Dissatisfaction with democracy, much like a pandemic, has infected nearly every democratic society around the world, and the United States exhibits no immunity to this burgeoning malady. A recent report from the University of Cambridge found that “democratic discontent” has now ascended to its highest levels since 1995, with 60 percent of Americans reporting that they are disenchanted with the democratic process—an increase by nearly a third of the population in just one generation. Couple that research with another study finding that one in six Americans support military rule, and we are left with a very troubling conclusion:
Democracy is in crisis.
This hyper-partisan moment and the gridlock of the political process continue to feed these ascending impulses among Americans. Partisan division, the breakdown of civility, and the seeming loss of a shared commitment or system of values tribalize us, forcing us into the trenches of this present culture war.
The latent unrest and hostility that undergird the displeasure with democracy lead some people to doubt whether we can salvage the wreckage of our current political tumult. They question whether it’s worth even trying to mend the breaches that threaten to wreck the entire project of American democracy.
In a recent article at Public Discourse, Hope Leman offers an indictment of Robert P. George—a man she praised as one of “rock-solid integrity.” Despite her admiration, she disputes George’s summons for conservatives to “engage with progressives” for the purposes of, in George’s words, “truth-seeking discourse.” She contends that liberal ideas are not worth engaging, and that liberals themselves have no interest in truth-seeking. Even more, she argues that “truth-seeking” may not even be worth the time for conservatives.
The tone of her article imbibes much of the present ire directed at the public square and the democratic process. She states from the onset, though recognizing the irony, that much of her argument relies on “life experiences” that render her “skeptical” about the “fruitfulness of conservative-progressive dialogue.” She shares her frustrations, suggesting that liberals eradicated the possibility of reasonable discourse through the politicization of everyday life. Leman, furthermore, as a researcher in biomedical sciences, pinpoints the fanciful “science-based” arguments peddled by liberals on the transgender issue. She writes, “How can we engage in truth-seeking dialogue with fanatics who deny that there is even a theory worth examining or who refuse to study the effects of a life-altering medical procedure or life-long hormone regime that is based on the confused mental state of a child?”
No doubt, Leman’s experiences mirror what many conservatives face daily. Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshop might have more to add, as might Ryan Anderson after Amazon abruptly stopped selling his book, When Harry Became Sally. The chronicles of canceled conservatives would provide mountains of evidence to back Leman’s claims that it is time to abandon truth-seeking and foreclose the public square. To add my own “life experiences” to the narrative, I, too, as a conservative and evangelical academic, have faced the scorn and contempt of progressives in the historical academy. Because of my presuppositions, I have been told that I do not belong, that my ideas are not worth the time of serious academic inquiry. If I wanted to “make it,” I needed to learn to speak a “different language.”
We conservatives might resonate with much of what Leman disclosed. Indeed, we might share in her discouragement.
We must, however, resist her conclusions.
A myriad of problems surface in Leman’s critique, not the least of which is this: If conservatives are to abandon truth-seeking and engaging with political rivals, what then is the alternative? She provided no answer nor offered any ideas as to how conservatives might navigate the tumultuous waters of a hostile sea of contrary opinions. If we resign the enterprise of reasoned debate, of at least attempting to persuade, then where do we go from here? Do we simply get behind the other one in six Americans in favor of military rule and hope that our side prevails in the coup?
Democracy is messy. It always has been. A brief survey of our history will provide ample evidence that controversy, division, and impassioned disagreements have always permeated the public arena. It is imperative, therefore, to combat the temptation to withdraw from debate, even when our rivals fail to extend the same courtesy of respect that we offer them. Open-mindedness in no way means we must sacrifice our convictions on the altar of political niceties. It does, however, commit us to the virtues of civility, patience, and the willingness to abandon unreasoned allegiances.
“Yes”—Leman might respond—“but your naïveté has overlooked the unwillingness of the progressivist mind to take part in reasoned discourse; just consider the new orthodoxy of transgenderism.” The entrenchment of the left on LGBTQ issues might support Leman’s thesis, but other signs undermine her point that “liberals aren’t interested in truth-seeking.” Indeed, National Review recently covered the questioning of transgender “medicine” in Europe. Finland just joined the United Kingdom and Sweden in rejecting the use of puberty-blocking hormones in youth, labeling such practices as “human experimentation.”
The truth was there all along in the science—indeed, in the very laws of nature. If, however, we wring our hands and despair of the hard-hearted progressivists, we not only lose the battle for ideas; we also abdicate our responsibility to contend for the truth, no matter the social cost.
Furthermore, Leman’s entire argument relies on a presupposition that conservatives cannot accept. She seems to sunder progressive ideas from the person who holds those ideas. Say what you will about the ideas of progressives: that they are wicked, harmful, and disjointed from any meaningful definition of reality. As true as that may be, that does not nullify our commitment to people and the dignity they have as beings made in the image of God. In other words, conservatives cannot surrender the liberal to his or her bad ideas, nor can we renounce our responsibility in the public square.
Leman suggests that truth-seeking may not be worth our time. In fact, the objective reality of truth demands our time. If it is true, then it is good, beautiful, and worthy to be shared. The task will be difficult, to put it mildly; but it is worth our intellectual ability and every bit of character and conviction we can muster, because we recognize that there is far more at stake than policies and elections. These are people lost to degenerate ideas, and we dare not retreat into our trenches.
Robert George has much to teach us here. He is a man with loyal friends on both the right and the left. He shows us how to engage in agreeable disagreement, and he models a path forward in the contested waters of our public square. He synthesizes benevolence, winsomeness, and reasonableness together with conviction and courage.
If, as the research suggests, democracy is in crisis, then conservatives might be the last line of defense from the alternatives to the republic. At the end of the progressive agenda resides coerced speech, the loss of religious freedom, and the stifling of human flourishing. We all, therefore, bear the glorious burden of contending for the truth.