lingers on. Even though we don't live in tribes anymore, we are still inherently inescapably tribal. That goes from things like what bands we listen to, to where we go on vacation, what brands we distinctively identify, what our hobbies are, and then also most relevantly, what our political party is.

Mila Atmos
So what's the connection between that and democratic vice?

Christopher Beem
If you are going to have a free society, Madison famously said that liberty is to faction as air to fire. So if you're going to have a free society, you are going to have these groups. These tribes manifest themselves throughout society. And those groups are not going to see the world the same way. They're not going to value the same things. And often those tribes will even be antithetical to each other.

Right. I mean, the most benign example I use in the book is Bears fans and Packer fans. Right? Those are two distinct tribes and they see the world very differently, but it's not really all that dangerous. But the point is that when you are talking about democracy, you are talking about a society that starts with the presumption that people are going to disagree and they're going to organize themselves into groups that are going to pursue different and often antithetical objectives. So the point of democracy is to allow people the freedom to do that, but still create a society that can exist in some kind of civil peace with each other. And that's not a simple thing to do. But if you're going to have a free society and you're not going to have that society descend into civil war, democracy is the way you do that, right?

Mila Atmos
So democracy is an opportunity for us to live together, even though we have differences.

Christopher Beem
And those differences go all the way down. I mean, democracy emerged out of the wars of religion in Europe. And the argument there was that you had to have a common agreement about things like religion, otherwise you couldn't have a functioning society. But after 150 years of people slaughtering each other, people just had to accept the idea that, well, we're going to have to come up with something else and something else is "all right, we are going to disagree about this, but we can still live together by means of these mechanisms, these procedures." And that's what democracy is.

Mila Atmos
So let's see, we've kind of agreed now on the terms here. And let's turn to your book. It's set up as a how-to book, you know, and being good democratic citizens, meaning small d democratic citizens and recommitting ourselves to democratic virtues. And I feel as though it's answering a real need, because so many of us are feeling so frustrated right now with the repeated refrain when we ask, what can we do about the threats to our democracy? And the answer is always vote, and yet we do vote. And so often it seems like that's not really enough. So am I wrong or do you see that need, too? And how do you answer that?

Christopher Beem
No, that's exactly right. I mean, at least in terms of what I'm trying to accomplish, the impetus for the book was that I would go out to do talks or I would be talking to students or I'd be in a cocktail party and people would find out what I did for a living. And people would just ask me, "What can I do?" And I was never really satisfied with my answer. And the more I thought about it, the more I thought that is a completely legitimate question and it's a completely legitimate question to be asking me, and I should give it more thought.

And so that's really what this book is meant to do. Is to say that the vast majority of people do not have the power or the media status or the money to really be able to influence politics. But that does not mean that we, all of us, do not have a role to play in the condition of our society right now and what has to happen in order for our society to get better. And that's what the democratic virtues are. And the idea is that by committing to these or by just understanding that that's something that all of us can do, there's something empowering about that. "All right, I can't make $1,000,000 campaign contribution and I can't go on CNN and tell the world what my views are. But I can do this." And historically, that is the way that things change. It's not a matter of things coming up in Congress and then being acted on. It's a matter of people coming together, committing to a point of view, politicians recognizing that and seeing it as in their own interests to pass this legislation. So it usually starts with culture, and that's all that culture is. It's just a bunch of people making decisions, enough people making decisions about what they care about, what they think is important and how they think we should all behave.

Mila Atmos
Right. Right. What we really need to change is our culture in order to change our politics, to make democratic thinking and democratic acting a way of life. So you just talked about how this is, you know, the source before legislation gets passed in Congress. One example that I am thinking of here is the Mothers Against Drunk Driving and how it changed our culture in a sense that nobody thinks it's cool to drink and drive. Everybody wants to be responsible. It's changed, I think, the way that we think about people who drink and drive. I think when I was a teenager we would laugh about it, but we are no longer laughing about it. That is totally an unacceptable behavior.

Christopher Beem
And the mothers in Mothers Against Drunk Drivers were mothers who had lost their children to drunk driving accidents. And so for them, it was very difficult to just say, "yeah, yeah, another lobbying group." These are people who had suffered so dramatically because of these laws and really in terms of a policy shift that happened astonishingly fast. And so it is not impossible for people to
change their behavior in ways that change laws. And matter of fact, it's hard to come up with counterexamples.

