Creating new democratic bonds


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EUROPEAN critics of immigration and of the resultant Muslim inroads into ‘European civilization’ have generally blamed multiculturalism, holding minorities responsible for their own marginalization (and radicalization) in traditional monocultural societies. British Prime Minister David Cameron recently complained about ‘segregated communities’ that are conducive to Islamic extremism and a life ‘apart from the mainstream’. He excoriated what he called a ‘hands-off tolerance’ that permits terrorism to take root inside Britain. Such criticisms often express the biases of power, with traditional majorities indicting those they victimize for exploiting liberal tolerance by hiding behind it even as they foment violence.

While this kind of indulgent majority power hypocrisy is despicable and needs to be condemned, there are genuine issues multiculturalism raises for modern democracy, and it is these issues I want to explore here. I begin with the controversial claim that democracy and multiculturalism – despite such locutions as ‘multicultural democracy’ and ‘diverse democracy’ – are actually in deep tension with one another and that the democratic idea is more at home in monocultural than multicultural societies.

Democracy was first born in ancient Athens and Sparta and then flourished again only several millennia later in small principalities and river towns and ports in Europe – places like Florence, Venice, Amsterdam and Basel. Eventually, in the 16th and 17th centuries, democracy was transposed to the United States, where it was installed in small towns and village communities as well as colonial commonwealths in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. In such places, far distant from the Royal Palace, citizens ruled nominally from London were in fact self-determining in local affairs and were acquiring vital experience in local democracy.


In a word, democracy was designed for and emerged in small, intimate, monocultural societies – societies with a shared religion, a shared language, a shared history, a shared ethnicity and a shared set of values. Getting people to agree on what to do and how to behave with respect to political and economic policy – that is to say, creating democratic consensus – is easy when one has the kind of thick community among citizens that characterizes small-scale polities where citizens speak the same language, practice the same religion and share the same ideals. If in these early monocultural democracies there was disagreement about war or peace, or about economic policy, there was ample room for dissent and disagreement, for one could count on a fundamental underlying agreement about the common place of citizens in the world – their identity and their core values.

To put it a little differently (as Rousseau did in the 18th century, or Tocqueville did in the 19th century), in order for democracy to work, one needed a foundation in community, in solidarity, in fraternity and in the sense of equality, all of which arose out of living with people who resembled each other. This kind of foundation privileged consensus and thick community in ways that made possible viable democratic societies and participatory polities that used their commonality to facilitate self-determination.


Significant changes took place during the 15th and 16th centuries as societies organized into large ‘nation states’, less monocultural and less consensus-based than the smaller entities from which they were being constituted. These changes put democracy’s original premise in question as participatory systems that thrived in the setting of an intimate and parochial monoculturalism, found themselves confronting the new challenges of a vastly enhanced scale. This scaling up of the size and compass of societies quickly outran those forms of democracy (direct, participatory, deliberative) that had depended on monocultural consensus and social uniformity, as well as a citizen body limited both by demography and constraints of race, property and gender.

The political response to the new scale of early modern societies was to focus and organize around a broad unitary idea, not the tribe or township, but the idea of the nation – the gens, ein Volk, le peuple, a single coherent people who once again can be understood as sharing a language, a history and an ethnicity. A weakened and thinner form of commonality rooted in the abstraction that became ‘the French People’, or the ‘Germans’ was born. This new nation state community was largely invented.

Even in places like England and France that are today deemed to be unitary states, it is important to remember that their phase of national consolidation (England’s War of the Roses, Joan of Arc’s campaigns in France) took centuries, as parochial pieces coalesced into new and artificial national wholes. Only when that process of integration was completed did democracy once again become feasible. For despite the large scale character of the new nation states and the thinness of their ‘invented’ national identities, some sense of shared identity was gradually re-established, not just among tens of thousands but among millions of men who were now potential citizens – a quantum leap in the compass of democracy.


