Pope Francis and the Struggle for Democracy

A thing to keep in mind during Pope Francis' visit this week: Ideas are sources of power. Definitions shape the frameworks we use to understand our experiences and the world around us. As Christopher Ansell shows in his recent book, Pragmatist Democracy, elites skillfully seek to control these definitions.

As the definition of democracy has shrunk, people have lost power. Every struggle for a more inclusive and equal society has been dramatically weakened. Coverage of the pope's visit, like coverage of the papacy since 2013, seems likely to emphasize Francis' values like compassion, inclusion, and service. But the coverage is also almost certain to slight any comments he makes on democratizing power.

The theme of civic power weaves through Francis' career. Long before he became pope, Jorge Bergoglio was developing such views. He ministered to the Iron Guard, a workers group for social justice. He worked in the slums of Buenos Aires. He fought skillfully against the repression of Argentinian dictators and strong men.

Francis was also influenced by the populist "theology of the people," emphasizing the wisdom of popular religious and cultural resources, as Jim Yardley reported in his New York Times article, "A Humble Pope, Challenging the World." In the face of vast economic inequality, Bergoglio came to see the danger of concentrations of power. "The pope is concerned that the plutocracy is destroying democracy," explained Sẚnchez Sonondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

He expressed these views in a speech in Bolivia, July 9, 2015: "The future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites. It is fundamentally in the hands of peoples and in their ability to organize." In Laudato Si', the climate encyclical, the message is similar. "Public pressure has to be exerted in order to bring about decisive political action," he said. "Society through non-governmental organizations and intermediate groups must put pressure on governments...Unless citizens control political power -- national, regional, and municipal -- it will not be possible to control damage to the environment."

As Peter Levine pointed out on his civic engagement blog comparing coverage of Pope Francis with Barack Obama in the 2008 campaign, "The press completely ignores these leaders' talk of civic engagement. That theme was never covered in the 2008 presidential campaign, and no one mentions it when they cover the Pope."

Today democracy is narrowed to mean elections. As the US Agency for International Development site defines it, "Democracy refers to a civilian political system in which the legislative and chief executive offices are filled through regular competitive elections with universal suffrage." Recent academic literature shows the shrinkage, evident in the work of even as fine a scholar of democracy as Robert Putnam.

Putnam's first well-known book in 1993, Making Democracy Work, argued that successful government depends on public-spirited citizens and vital civic life. His new book, Our Kids, on inequalities, similarly marshaling enormous research, nonetheless shrinks democracy, which he defines "equal voice in government" as "the essence of democracy," without reference to civic culture.

For all their differences, both Republicans and Democrats in this year's election define democracy as elections. "We know what democracy is supposed to be about," said Bernie Sanders in his announcement speech. "It is one person, one vote, with every citizen having an equal say."

This week is an opportunity to connect Pope Francis to the concept of democracy as a "way of life," once widespread in America. The concept lived in the public work of settlers and immigrants who built schools, towns, local governments and local economies, what the historian Robert Wiebe called "portable democracy" in his book, Self-Rule.

It infused the land grant colleges of the 19th and 20th centuries, historically black colleges and universities, liberal arts colleges, and community colleges, which called themselves "democracy colleges."

The idea of democracy as a way of life also inspired the great democratic movements of our history including the black freedom movement of the 1950s and 1960s which shaped me as a college student.
The late Vincent Harding, Martin Luther King's friend who drafted his famous 1967 speech against the Vietnam War, described the larger conception of democracy in his book Hope and History.

Harding challenged the radical shrinking of the movement's meaning. "'Civil rights movement' is too narrow a description," Harding said. "In fact [the movement] was a powerful outcropping of the continuing struggle for the expansion of democracy...in which African-Americans have always been integrally engaged [and] in which we provided major leadership from the mid-1950s at least to the 1970s." The struggle for democracy "demonstrates the ways of human solidarity in the face of oppression, the common hope which empowers people everywhere, the deep yearning for a democratic experience that is far more than voting."

Harding also argued that democracy is not simply for the dispossessed. The democratic movement "searches for the best possibilities--rather than the worst tendencies - within us all."

Laudato Si' helps to illuminate the dynamics which have so eroded everyday "democratic experience," the replacement of civic and relational cultures with what he calls the "technocratic paradigm" across the sweep of modern societies. Schools, local businesses, colleges, clinics, nonprofits, even religious congregations have often turned into places where experts deliver services for clients and customers, losing their quality of free civic space. It is going to take a long march through settings of daily life to regrow civic muscle.

But as Ansell also observes, elite control over definitions "must contend with audiences who have power to arbitrate the use and meaning of concepts." If we pay attention to the pope's power messages as well as his value messages, it will help us launch this march, reawakening the larger meanings of democracy.