You know, I always say it's it's a joke, but it's true. Profiles in Courage is a very thin book. If you're looking for courage from politicians, you're unlikely to find it. And there's a reason why when Kennedy wrote it -- in 200 years, you know, it's like 120 pages right there. They're very impressive anecdotes. But if you're waiting for that, you're going to be waiting a long time. Politicians need to have their incentives changed in order to change their behavior. And that happens from people.

Mila Atmos
Yeah, we have the power to do that. So. Well, let's dig into the democratic virtues you've just mentioned. I'm wondering if you could outline those virtues for us.

Christopher Beem
Sure. So I'm not saying that the list is complete. I specifically want to talk about virtues that I think are particularly relevant for the climate in which we find ourselves. There are virtues that particularly address this tribal polarization that we find ourselves in because it's easy to be courageous. For example, when you're in your tribe and you're being courageous toward people outside your tribe, that's easy right now, but that's not what I mean. So anyway, all right.

So I divide them up. In academic discourse, they call these intellectual virtues, moral virtues, and theological virtues. And I'm saying that is not the right way to talk about them now, because these are democratic virtues. So I call them democratic thinking, democratic acting and democratic beliefs. So you start with thinking, right, before you act. You consider your condition and consider what you should do.

And so the three I lay out are humility, honesty, and consistency. Humility is a recognition that all of us are biased. You cannot not be biased. That is part of our wiring. And you can mitigate the effects, but your biases turn on before you're even consciously aware of the thought. So you cannot stop it, right? You can only mitigate the effects. But that matters in terms of our argument because ultimately, the way we see the world is inescapably influenced by how we want to see the world. And it is only when we recognize that, that we are in a better position to have a constructive argument. Honesty is saying, look, we're already starting with these biases, right? If we can't limit our untruths to the ones we genuinely believe, and if we're unwilling to reflect our own thoughts and opinions and values honestly, then at some point argument becomes a waste of time. Right. There's no point in us arguing if we can't start with the understanding that what I'm going to say is things that I genuinely believe. And consistency is one of the mitigating ways that we combat our biases. Right. So the argument is, when you're at a baseball game and you're a Red Sox fan, you are going to call those balls and strikes, safes, and out, a lot differently than if you're a Yankees fan. And if you are going to be consistent, it means you're going to try to apply your sense of virtue the same way, no matter who it is. And so if your politician, the one who you affirm, does something that you don't like, you strive to say you don't like it. If somebody on the other side does something that you think, Well, that was genuinely courageous or that was genuinely an expression of honesty, then you should laud that, right? I mean, it's not saying that you're not going to be biased. Right. We are going to be biased. But what you are going to strive to do is to apply these virtues consistently. And that is at the core the ancient notion of justice, that justice is treating like, things like and different, things different. And that doesn't get you very far. It's very difficult to say what is alike and what is different and do the differences matter or not? Right. There's a lot of ink that's been spilled on those questions. But what you do accept and just insist on is that I'm going to try to be consistent in how I apply these virtues. So that's democratic thinking.

Mila Atmos
Well, let's go into democratic acting because this is like the beef of it. We are now equipped with how we should be thinking.

Christopher Beem
I would start with that. And then we have to go out in the world. And there are four cardinal virtues that go all the way back to Plato. Courage, temperance, prudence, and justice. Right. And so I'm picking two of those: courage and temperance.

And as I alluded to, courage means that you are willing to risk something and it can be your life, right? You could go run into a burning building to save a child or something like that. That's courage. But if you are willing to stand up in a room where you don't know what other people think and say what you believe. That takes courage, too. And it is an essential part of being a democrat is being willing to accept that kind of courage. I call it everyday courage. You put a bumper sticker on your car. You know, it's not unusual for you to get the finger, right.

It's not going to hurt you. But it's not the most pleasant thing in the world. If you go door to door, you're going to get doors slammed in your face. It's not very pleasant either, right? Part of democracy is just accepting this level of courage. In a polarized society, we understand courage as standing up against the other tribe. But I'm saying that's not that hard right now. That's not that much risk.

What takes an enormous amount of risk and enormous amount of courage is for us to stand up in the midst of our tribe and argu against a kind of natural escalation of the conversation just to ask questions. Are you sure that's true? What about that argument? I mean, doesn't that seem to you like that's overstated? That requires courage right now. And that is a way that we can use virtue to mitigate tribalism, to push all of us away from this kind of escalation.

Temperance is just the opposite side of that. People think about it in terms of the temperance movement, prohibition, the 18th Amendment, and that's not what I mean at all. Temperance means that you are willing to accept and to live with the fact that other people have points of view that are completely contrary to yours, and they have every right to say them as long as they do it within the bounds of democratic laws and norms. Going back to Aristotle, I say there's a big difference between anger and hatred. Anger is just something you sign up for when you're in a democracy. And when you look at the Constitution and you understand that the First Amendment gives you the right to petition your grievance, grievance is a word that is almost indistinguishable from anger. If you have a grievance, you're angry, right? So it's written into our constitutional DNA.