By the 18th and 19th century, then, nationalism had become the new basis for democracy, and political theory set itself the new task of linking nationalism and liberalism – the so-called liberal nationalism celebrated by Rousseau, Mazzini and Garibaldi. The goal was to show that a liberal democratic society, though much ‘thinner’ than earlier polities, could nonetheless be held together if rooted in a people representing a unified, coherent community. However, the new national societies, never strictly monocultural, were becoming ever more pluralistic and diverse.

The United States of America, founded in 1776, was perhaps the first real multicultural society. Even back in 1776 when it was still ‘WASP’ (White Anglo-American Protestant), there were Scots, Germans, Dutch, English and Irish throughout the colonies, not to mention the impressed population of African slaves brought to the New World in bondage, or the Native-American Indians being displaced by the settlers. By the end of the 19th century, diversity had become the norm, as new waves of Irish, Italian, Polish, then Jewish immigrants reached American shores and African-Americans became (at least by law) citizens.

More recently, Latino and Asian immigration has continued to diversify democracy to a degree that has led some liberal observers like Arthur Schlesinger Jr. to warn against a disintegration of the American nation. Today, along with Canada and Brazil, America is one of the most multicultural democratic nations on earth. Projections suggest that by 2050, there will be no American ethnic or cultural majority; already today the school age population is a majority of minorities with, for example, over 160 languages being spoken in the Los Angeles school system. The American multicultural future projects Whites as a minority, Blacks as a minority, Asians as a minority, Latinos as a minority.


But it is not just the United States that faces the challenge of e pluribus unum, how to make democracy work in a multicultural society by eliciting unity from the growing diversity of its peoples. After all, the same challenge faced the great empires of the 19th century – the Russian, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires – all of which managed to unite many different peoples into one expansive imperial whole, and then figured out how to get all those peoples to live together in peace.

It was even tougher in democratic societies, where diversity grew not just in keeping with population growth but as a result of the extension of the franchise to ever more diverse populations, above all women. Overnight, the enfranchisement of women doubled the citizen population of every society that empowered the other half of the human race. (Switzerland resisted giving women the vote until 1961, in part because the men insisted their direct democracy in the cantons could not survive a doubling of the electorate!)

The challenge can be found everywhere. In Latin-America, another post-colonial continent, democratic societies have long struggled to unify African, European and indigenous Indian populations with the pre-ponderant Iberian-origin immigrants (and erstwhile colonizers). Multiculturalism is the challenge just about everywhere.


This rudimentary history of the modern world makes clear that by the end of the 19th century the fundamental challenge for democracy had become how to make self-government, designed for small monocultural societies, work effectively and accord with justice in large-scale multicultural societies. Today, as we will see at the end of the essay, the challenge of scale also becomes the challenge of global interdependence, where nations and societies must depend not just on themselves, but on one another, and where international organizations – whether the UN system, or the G9 or independent transnational NGOs – extend across national borders. But whether we look at democracy within or across borders, we face the issue of making a system of government work within and across sovereign borders under conditions of diversity and multiculturalism never imagined by democracy’s founders.

Quite naturally then, in a nation like India, one of the most profound challenges to democracy is multiculturalism. India’s prominence as an exemplar in this domain is revealed by that ‘trick question’ people like to ask about the country: ‘What are the three largest Muslim nations in the world?’ Though its Muslim population is less than 16 per cent of its total of 1.2 billion people, India is third on the list, behind only Indonesia and Pakistan! Bangladesh, Turkey, Egypt, and Iran all have fewer Muslims. Indeed, the spread of Islam around the world – nearly 1.6 billion (nearly a quarter of the world’s population) is Muslim – offers dramatic evidence of just how multicultural the world’s ‘national’ states really are.

