Democracy in Authoritarian Times


American poet Walt Whitman, September 1872, Brooklyn, New York. (Credit: G. Frank E. Pearsall)

We promote a mythic sensibility in this forum on the assumption that, for good or ill, myth is ubiquitous in human affairs. Our goal is not to debunk myth. We expose it where it harms polity and sustains war, but we also wish to cultivate myth to redeem democracy and promote peaceful pursuits.    

A culture of positive peace requires a democratic ethos. Democracy is not simply a matter of voting. It is an attitude, an outlook, a way of life that entails managing our serious differences robustly and constructively. It is not to be confused with the present outbreak of authoritarian populism and demonizing rhetoric.

As E. J. Dionne Jr. maintains, populism per se is not a villain nor is it necessarily hostile to democracy. The kind of populism that maintains faith with democracy does so by challenging “ruling elites to face up to injustices that undermine free institutions.” It does not define “the people” narrowly or treat political opponents as enemies.

Authoritarianism appears to be gaining the upper hand in our troubled times. David Brooks opines that Vladimir Putin is the world’s most influential person largely because there is no democratic leader in the US or elsewhere to challenge Putin’s authoritarianism. Madeleine Albright warns that “fascism—and the tendencies that lead toward fascism—pose a more serious threat now than at any other time since the end of World War II.” The “volatile presidency of Donald Trump,” she avers, reflects and compounds the chance that fascism may once again “strut around the world stage.”

Perhaps in anticipation of his statement about Putin’s unchallenged influence and after attending a rodeo in Houston, David Brooks asked, “What on earth holds this nation together?” He suggests that national unity will come from a common dedication to the American experiment, which consists of drawing people from around the world “to create the best society ever,” a society that can “serve as a model for all humankind.”  Brooks takes his cue from Walt Whitman’s “Democratic Vistas,” published in 1871 in response to a time of turmoil not completely unlike ours—a time of “corruption, division, demoralization and inequality.”

America in Whitman’s time, and by Whitman’s reckoning, was suffering from a spiritual vacuum. There was no sense of a common cause. It was a wealthy country with a brilliant constitution but lacking a democratic culture. Whitman wished to spiritualize democratic life, to give it a mystical purpose. True democracy then and now, Brooks observes, “is still in the future.” We remain in need of a unifying mythos, says Brooks echoing Whitman: “American democracy is still waiting to be born.”

True democracy, envisioned by Whitman, does not distrust, despise, or pander to the common citizen.1 It is instead respectful of the people, their goodness, reliability, fortitude, intelligence, diversity, and common sense. Authoritarians and demagogues create divisive caricatures of the people to undermine democracy. Indeed, Whitman wrote “Democratic Vistas” to dispute the belief that there was a disconnection between democratic aspirations and “the people’s crudeness, vice, caprices” (p. 8). The problem was not the people but the lack of a “national literature, especially its archetypal poems” (p. 10). Democracy must go deeper than political means, such as voting, to hold the people’s feelings and beliefs and overcome the hollowness of cankered contemporary life marked by low cunning, flippancy, vulgarity, and infidelity.  

“Solidarity” is Whitman’s sense of popular democracy. “Of all dangers to a nation . . . there can be no greater one than having certain portions of the people set off from the rest by a line drawn—they not privileged as others, but degraded, humiliated, made of no account” (p. 25).  

Whitman’s prophetic vision would accommodate the individual to the aggregate in an ensemble of equality (p. 41). The “leveling aggregate of democracy” includes “the all-varied, all-permitting, all-free theorem of individuality” to erect a framework “broad enough for all” (p. 44). This can only be brought about in his view by a democratic literature vitalized by archetypes to illumine selfhood, enrich the soul, and democratize society.

For this reason, America requires “a poetry that is bold, modern, and all-surrounding and kosmical.” For too long “have the People been listening to poems in which common humanity, deferential, bends low, humiliated, acknowledging superiors” (p. 54). Indeed, “part of the test of a great literatus shall be the absence in him of the idea of the covert, the lurid, the maleficent, the devil, the grim estimates inherited from the Puritans, hell, natural depravity, and the like” (p. 56).

A new poetry, in Whitman’s opinion, will be the only sure and worthy support of American democracy (p. 57). Without democracy’s spiritualization, he concludes, the material achievements of modern civilization are in vain (pp. 64-65). This is his conviction, his faith in a democratic soul, his religion—which “extricates itself entirely from the churches” (p. 40) and to which his lifelong poetry is dedicated.  

Whitman’s “Song of Myself” celebrates the democratic self:

Welcome is every organ and attribute of me, and of any man

hearty and clean,

Not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile, and none shall be

less familiar than the rest.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion,

A farmer, mechanic, artist, gentleman, sailor, quaker,

Prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician, priest.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

In all people I see myself, none more and not one a barley-corn


And the good or bad I say of myself I say of them.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Whatever degrades another degrades me,

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I speak the pass-word primeval, I give the sign of democracy,

By God!  I will accept nothing which all cannot have their

counter-part of on the same terms.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)2


1 All quotations from “Democratic Vistas” are from Walt Whitman, Democratic Vistas and Other Papers  (New York: Barnes and Noble, 2011).

2 Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” in Leaves of Grass (1891-92; New York:  Barnes and Noble, 2004), pp. 193, 207, 209, 214, 250.

One comment

  1. Ah, Whitman! Thank you for this poetic post from the man who contained multitudes. From Whitman we receive the words and voice of the unwanted and the outcast. He not only embraces, and speaks for them, he becomes them. Considering his passionate espousal of democracy and acknowledgement of ALL its citizens, compare that with the current authoritarian mythos confronting those of us who welcome and invite a “tenderness” to existence. Whitman encourages us to live with mystery and joy. Where Whitman welcomes the cosmos, authoritarians invite prisons of the mind. Thanks, Bob.


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