The Seven Virtues of a Healthy Democracy
Author: Penn State | Contact: psu.edu
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Synopsis: The Seven Democratic Virtues: What You Can Do to Overcome Tribalism and Save Our Democracy outlines how the average citizen can defend democracy in the U.S.. People might be unable to change how the news is reported or overcome the power of lobbyists and campaign donations. But we can step up and analyze our behavior and make small changes to how we think and act to help stand up for our democracy. One of the most significant current threats to democracy in the U.S. is tribalism, the tendency for people to form groups, cooperate, distrust, and disparage those outside the group.
- Seven Virtues
In Christian tradition, the seven heavenly virtues combine the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude with the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. The seven capital virtues, also known as contrary or remedial virtues, are those opposite the seven deadly sins. They are often enumerated as chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, kindness, patience, and humility. According to historian István P. Bejczy, "the capital vices are more often contrasted with the remedial or contrary virtues in medieval moral literature than with the principal virtues, while the principal virtues are frequently accompanied by a set of mirroring vices rather than by the seven deadly sins."
People can become involved in politics in several ways. They can vote, volunteer in campaigns, or even run for office themselves. But when it comes to improving the state of the U.S. democracy, what can the average citizen do?
Christopher Beem, managing director of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State, attempted to answer that question in his upcoming book, "The Seven Democratic Virtues: What You Can Do to Overcome Tribalism and Save Our Democracy."
The book describes the characteristics and practices - such as humility, courage, and charity - that Beem said can help people become better democratic citizens. According to Beem, the book was inspired by a question he was often asked when people learned about his study area.
"Many people would ask me what the average citizen can do to defend our democracy, and it's a good question that deserves a serious answer," Beem said. "People might be unable to change how the news is reported or overcome the power of lobbyists and campaign donations. But we can step up and analyze our behavior and make small changes to how we think and act to help stand up for our democracy."
According to Beem, one of the greatest current threats to democracy in the U.S. is tribalism, the tendency for people to form groups, cooperate within them, and distrust and disparage those outside the group. He argued that tribalism is a basic neurological tendency for people to be drawn to others similar to themselves and affects almost everyone.
Beem said that while democracies are generally vulnerable to tribalism - for example, the two-party system in the U.S. tends to split people into one team or the other - the problem has reached new heights in the U.S. in recent years.
"It has swamped the banks of our democratic life and turned us into two ever-more-hostile camps," Beem wrote in the book's introduction. "At this moment, the 'other side is no longer an opponent but an existential threat; norms of behaviors are for suckers; politics has become a zero-sum game. As more partisans - politicians and citizens alike - reflect this attitude, the rhetoric rises, leading to more distrust, antagonism, and even hostility."
However, Beem said there is still an opportunity for people to step up and be part of the solution: changing the way they think about democratic citizenship.
To organize the list of virtues that would help citizens live together and thrive within a democracy, Beem broke them down into three categories: democratic thinking, democratic acting, and democratic belief.
According to Beem, intellectual or "thinking" virtues help us understand what is good and just, and the three thinking democratic virtues are humility, honesty, and consistency. While humility is about understanding that everyone has biases that are hard to overcome, honesty is about recognizing that those biases can lead us to believe falsehoods.
"Consistency is how we can try to overcome those biases," Beem said. "For example, if you think certain behavior is acceptable when someone on your side does it, would you feel the same way if it was somebody on the other? Of course, every circumstance is different, and there could be exceptions. But at minimum, having that kind of discussion helps move us beyond our biases. That's democratic thinking."
Next, Beem described the moral or "acting" virtues, which help us improve our actions - courage and temperance. Courage is the ability to challenge the beliefs and actions of your group members, not just those of other groups. Temperance, meanwhile, is the ability to keep anger toward others from morphing into hate.
Finally, Beem listed the final virtues of charity and faith. While charity is the process of giving each other the benefit of the doubt and trusting that everyone has a common, shared commitment to democracy, faith is the belief that democracy can ultimately prevail.
"Faith is the idea that you can be a witness for what you understand to be true, and you can have faith that your fellow citizens will respect your voice and actions, listen to what you have to say, and be moved," Beem said. "That's not to say that happens all the time, or even the majority of the time, but it can and has happened."
Ultimately, Beem said he hopes people walk away from reading the book feeling more empowered than when they started.
"If you're unhappy with the country's state, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed or even despair," Beem said. "I hope people can find things they can do to feel like they're making a difference. President Joe Biden's inaugural address discussed times that America has been in crisis before and that it took enough people standing up and doing the right thing to find a solution. And I think that's right, that if you have enough people, you can change the culture. And by doing that, you can change our politics."
"The Seven Democratic Virtues: What You Can Do to Overcome Tribalism and Save Our Democracy" will be published on Aug. 30 by Penn State University Press. Beem will teach a one-credit class organized around the book in Spring 2023.
Book Title : The Seven Democratic Virtues: What You Can Do to Overcome Tribalism and Save Our Democracy
Author : Christopher Beem
Publisher : Penn State University Press; 1st edition (August 30, 2022)
Language : English
Hardcover : 236 pages
ISBN-10 : 0271093943
ISBN-13 : 978-0271093949
About the Author
Christopher Beem is Managing Director of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy, Associate Research Professor of Political Science, and Affiliate Faculty in the Rock Ethics Institute at Penn State. He is the author or coeditor of five books, including The Necessity of Politics: Reclaiming American Public Life and Democratic Humility: Reinhold Niebuhr, Neuroscience, and America's Political Crisis. He is a cohost of the Democracy Works podcast and a frequent contributor to The Conversation.
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