There are more Muslims in Nigeria (78 million) than in Egypt (77 million), more in China (21 million) than in Syria (20 million), more in Russia (16.5 million) than in Tunisia (10 million), more in the United States (6 million) than in Palestine (4 million). Multiculturalism, multi-ethnicity and multi-religious pluralism are no longer exceptions, they are the rule. Who would guess that Europe has more Muslims (38 million) than Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Libya put together? Or that nearly two thirds of the world’s Muslims are in Asia and nearly a fifth in sub-Saharan Africa, which leaves only a fifth or less in the Middle East that most people think contains the preponderance of the world’s Muslims?


Combine these demographic realities with the patterns of diversity associated with colonialism, trade, education, job mobility, the flow of capital and large scale immigration and it becomes apparent why multiculturalism is a fact on the ground everywhere, and that democracy is hard pressed to deal with it. There are a tiny number of countries (Japan? Norway?) that claim enduring monocultural traditions, but even in such places change is visible.

Two thousand years of growth in the scale of society and the growing mobility and multicultural diversification of nations around the world raise everywhere the fundamental question: Can we make democracy work under conditions of radical diversity, multiculturalism and religious, ethnic and national difference for which systems of self-government were never intended? Are there strategies that can help democracy survive multiculturalism?


To answer this question, we must scrutinize the easy assumption made by many commentators that multiculturalism and democracy go hand in hand, a by-product of so-called ‘pluralist democracy’. It is convenient to assume this parallelism, but my analysis here suggests otherwise: if democracy was imagined, designed for and works best under monocultural conditions, then the conditions in India, America, Holland and even in China (where the Uighur Muslim minority is playing an increasingly large role and there are 21 million Muslims), are anything but hospitable to democracy.

Social scientists from Arthur Schlesinger Jr. to Samuel Huntington have argued that diversity is an impediment rather than a catalyst to the conditions of commonality that nurture democracy. The question remains then whether there are strategies we might develop to respond to the challenge of making democracy work under conditions where communitarianism, solidarity, fraternity and ethnic and historical have been eroded, and egalitarianism has to function in the face of hierarchy, us/them exclusion and a fear of the ‘other’?

I want to suggest that there are at least three strategies available to democrats to accommodate radical multiculturalism. Two of these have often been tried without a great deal of success; the third holds out greater promise and I want to recommend it here.

The first option is less a strategy than a reactionary response to democracy under conditions of multiculturalism: call it right-wing populism, the politics of resentment, or the politics of fear. It is the sort of reaction typical of the Tea Party in the United States, the right-wing fascist and neo-fascist and anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim movements in Holland (the ascendancy of the anti-immigrant party), Switzerland (no more minarets!), Denmark (the cartoons parodying Islam), as well as in Germany, Italy, France and the U.K. where anti-Muslim fever is also strong. Even in China, there has been an angry and ugly reaction to the presence of Uighurs and their claims for some autonomy and recognition.

Such reactionary responses try to reverse history’s arrow and retreat through time to re-establish the ancient (and never altogether real) conditions of monoculturalism that supposedly made early modern democracy possible. ‘We’ can rule democratically, when ‘we’ really means just ‘us’ shorn of the other! In practice, such a strategy enjoins a politics of fear in which a self-professed ur-original population asks ‘what has happened to our country’ and tries then to ‘reclaim’ its heritage, in effect by excluding the newer immigrants who have tainted the ‘purity’ of the original. Whether they are Tea Party WASPS or Hindu nationalists or Dutch advocates of the old ‘pillars’ of society, such reactionaries hold out the promise of fleeing backwards: India for the Hindus! Europe for the Christians! (they tried to put it into the failed constitutional attempts several years back!)


There is also a stealth version of the politics of fear that blames minorities for their own victimization (and the radicalization which can ensue). This was David Cameron’s tactic in his controversial comments alluded to earlier.

The problem with this kind of reaction, whether couched in Prime Minister Cameron’s ‘respectable’ rhetoric or as overt racism, is that it flies in the face of reality and sets a course against history. For better or worse, the world today is multicultural, interdependent and mobile. Global markets assure global immigration, global diversity and the increasing irrelevance of national borders if not of nationality itself. These realities, dominated by incessant immigration, imply that no country, however monocultural today, is likely to remain that way tomorrow.