Christopher Beem
But just as anger is essential, hatred is disastrous because hatred goes into our very core, it goes into our soul and it corrupts us. And it's something that becomes part of our identity. And when we hate, we cannot operate as a democracy. We have to accept the idea that we're going to be angry and we have to fight against the idea to hate. And this is an incredibly unnatural thing to do. Right.

But it is something that all of us need to struggle with. And then the democratic belief -- it comes from Thomas Aquinas. So faith is just the idea that democracy can work. There are lots of good reasons and lots of political scientists who think it doesn't work the way we think it does. We don't come up with opinions and then find politicians who agree with us. Usually it's exactly the opposite. We find politicians we like and then we go along with their positions. Right. However, there are other also examples from our history that are dramatic representations of how democracy works exactly like we think it should, where people stand up for a point of view with the expectation that people are going to listen to them, take them seriously, respect their opinion, and maybe even get their opinions changed.

The Freedom Riders is a classic example. And then Greta Thunberg from Sweden, this young girl, 14, I think, who just sat outside the Swedish parliament saying Students for Climate Action and within a year had a million students all over the world marching in support of this. There is a reason to have democratic faith and those are data points as well, and you can't dismiss them.

And then charity comes just from Lincoln in the second inaugural "with malice towards none, and charity towards all." It's the idea that as a democrat, we are obliged to give the other the benefit of the doubt. We don't have to keep it. We don't have to sustain it forever. Sometimes we just think, you know, you're not arguing in good faith. You're not a good person. I'm not talking to you anymore. But we presume that the other person loves their country, loves their kids, doesn't want to be a bad person and wants to do the right thing. And if we can presume that, then we can have a constructive conversation. And so if we can all agree to those, commit to those in our own life and call them out when we see them, especially from politicians and other people of power, we can at least possibly change our culture and thereby change our democracy.

Mila Atmos
Well, I think there's a lot to be said about having a type of generosity of spirit towards our fellow human beings as we walk through our lives in general, but certainly in a democracy and of course, to have faith that the process works, even if it is imperfect. So I was really fascinated by your background, the fact that you studied at divinity school. How does that inflect your work? Because, you know, we're used to talking about democracy and largely secular terms. And you touched on this briefly, but your book is really laced with theological language, you know, democratic belief, vices and virtues, faith, hope and charity. And I wonder why you use that frame and how you think it helps us think about tribalism.

Christopher Beem
That's a really interesting question. My background is in religious ethics or social ethics. It was Chicago, so it was not a place with Birkenstocks and cardigan sweaters. Right. It was hard core academic. But the argument was that religion, faith makes strong demands on us and ought to be at the core of who we are and how we engage the world. And how do you do that in a world in which you know, people are going to disagree with you? How do you do that in a democracy? How do you make claims or arguments about the way the world should be in a world where not everyone's going to agree with you? So, for example, let's just say your belief is that gay people shouldn't be married or there should not be such things as unisex bathrooms, or you have to use one that you're biologically assigned to. If you make that argument, how do you make that argument? If you believe that argument to be a a necessary dimension of your faith as a Christian? Fine. That gets you halfway there. How do you make that argument in a pluralistic society in a way that is both true to your convictions as a person of faith and responsible as a democratic citizen. And I think it's addressing that second question that really kind of brings me around to these sorts of issues and this sort of framing.

My argument would be that you have a responsibility to frame your argument in a way that it is accessible to people who don't share your faith and convictions. And so if you're going to make that argument about transgender bathrooms, then you're going to have to come up with something else than just quoting Leviticus. And if you can't do that, then the rest of the society doesn't have an obligation to take your argument seriously. The fact that you are trying to balance these two things in a way that is responsible and authentic to both that I think has stayed with me and stays with me to this day.

Mila Atmos
Yeah, well, it feels a little bit like be a person of integrity, be an upstanding citizen, but also meeting people where they are in a sense that you're making it accessible for people to understand what democratic thinking looks like in real life and what democratic acting looks like in real life. Like you said, everyday courage.

Christopher Beem
Right. Right. I think that's fair. Yeah.

Mila Atmos
So I wanted to go back a little bit to ask you about courage and temperance. And you talked about this a little bit because you said it goes all the way back to Plato, but you might be one of the very few contemporary writers using the word temperance. So why did you reach for that word?

