Yesterday I read this interesting argument in the Otago Daily Times:
… the great paradox which lies at democracy’s heart: that individual liberty can only be preserved by acquiescing to decisions arrived at collectively; by recognising our neighbours’ right to overrule our personal priorities we simultaneously reaffirm our right to persuade sufficient of them to adopt our personal priorities as their own.
It is an extraordinarily generous social and political concession — and utterly incompatible with the narcissism of our age. The proper functioning of democracy is predicated on an electorate whose core priorities are shared rather than contested. The moment one fraction of the electorate believes its interests and ideals to be fundamentally threatened by the designs of another fraction — as happened in the years before the outbreak of the American Civil War, and which appears to be happening again in the US today — the generosity and tolerance upon which democratic institutions depend swiftly evaporates.
Today Paul Kelly has this argument:
The sense of a community of shared values is disintegrating. The most fundamental norms, accepted for centuries, are now falling apart as disputes erupt about family, education, gender, sexuality, marriage, tradition, patriotism, life and death.
The decline in our civic virtue is undisguised, respect for institutional authority has eroded, the idea of a common community purpose is undermined, trust is in retreat but the most important singular development is the transformed notion of the individual — the obsession about individual autonomy in every aspect of life: love, work, race, sex, culture and death. Put harshly but not inaccurately, it is narcissism presented as self-realisation and human rights.
The idea that our democracy is founded on core moral truths about human nature has collapsed — or is collapsing. Donald Trump’s election as President was driven by fear the American dream had been cancelled and by alarm that elites led a separate life and used power for their self-interest. But the deeper source was a feeling that the moral foundations of the country were eroding.
I think these arguments are correct. I am uncomfortable that Paul Kelly links his argument to the apparent decline in Christianity. I think there is a decline of belief in the benefits of liberalism in general – where organised religion plays a part but isn’t the whole story.