Multiculturalism is the future of nations and relations among nations. To travel backwards via reactionary politics is a recipe for disaster. It cannot work, but will exact a terrible price in injustice and economic inefficiency. The politics of violence, of intolerance, of anger and resentment, are easy and can win and have won some pyrrhic political victories, but can equally, undermine democracy’s long-term sustainability. The real devil’s bargain made in turning our back on multiculturalism in the name of sustaining democracy represents a surrender of real democracy in the name of a phony purity. Although this option is often the first choice of media scaremongers and political charlatans, it cannot succeed in staving off history’s evermore multicultural path or in preserving democracy in the face of the thinning out of its social base. It may impair democracy, but it will not abolish the realities of multiculturalism.

The second option in confronting the tensions with democracy produced by multiculturalism is liberal tolerance, a perspective with a long and noble lineage. While far more attractive than the politics of exclusion, it has not been notably successful (part of David Cameron’s complaint). It originates with early liberals like John Locke concerned with religious differences and their destructive potential in undermining democracy and civic consensus. We need not like others or enjoy difference, but nevertheless are constrained by democracy to respect others and tolerate differences.


Intended to nurture religious comity among warring Christian confessions in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, tolerance became the tonic for all differences – ethnic, racial and national. In time, tolerance was grounded in the powerful rhetoric of universal human rights. This rights approach has for three hundred years been the primary response of liberal democracy to multiculturalism and difference. When the slaves were emancipated and granted civil rights in the United States, or when women gained the vote, the idea was not to obliterate difference or even create a common community among different groups. It was only to respect the rights of every group and assure their equal access to civic and political citizenship (see the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the US constitution.) Rooting an accommodation with difference in universal rights obviously has a powerful (because universal) appeal, and remains central to the issues we are concerned with. The individual worth of each person that constitutes equality is an effective riposte to the politics of fear, and has a role to play in India and around the world.

Yet the human rights approach, so potent and venerable in the abstract, has a practical defect: it is weak sociologically, and unrooted in notions of community, fraternity and solidarity that are themselves the grounds for the discomfort with multicultural otherness. It is nice to ‘respect’ the other, but can we work with others to secure common ground and enact common laws? One man’s sharia is another man’s anathema: an encroachment on a secular law code. One woman’s community practices – her understanding of men and marriage or her acceptance (or not) of genital surgery – is another community’s perversion of rights. Rights give all persons a claim to inclusion, but such claims are abstract and formal and likely to result in a fairly ‘thin’ form of democracy, where association feels weak and cultural differences are trumped by abstractions. To some people, rights even feel like a rationalization for empire or for intellectual imperialism.


The individual person as a rights-bearing citizen has been a powerful legal construct and can give courts and constitutions a vital respect for difference. Yet it contributes little to feelings of common identity and carry only modest sociological weight. Sharing access to rights does not make members of the majority and members of minorities real neighbours. Whether you are a Hindu, a Christian, a Sikh, a Muslim, a Jew or a Buddhist, you are equally worthy as a human person with equal rights. But this does not mean you are equally capable of reaching agreement with others on prickly policy debates, over (say) teaching creationism in the schools, or supporting abortion with state funds, or recognizing pacifism as an acceptable value in wartime. ‘All men are brothers’ has a nice ring to it, but from the start it excludes women; besides any locution starting with ‘all men’ is unlikely to motivate action by individual men and women.

To state historically, liberal democracy has from the beginning taken comfort in human rights as a ameliorator of difference, and has undoubtedly helped open up the road to greater variety and multiculturalism without compromising democratic consensus. But that the challenge remains so formidable today – such that a British prime minister can seemingly abjure Locke’s most potent formula – suggests that by itself, the rights approach enjoining tolerance cannot overcome the suspicion of difference democracies inculcate. For democracy to flourish, we seem to require a thicker and ‘stronger’ form of democracy (see my book Strong Democracy) than abstract liberal human rights allow for. Though a firm foundation for legal struggle, it is not yet a sufficient foundation for democratic sustainability.


