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The Ethical Ideal of Democratic Governance



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This nation’s politics and policymaking cannot and do not exist apart from the beliefs and values of its citizens. For good, and just as often, for ill, a free people will reflect the civic capacities or, to use an old-fashioned word, virtues, of its members in its efforts to realize and sustain its quest for the ethical ideal that is democracy. As it is a major part of our remit here at the Institute, we seek to be as self-consciously reflective as we can be concerning trends in our nation’s democratic institutions, broadly understood, and their implications for the realization of self-governance. In my view, periodically pondering the relative health of the values base of our regime is always appropriate and necessary. Indeed, this commentary is devoted to that ever-salient concern. I here explore briefly the enduring import of the nation’s Civil War for our collective citizenry’s ability to engage all members of the country’s population empathetically, and to ensure that each enjoys their rights and freedom as outlined in the Constitution and in law. Without a prudential citizenry equipped with a sense of its obligation to ensure the civil and human rights of all, freedom cannot be maintained and America’s experiment in self-governance will ultimately not endure. This capacity is not merely a matter of policy, political strategy or administrative process, although these may be more or less helpful or pernicious in supporting the values that will sustain it. Instead, civic bonds are maintained by the enduring beliefs shared by this country’s population that persuade its individual members to respect and to ensure the rights of all other citizens, irrespective of their race, religion, creed or any other characteristic. Such is the test of any would-be self-governing people, whether comprised of one tribe, race or ethnic group, or many. Democratic governance must be rooted in the mutual respect and trust of its sovereign or it will not endure. History teaches that a failure in this fundament, understood as the loss of individual freedom for members of affected populations, will occur in democratic societies (including our own). The salient issue is not whether such will happen, but if it will prove fatal to society’s overall freedom. Whether such a tragedy unfolds is ultimately most deeply a question of cultural capacity and communal self-awareness and not of leadership, policy or political process alone.

From at least the occasion of the Gettysburg Address until his assassination in April 1865, President Abraham Lincoln took multiple occasions to think ahead to the Civil War’s end and to call on all Americans to realize they constituted one nation and one people. He realized that if each side, the citizens of the North and the South, did not accept the other and move forward together with a dedication to the common weal of all, the conflict would result in wounds that might take generations to heal, if indeed, they ever were to mend. At Gettysburg on November 19, 1863, for example, as he memorialized the tens of thousands who died in that terrible battle, the President observed:

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.[1]

In his speech, Lincoln alluded to the still unfinished war, but he also looked ahead to the reemergence of the American nation and to the renewal and revival of the ideals and aspirations on which the United States was founded. He did not flinch from acknowledging the horrors that Gettysburg represented, but he was already envisioning a time that the nation would again be one, and its unified people, now including African Americans, could once more be the acknowledged sovereign guarantors of the freedom of all the nation’s citizens, as the country’s Declaration of Independence and Constitution had outlined.

Again, on March 4, 1865, just weeks before the end of the Civil War and his untimely death, Lincoln used the occasion of his second inaugural address to call on all Americans to recognize that the only path forward was unity and that there could be no vengeance or continuing “side-taking” or retribution at the conflict’s end. As he put the question in rhetoric that has resonated widely and deeply since:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.[2]

We now know that Lincoln’s murder, together with the advent of vengeful Radical Republicanism and Southern state leaders who would not accept defeat, would together prevent the realization of his fond hope and aspiration of national reconciliation. Those malignant social forces, and the political bargain struck in 1876 that elevated Republican Rutherford B. Hayes (who did not win the popular vote) to the Presidency at the price of the withdrawal of national troops from the South, opened the way for Southern Democrats to install the systematic de jure and de facto segregation and denial of African Americans’ civil rights, dubbed the Jim Crow era, that endured until the 1960s. As historian James Kloppenberg has summarized this ugly turn:

As it happened whatever loose knitting bound the sections together in the aftermath of the Civil War occurred through a process of repressing memories of slavery’s cruelty, forgetting visions of racial equality, and imposing a new regime premised on old white supremacist assumptions almost as widely shared after the 1880s, by whites throughout the United States, as they had been in the south in the 1850s. The result forestalled the further progress of democracy in America for almost a century.[3]

We know, too, how culturally incomplete the project of undoing that systematic repression of the civil rights of selected Americans remains, and how raw appeals to race and racial discrimination can still mobilize shares of our country’s citizens to the polls. Americans of voting age are also aware of how elected leaders of both of our major parties have cynically used race as a polarizing device whenever they believed it would redound to their electoral advantage to do so. And, finally, the country’s citizenry today surely is aware of the role that race is playing in our current Presidential race in which, far from calling for national unity, one candidate seeks to mobilize citizens on the basis of the twin axes of fear and hatred, and promises to torture thousands and to deny millions their human and civil rights if elected.

In this respect, it is easy to contend that our nation has never mended the wounds inflicted by the Civil War and the South’s unwillingness to give up in practice the racial enmity that lent its “peculiar institution” its animus and engine. To these ongoing challenges to self-governance, however, our nation has elected to add another: a devotion to dog-eat-dog capitalism and individualism—first unleashed with full-throttled fury following the Civil War as industrialization proceeded apace—coupled with the claim that market institutions can substitute for self-governance and its accompanying need for a citizenry possessed of empathetic imagination and devotion to the common good. Formally since 1981, with Ronald Reagan’s election to the Presidency, and arguably for nearly a decade prior, this nation has embraced a governing philosophy that suggests that all difficulties that confront our political economy are the product of democratic institutions, and these must be curtailed and displaced whenever and wherever possible by markets and capitalist values. The result has been a persistent political call for the enervation or replacement of civic virtue in favor of an atomistic individualism lent energy by a naked and wholesale pursuit of self-interest and consumer goods.

So it is that we stand as a nation today simultaneously as the arbiters of an incomplete realization of the democratic ethical ideal, and as proselytizers of an ideology that corrodes, rather than assists efforts to realize Lincoln’s great unifying aspiration. It is difficult to say whether this election will constitute a major crossroads in this country’s experiment in self-governance, as now appears to be the case. What is easier to conclude is that the road the nation has taken for several decades in pursuit of untrammeled capitalism as the would-be arbiter of all social claims, has done nothing to mend the deep and abiding wounds created by the Civil War and reopened by Jim Crow, and has done much to tear them open afresh and thereby to threaten the entire noble project launched by the Constitution.

Individual beliefs and values drive collective democratic possibility, and for decades now, many of our leaders have invited Americans to devalue their role in self-governance and to regard their neighbor as a prospect, “other” or competitor, and not as a fellow citizen. Lincoln warned against such a path. Our role here at the Institute, too, is to seek to be as discerning and sensitive a protector of democratic possibility as Lincoln proved to be. If we can but partly fulfill that aspiration, we will have played a role in this nation’s ongoing project to secure the ethical ideal that is democratic self-governance.


[1] Abraham Lincoln, “Gettysburg Address,” November 19, 1863, available from: Abraham Lincoln Online Accessed September 13, 2016.

[2] Abraham Lincoln, “Second Inaugural Address,” March 4, 1865, available from: Bartleby.com Accessed September 13, 2016.

[3] James Kloppenberg, Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought, New York: Oxford University Press, 2016, p.700.

Publication Date

September 30, 2016