Recently, from somewhere in my spiritual practice, this question has arisen and will not let me go. It may be my “question for 2022,” if there is such a thing. In this space, I’ll share some background to explain what the question means to me and why it’s captured my attention.
First, to restate: What constitutes right action in a failing democracy?
The words failing democracy may have grabbed you, so let’s look at them. The current issue of The Atlantic features several articles on this idea, including Barton Gellman’s “January 6 Was Practice” (may require sign-in/subscription). The essential idea is that officials in the Trump wing of the U.S. Republican Party—which is now most of the Republican Party—are laying a more extensive foundation for ensuring that Trump returns to the White House in 2024, even if it means contravening the election results. Because this effort is more extensive and more organized, it is more likely to succeed. Even typically restrained commentators are wondering openly about the death of democracy, hence the failing democracy phrase.
(It’s worth noting that Gellman wrote a similar piece around mid-2020, forecasting how Trump might react to an electoral loss, and nearly everything he forecast came true.)
I am in no position to speak for Trump devotees, but I wonder whether the phrase failing democracy might resonate with them too. As best I understand it, they are convinced not only that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, but that we are moving toward socialism and away from democracy. That may qualify for them as failing.
The other bit that may need explanation is right action. It’s one component of the Noble Eightfold Path, which the Buddha described as the way to extinguish suffering. The commentaries I’ve read tend to concentrate on the fundamentals of the Buddha’s idea here: do not take life, do not steal, be honest, refrain from illegitimate sex. (This may sound familiar to my Christian siblings!) For me, the words right action can connote more—this article on the Noble Eightfold Path asserts that “right action aims at promoting moral, honorable, and peaceful conduct.” Part of our job, as I understand it, is to explore what that might mean in specific situations, like the situation of living in a failing democracy.
There are, of course, many quick and ready answers to this question: protest, write your congressperson, etc. These have never sat well with me. They are good and noble actions, to be sure. But from my perspective, as a response to a failing democracy, they do not address the fundamental truth of our condition as individuals—i.e., the relative smallness of our influence among billions of people and vast, entrenched systems of power. So I’m setting aside the standard answers in favor of a deeper, more contemplative meditation on the question itself.
So far, what’s arisen for me have been other questions: What do we really mean by fail? What is a democracy, after all? What other forms might it take? What’s important about democracy? If democracy fails, what will we lose? Who precisely would be undertaking this right action anyway?
If you decide to ponder this yourself—more deeply than a quick response—let me know, either soon or anytime in 2022. Maybe we can do some of this work together. May all of you have a meaningful year ahead.