The third option worth considering here is variously known as constitutional patriotism (Juergen Habermas’s Verfassungspatriotismus) or what in the United States has been understood as the practices of civil religion. The promise of this approach lies both in its actual historical successes, and in its capacity to respond to the seeming insufficiency of liberalism’s sociological foundation. This third option works best when it is twinned with a rights strategy; it puts meat on the bones of that skeletal and formalistic liberal approach. Tellingly, however, it is a strategy better understood in the United States, where multiculturalism has been relatively successful, than in Europe, where pluralism has seemingly failed, inviting the kinds of foolish reactions we have seen from otherwise respectable politicians in England, Holland, France and perhaps most egregiously, Germany.

There, a former federal banker and Social Democrat, Thilo Sarrazin, published a best-selling book in 2010 called Deutschland Schafft sich ab, roughly translated as ‘Germany Abolishes Itself’ actually argues that the Turkish immigrant community is responsible for ‘abolishing’ Germany. Aside from the obvious links to racist notions of a ‘pure’ Germany in danger of being tainted by foreign elements, Sarrazin is indulging in the false claim that ‘immigrants’ (many actually born in Germany!) are responsible for all of Germany’s ills. In the United States, such arguments make little headway, in part because of its reliance on civil religion but equally because the country is a nation of immigrants in which immigrants are poor candidates for blame.


In pursuing a civil religion, democrats try to marry the thick potential of religious community with the secular values of civic patriotism, where the rites and rituals of constitutionalism and civic history play the role of unifying norms around which a community of citizens otherwise differentiated by background, identity and economic status can nonetheless be constructed. By focusing on voluntary forms of identity that arise out of common activity (military or community service), common civic commitments (jury service, voting, civic education) and a common civic history (the struggle for rights, a common war effort), we help evolve a civil religion that trumps the differences inherent in ascriptive identity that are ‘given’ or predetermined as a result of caste or ethnicity or religion or race.

The United States, in particular, is a country that has prided itself on creating and forging a new American identity. Even in the 18 century, the observer Crevecoeur wrote in his Letters From an American Farmer about a ‘new American Man’ grounded in ideas and civic commitments rather than race or country of origin. One might object that the Americans had little choice since they have enjoyed no singular deep monoculture, but that would be to ignore the power of the majority ‘WASP’ culture in affecting a national identity.


Which is to say, civil religion reflects choice not a historical necessity. Rooted in common activity and common citizenship, civil religion in the United States has developed a kind of civic liturgy – a compendium of ideas, declarations, speeches and events that come to represent the civic identity of the ‘American’ or, better, the American citizen, and to which all citizens subscribe in common.

In the American case, the civic liturgy comprising its civil religion includes not just the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, but stories about the Founders – about Washington crossing the Delaware in mid-winter, about Jefferson composing the Declaration with an eye on John Locke, about Patrick Henry declaring ‘Give me liberty or give me death’, and about Ben Franklin fighting in Paris for French support for the new American government; and includes not just the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Roosevelt’s appeal to the four freedoms, and Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, but stories about the thousands of freed slaves who fought in the Union Army to defeat the Slave south in the Civil War, about defeated Confederate soldiers allowed by Lincoln to go home with their rifles and horses thus securing a future Union unfettered by the kinds of resentment that stalked Germany after World War One, about Rosa Parks refusing to sit in the back of the bus and sparking the Civil Rights Movement, about a black man with a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas being elected the first black (and the first multicultural) President of the United States of America.