Christopher Beem
You know, I actually thought about not using it because I knew it had this baggage of prohibition and the Temperance League and all that. But temperance has at its etymological core temper. Once you acknowledge that fact, then I just don't think you can ignore it in a democratic society. Because, look, under the best of circumstances, we're going to get angry in a democracy right now. Anger is right up there. It's inescapable. And I don't by any means consider myself immune from this. I hear stuff. I see things. It makes me angry.

Right. And the very difficult task before us as Democrats is to accept that anger and yet work constructively with the people who you're angry at and angry with. And so that's why I think temperance is almost inescapable. Call it something else, fine, but it's not as accurate a description as temperance is. And it's the same thing that you kind of like talk to a child, "you're entitled to your feelings, but you can't express them that way," right? That's basically what we're saying. It's a challenge for a toddler and it's a challenge for all of us, too.

Mila Atmos

I love that analogy. That's very good. We're all familiar with this. Yes. So while we've been talking about qualities that individuals should be aiming for -- virtues and culture -- but a lot of our challenges are structural. Right? How do you answer the conundrum of minority rule? Even when culture changes, the political structures are engineered to prevent that culture in some instances from effecting real change.

Christopher Beem
There are a lot of proposals out there about reforming our political structures, our political procedures. Right? I mean, ranked-choice voting, universal voting, Election Day holiday, expand the size of the House, on and on and on. Right? All of these. And I have to say that the vast majority of them I support or at least support them in the sense of why doesn't a state take this up like Maine took up ranked-choice voting and just see what the effects are? And so I'm not saying "my way instead of that." What I'm saying is that, again, politics responds to culture, and it's only by us changing the partisan climate, but the climate in Washington and in state capitals that this is going to change.

The other thing I would say about those proposals, it's more than plausible that some of these changes could have an impact on tribalism. However, I don't think that there's any conceivable procedural change that's going to impact the fact that over the past year we've had to duct tape people to airplane seats because of their behavior. And when things are that bad, it is, to my mind, just insufficient to be talking about procedure. We have to be talking about what kind of behaviors we can expect from each other as citizens, as people who occupy the same geographic space, and as people who both ostensibly love our country. In The Necessity of Politics, I said, "civil society points up, government points down." They both impact each other. Right?

And I'm thinking about- Martin Luther King Jr said, you know, "I can't make a law that'll make a racist love me, but I can make a law that'll stop him from lynching me." That's pretty close. I think that's right. But I also think that by changing the law, you know, things like the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, we changed American society and we changed the expectation of equality in our society. So I don't think that these procedures are irrelevant, on the contrary. But I do feel like the way to start this is to start with culture.

Mila Atmos
So let's take a step back and I want you to paint us a picture. What does democratic excellence look like to you?

Christopher Beem
You know, in the book I quote just a couple of stanzas from Langston Hughes's poem "Democracy." The few stanzas are:

"I have as much right as the other fellow to stand on my own two feet and own the land."

And I think that is about as good a summary as I can make, that a good democrat recognizes that everybody has those rights. Everyone has an equal standing just as much as the other fellow. But in affirming that right of the other fellow, I'm also affirming my right to stand on my own feet. You know, it strikes me that by saying "own the land," you're claiming not just that it's yours, but that you have something proprietary about it; that you have a role to play in it; that you have, as this person with these rights, a certain sense of responsibilities that come from that in terms of your behavior, in terms of voting, in terms of engaging in the world and coming to understand what you think and what you believe, and then also affirming that with people.

That's not a bad way to say it. You have just as much a right I do, to stand on my own two feet and own the land. And if you really live up to those lines, then I think you have achieved democratic excellence.

Mila Atmos
Well, I'm thinking about the example about the person who, or the multiple people, who had to be duct taped to their chairs. And I feel like, you know, is changing culture a process that is maybe too slow? For folks who are listening to this, you know, to reflect, to work on these virtues and changing the culture together. What's the point if we run out of runway?

Christopher Beem

Yeah. Now, that is a fair question. And committing to democratic virtue certainly isn't going to be fast enough for the person whose behavior requires them to be duct taped to a seat. And are we at that point right now in our culture? I don't think we are. I think we are at a crisis point. But I don't think that things are so dire that a commitment to democratic virtue is not only a waste of time, it's undermining the kind of responses that we genuinely should have, whatever that might be, whether it be Civil War or marching in the street, I don't know. But, I don't think that we're there yet.

