From the Healing the Heart of Democracy Discussion Guide // In your own life, and the larger life of the community in which you live, what are some examples of individualism and communalism? Are the two tendencies in balance or are they out of kilter in one direction or the other? In the book, Parker describes our social structure as consisting of three “layers”: the private, the public, and the political. Focusing for the moment only on the public realm, how much time do you spend in “the company of strangers”? What do you value most about public life? What worries you most about it?
This video is a part of the Healing the Heart of Democracy Discussion Guide and can be found with more videos and resources in our “Healing the Heart of Democracy Hub.” You can explore the hub, download the guide, and find all of the videos along with additional resources here.
The human heart, this vital core of the human self, holds the power to destroy democracy or to make it whole. That is why our nineteenth-century visitor, Alexis de Tocqueville, insisted in his classic Democracy in America that democracy’s future would depend heavily on generations of American citizens cultivating the habits of the heart that support political wholeness. (35)
The greater our tendency toward individualism, the weaker our communal fabric; the weaker our communal fabric, the more vulnerable we are to despotic power. Tocqueville’s hope that the communal instinct might provide a counterbalance to American individualism and help us avoid the danger of despotism was based on the vigor he observed in religious, civic, and other organizational life. (42)
If “We the People” are to hold democracy’s tensions in ways that reweave the civic community, we must develop habits that allow our hearts to break open and embrace diversity rather than break down and further divide us. (36)
Q. In your own life, and the larger life of the community in which you live, what are some examples of individualism and communalism? Are the two tendencies in balance or are they out of kilter in one direction or the other?
Unlike the political and the private, which are realms of relative order, the public is an arena of unpredictable and uncontrollable disorder. Things get noisy and messy when strangers gather, creating a yeasty mix of demographic differences and diverse interests, a tension-ridden and constantly shifting jumble of influences and alliances. Without this public vitality there would be no social ferment except, perhaps, underground. The public is the primordial soup that breeds new social life, the leaven that keeps our lives rising— and that potential for uprising is precisely what autocrats fear. . . .
And yet it is an observable fact that the critical public layer of democracy’s infrastructure is eroding at a pace that barely attracts our attention and raises very few alarms: we are so obsessed with our private lives that we are largely oblivious to our public diminishment. If we continue to ignore the decline of the public space, with its opportunities and energies that help animate democracy, the private life we cherish will be weakened and ultimately undermined. (102)
Q. In the book, Parker describes our social structure as consisting of three “layers”: the private, the public, and the political. Focusing for the moment only on the public realm, how much time do you spend in “the company of strangers”? What do you value most about public life? What worries you most about it?
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