In sum, in America’s history it doesn’t matter if you are a refugee from the potato famine in Ireland, an Austrian trying to avoid conscription at home, a Latino in search of a decent job, or a Jew fleeing religious persecution in Europe. Claim America’s stories as yours, embrace the declarations and speeches that comprise the American liturgy as the core of your civic value system, and you are an American. Period. Commonality here is a matter of what you do and what you believe, not who you are or where you came from. It is about the highway before us, not the road behind us.

Less thick than ascriptive identities rooted in race and ethnicity, these contrived civic ties are nevertheless far thicker and more binding than the idea of ‘personhood’ or the claim to equal rights. They act to bind Americans together and permit them to live with identitarian differences which in other settings would rip a community apart. Racial patriotism stops at the borders of the skin; nationalist patriotism extends only to a people made common by ethnicity or race or language. But constitutional patriotism crosses every skin and extends beyond other identities and makes from difference a genuine unity (e pluribus unum!). Even human rights, abstract and bare-boned as an idea, become muscular binding when rooted in a history of the struggle for rights. What we do is ultimately more powerful than who we are.


This is why another critical dimension of ‘civil religion’ comes from its association with real civic practices. As with religion itself, what we believe and what we do, what we say and how we act, reinforce one another. Each demands the other. Action without belief is arbitrary and meaningless. Belief without action is abstract and empty. The Christian idea that God is love enjoins charitable action and practices that support brotherhood. The civic idea that rights define equal citizenship enjoins social struggle and the political pursuit of justice. The liturgy entails action, and action is giving meaning by the liturgy. Just as with real religion, which has practices as well as a liturgy, behaviours, as well as ideals, a civil religion must rest on practice.


Community organizers and advocates of democratic community have long understood that the best way get people who are divided by identity and background to unite around common ideals and common ground is to get them to do things together, to build or make something, to help or serve someone, to realize ideas in action. So powerful is the fraternity forged by fighting a war together – howsoever different individual soldiers may be from one another – that William James demanded that we find a ‘moral equivalent of war’ that would create an association of brothers as coherent and fraternal as the army platoon. Some would say we have done just that in the United States with the creation under President Kennedy of a Peace Corps where Americans of every background serve together in overseas lands of every kind on the way to serving others, but also on the road to forging their own American identity.

In recent decades, a potent service movement has taken root. It started with the Points of Light efforts of the first Bush Administration, (later spearheaded by General Colin Powell); it evolved in President Clinton’s first term into the National Service Corporation (in whose creation and development I played a personal role) as well as a concept of service that decentralized (every state had a service commission) yet was not just about ‘voluntarism’ and charity but about citizenship and civic service; and it culminated in the election of President Barack Obama, an American whose own story has become part of the civic liturgy and hence the civil religion, and whose election was the result of a participatory service ethic and community organization process engaged in by millions of young people who had never been civically involved before. (The White House now as an office of ‘Civic Participation’ devoted to outreach and service).


Even more than jury service, citizen and community service has become emblematic of what it means, at its very best, to be an American. When (as happened at Rutgers University in the 1990s when I ran a college wide service learning programme there) a young black man from the slums of Camden joined with a Japanese-American from Princeton and a Cubano from Newark to serve alongside a Jewish girl from Passaic and an Anglo from Montclair whose forebears came to American on the Mayflower, a diverse group of young individualists full of ethnic and racial prejudices and distrusting everyone ‘foreign’ to their own particular background became Americans in the richest and most egalitarian civic sense. Not least of all, their service also engaged them in local communities few of whose members had gone to university at all, and so also extended the compass of their civic empathy to others as well.

Subscribing to common civic ideals and imbibing common civic stories is the way to initiate a civil religion and inaugurate a civic identity. But engaging in common activities and participating in service is how that identity becomes a psychological and sociological reality capable of overcoming differences and achieving common ground among people who have little in common.