I have to confess that I've had moments of despair as well.
There are times when I just think there are people with whom evidence just does not seem to matter. Facts do not seem to matter, and I don't know how to argue with people like that. And so I'm not unsympathetic to the point of view, but I think for me anyway, the evidence does not support that kind of reaction. Not yet anyway.

Mila Atmos
Not yet. Well, you mentioned what I started this episode with, the Civil War talk. You don't think we're on the cusp, but have you been party to those conversations yourself?

Christopher Beem
You know, if I have, it's only to push back on it and to say, "you know, you realize that's crazy, right?" How do we split up this nation? Do we say all the urban areas like Austin, Texas has to move or Raleigh Durham has to move out of North Carolina? I mean, the whole notion is nuts, right? Not to mention the fact that how many hundreds of thousands of people died in the Civil War. And that's our answer to this? I mean, it's crazy. And so I do think it is worth all of us stepping back and recognizing that at some point we cannot not get along. We don't have to like each other. We don't have to agree. But we cannot take our fight to such a level of animus that we're willing to start shooting each other. It just means that somebody's going to win, but it's not going to solve the problem of disagreement to think about it as a solution. It's a kind of childish indulgence. We just have to work harder than that.

Mila Atmos
Yes. Yes. Well, I agree. I think it's good for you to say out loud that it's crazy. And B, of course, to say that it is not a solution. I think this is the part that people don't talk about, that it actually won't solve the problem of, let's say, tribalism or polarization. But I like to end our conversations always on a hopeful note. I mean, you wrote a hopeful book, right? And this is something that we can all rally around and embrace as small-D democrats, democratic citizens. So looking into the future, what makes you hopeful?

Christopher Beem
So I'm going to answer this question slightly differently because I think it's relevant. Thomas talks about hope as a virtue. He does not think it is the same thing as optimism. Optimism is when you look at the world and you say, "well, here are some reasons to be hopeful." Thomas says that hope is a virtue that, in good Aristotelian fashion, lies between two extremes. And the one extreme is despair, and the other extreme is just, "oh, it's fine. It's all going to work out. It's no problem." So hope is a realistic assessment of the world. And it says "things are bad, this is not great. It will take a lot of work to change it, but so be it. I'm going to do that work."

So, hope in Thomas is a willful act. It's not something that just comes to you because things are getting better. It's to say, "no, I'm going to do this whether it works or not, dammit, this is where I'm putting my flag." I saw Bishop Desmond Tutu when I was at the Divinity School and he answered a question and he said, "I am a Christian. I am a prisoner of hope." And I thought that was a pretty good way to frame it, too. It's like, this is where I'm going to plant my flag. And I think it is a good thing for all of us to think about it that way.

There are a lot of reasons for despair. But hope says "nope! I see those. I recognize it. I understand that the task before us is arduous. I'm hoping anyway." And so I would like to encourage all of us to try to do that. And oh, by the way, one other thing. Thomas says that the way you sustain that kind of hope is to surround yourself with people who are equally committed to that hope. So go out and find other people who are willing to plant that flag and be prisoners of hope.

Mila Atmos
Oh, I like it. Of the Seven Virtues, at the end of this conversation, what are the two most pressing things that an everyday citizen can do right now?

Christopher Beem
All of us are in our tribes. All of us have a long list of incentives that push us to stay in those tribes. And the things that we can do are aspects of mind, aspects of behavior that push us the other way. And so if we can just start with democratic thinking, and if we can just start by demanding of ourselves consistency in how we approach the actions of people we see. So just like if you can see yourself as being a Red Sox fan at a game and trying to call the balls and strikes fairly and accurately, that's one way to start.

And then the other way I would start is to say, have the courage to examine the absolute inevitability that your views are impacted by your biases and try to have the courage to look at things from a more objective point of view. Your biases are going to be there. They're going to fight back no matter how hard you try. But if you just start by saying, "wait a minute, is it that simple? Is there something here that I'm missing? How can I reflect this argument in a way that makes these people not seem monstrous?" And if we can start by doing that, then Aristotle said virtues are habits and they need to be cultivated and they need practice. And the more that we do, the better we will be at them.

Mila Atmos
Yes. Hear, hear. We should all practice more democratic thinking in our everyday lives. Thank you very much for joining us on Future Hindsight. It was really a pleasure to have you on the show.

Christopher Beem
Same here. Those questions were hard, but they were good questions. So I really appreciate it. Thanks very much.

Mila Atmos
Thank you. Christopher Beem is the managing director of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State and Associate Research Professor of Political Science and affiliate faculty in the Rock Ethics Institute. He's also the author of The Seven Democratic Virtues: What You Can Do To Overcome Tribalism and Save Our Democracy.