The most recent example comes from Egypt, during the tumult of the January/February 2011 uprising in Tahrir Square. There, Christians and Muslims who just a few months earlier had been attacking and killing one another in the name of their rival religions found themselves united in a broad national civic action against Mubarak’s corrupt regime. Astonishingly, these erstwhile enemies not only joined in common protests, but protected one another from pro-Mubarak thugs inciting violence, Christians defending Muslims when they were at prayer and Muslims doings the same for Christians on their respective Friday and Sunday Sabbaths. Almost overnight, an inspiring common civic movement allowed age-old hatreds to be dissolved.


It becomes apparent then that the way to put meat on the bones of the civil religion is not just to persuade people to subscribe to common civic values residing in a civil religion, but to have them engage in common civic activity that can help create a civil religion, whether such activity is military, or civilian, or international (as with the Peace Corps in the United States). Egypt’s Tahrir Square demonstrations not only forged new civic identity across the lines of religious difference, but produced stories that will become crucial elements in a new narrative, a new story about what it means to be not a Sunni or a Copt or a soldier or a lawyer, but an Egyptian.

This happy conclusion, demonstrating that multicultural difference can be overcome by common civic activity and the unifying norms of a national civil religion – a kind of constitutional patriotism (or, in the case of Egypt, a ‘we demand a constitution’ constitutional patriotism) – resolves many of the tensions that make multiculturalism a challenge to sustaining democracy. But it also produces a new and troublesome predicament for democracy.

In an era of increasing interdependence, when global challenges no longer respond to exclusively national and sovereign state remedies, a recourse to civil religion and constitutional patriotism risks intensifying rather than diminishing nationalism and sovereignty at the very moment when they are standing in the way of new cross-border approaches to citizenship and governance. That is to say, as civil religion helps solve the problem of democracy as democracy accommodates the scale of expansive, multicultural nation states, it increases the barriers to overcoming the next stage in scale, globalization. It reinforces the inability of nation states held together by tolerance and civil religion to address the brutal new realities of interdependence.


A successful Indian civil religion that overcomes the rivalries of Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims within the nation is likely to do so by intensifying the cross-border rivalries with China and Pakistan. An Egypt united around the popular pursuit of a democratic constitution will not necessarily be a more peaceful interlocutor with Israel or Iran or the United States. When several hundred nation states put their proud sovereignty on view at meetings meant to deal with global climate change, the result is not cooperation but paralysis, one state after another explaining why its sovereignty does not permit it to do together with others what must be done if the planet of to be spared.

When sovereign states are democratic, their plight is even worse, since the most enlightened statesmen fully cognizant of why climate change must be controlled despair of being re-elected if they take a cosmopolitan perspective to the parochial polls that legitimize their power. It is tough to be an interdependent in a world that still cherishes independence. Cosmopolitanism wins few votes in societies defined by parochialism.


What a dilemma. There are only two paths to reconciling democratic civil religion with the discomfiting realities of the new interdependence. The first reflects an old truth – that democracies are less likely to make war and refuse cooperation than autocracies. Civil religion is by definition an aspect of democracy, and is unlikely to increase international tensions unless it becomes a rationale for mere nationalism and jingoism (which requires that it be corrupted and trivialized).

Historically, we can certainly think of instances where in the face of a war, a national civil religion has been put to the purposes of inciting nationalist fervour and battle field spirit. Stalin famously turned World War II into a ‘motherland’ war in which the disparate parts of the Soviet Union and the contentious divisions surrounding communism were put to rest (temporarily) by an appeal to a common Russian mission. But the Soviet Union was hardly a democracy. Yet American exceptionalism, rooted in America’s much more democratic civil religion (‘beacon of liberty’ and all that!) has also sometimes been a justifier of armed intervention (The Philippines? Mexico? Vietnam? Iraq?) although it also nurtured isolationism in the 19th century (‘no entangling foreign alliances!’ President Washington had warned). So while a democratic civic constitutionalism can dampen nationalist rivalries, it need not and does not always do so.

There is a need then for a more affirmative approach to interdependence which includes the cultivation of new forms of interdependent, cross-border citizenship and the development of a bottom-up civil society that aspires to universality (think about transnational NGOs like Doctors Without Borders and the Reset Foundation or the cosmopolitan potential of the world wide web). Such an affirmative approach focuses on extending citizenship and civil society across borders, finding new commonalities in trade, technology and common challenges in environment, public health, crime control and weapons elimination that allow citizens to recognize what they share with other peoples across the world.

Nations have little experience in this domain, however, and talking about global civil society and global citizenship is easier than forging them. Especially because, as happened in the transition from a small-scale city state to a large-scale nation state, the transition from national to global forms of governance thins out commonality and identity once again. If national citizenship is less thick than local citizenship, imagine how much thinner global citizenship will feel compared to national citizenship.


Yet, when liberal commitments to rights are combined with the ideas and practices of civil religion, democracy seems capable of responding to the challenge of scale. There is no reason this has to stop at the frontiers of the nation, any more than it once stopped at the gates of the city. But it will require that we develop forms of citizenship rooted in common action, common civic beliefs, and a common civil religion both within and among democracies. What such ideals and practices look like concretely will of course vary from one country to the next, depending on the specific character of the regime.

Just as the United States claims a certain exceptionalist destiny growing out of its civic practices, Switzerland claims a unique character – Sonderfall Schweiz – associated with its rare civic combination of multinationalism, federalism and neutrality, which (along their Alpine topography [‘auf den Bergen, Freiheit,’ wrote Schiller!]) putatively gives their participatory democracy a unique character. India must discover – which is to say, must create – its own form of civil religion. Perhaps it will be based on the anti-colonial experience of the quest for independence, or perhaps it will be rooted in Gandhi’s unique approach to national liberation based on nonviolent resistance.


In places like England where an island republic is defined and protected by the seas or, to take the Swiss example again, an Alpine redoubt makes the nation impervious to invasion, the emerging civil religion may be conditioned by geography. The people who dwell in seaports or river ports may unite around trade, transportation and social mobility. What is shared by every nation bedevilled by forms of difference which have been soothed by a civil religion, however, is a willingness of focus on democratic ideals, understood as a liturgy and a set of common behaviours and practices. The same will apply to the quest for global democratic governance, when a civil religion will have to be constructed across borders.

To respond to the politics of fear, then, we need rights and tolerance, but we also need a politics of hope across borders that takes the form of actions and deeds as well as ideals and constitutions. Mutual respect must be converted to common action, and civility must issue out of engaged citizenship. Common civic identity entails a common struggle: a fight for a sustainable world, or a fight for a peaceful world, or a fight for a just world. Such aims offer ample support to a global civic religion since they demand cooperation without respect to frontiers.

For all the difficulties, if democracy is to meet this latest test of scale and conquer its antagonism to multiculturalism, the challenge of interdependence will have to be addressed, whether by a struggle for ecological survival, global peace or international law and justice – say fair trade rather than free trade. Having journeyed from the city state to the nation state, democracy approaches its last frontier: a world without frontiers.


The good news so far is that democracy has shown remarkable resilience in dealing with scale. Its survival and flourishing beyond the confines of the unitary township seemed miraculous at the time, yet now, thanks to such innovations as representative government and federalism, we think of large-scale nation states of hundreds of millions of citizens as natural habitats for self-government. For democracy has proved its sustain-ability by overcoming the pressures diversity places on democracy’s capacity to reach consensus (or at least prudential agreement) when citizens no longer share a common race or religion or language or gender; and by doing so without succumbing to a reactionary politics of fear, and without relying exclusively on the thin abstraction of liberal rights and tolerance. Given the planetary scale of global governance, crossing the final frontier of sovereign borders will be vexing, but by no means beyond the powers of human imagination that created democracy in the first place.


* Benjamin Barber is the author of, among others, Fear’s Empire: War, Terrorism, and Democracy in an Age of Interdependence and Jihad Vs. McWorld: Terrorism’s Challenge to Democracy.