Q: In your roles as an associate research professor of political science and managing director of Penn State’s McCourtney Institute for Democracy, and co-host of the Democracy Works podcast, you’re focused pretty intently on the stability of the American electoral system. What led you to write this book now?
Beem: To be honest, it came from people asking me, “What can I do?” I remember I did a Q&A at The Village, but also from students, or really anyone, it was just a question I heard repeatedly, and I thought it was a fair one. And I thought my answers were a little predictable, not a lot of context. I remember walking into my office and I just thought, what’s something that everybody could do? That’s when I started thinking, maybe this is a book.

Q: A cynic could argue that the nature of political discourse right now makes it all but impossible to write about this issue in a way that doesn’t seem to take a side. How did you approach that challenge?
Beem: There are three things I would want to say. First, being in a democracy means that you are going to fight. You’re going to disagree about things you are very committed to. I don’t think we’re going to get to a point where we’re going to reach agreement about a whole host of issues.  But I am saying there are things we have to agree to in order for our fighting to be productive, and to actually work.

Number two, I think it’s accurate to say that polarization exists on both sides, but the commitment to democracy is not the same on both sides. There is a powerful cadre within the Republican party that has demonstrated a lack of concern for democracy, and in some cases even undermined it. In the book, I’m pretty stiff on Trump and his impact on democracy. But that strikes me as one thing we can fight about. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me.

The third thing I would say is that I defy anybody to come up with a partisan spin on the virtues that I list: humility, honesty, consistency, courage, temperance, faith, and charity. There’s nothing I can see that pushes these in a left-leaning direction. These are virtues that are necessary for all of us in a democracy, all of us as democratic citizens. The virtues I picked—there are others, but these I think are most important to get us back on track. And they’re all really hard (laughs).

 Q: But some people will come up with a partisan spin on this, right? How do we as a society overcome that?
Beem: My short answer is, that’s why humility comes before honesty. We are all inescapably biased, and our brains work very hard to convince us that the way we see the world is how things really are, rather than how we want them to be, how we believe them to be. If we’re not willing to recognize that, then the prospect of us being honest is greatly diminished. I’m saying humility is necessary to recognize that we’re all biased, and honesty means we’re striving to limit ourselves to the lies we actually believe.

Q: Can you elaborate on that?
Beem: Politics works better if we only limit ourselves to the falsehoods we really believe—“This is what I truly believe, I’m not lying here.” Once we say that, then we can argue. If we’re not willing to make that commitment, then the argument is a waste of time. It’s impossible for us to have productive conversation if the foundation of what we’re arguing isn’t based on us both saying what we really believe.

Q: Is the book, and are you, optimistic about the fate of American democracy?
Beem: I admit in the book that I have had moments of despair. I don’t want to minimize the risks associated with our democracy right now. I quote I think a couple times this line from John Adams; he said there hasn’t been a democracy yet that hasn’t committed suicide. I think we all know that is a genuine possibility right now, and I think we all recognize a fragility associated with our democracy that for most of us is the first time in our lives we feel that.

So I do think we are in a time of extreme crisis, I do think that there is a real possibility that our democracy will not survive. And I also don’t know that what I’m proposing is going to work. I do think this is a way of empowering all of us who do want to see democracy survive, to be able to do their part to help that happen. That is something to hang your hat on. In the very end, Aristotle says a virtuous life is an excellent life. I’m saying the same thing about democratic virtues, too. There’s something to be said for this, irrespective of whether or not it works.

Book cover The Seven Democratic Virtues by Christopher Beem

Q: “Polarization” is a term we hear constantly, but the subtitle of your book instead uses the word “tribalism.” Can you talk about the difference?
Beem: Tribalism is part of our genetic endowment. We can’t turn it off, we all have it. That is part of human nature, and part of politics. The problem comes when all of our tribal identities line up into two competing tribes. When your religion, your ethnicity, your politics, the entertainment you seek out, the sports leagues you follow, the place you shop, all of these things line up in one way or the other, then tribalism becomes extremely dangerous, and it leads up to civil war. There’s a great story about this journalist who’s covering the Troubles in Northern Ireland, sitting in a pub, jotting down his notes, and he strikes up conversation with this guy. And the guy finally says, “What are you, a Protestant or a Catholic?” And the journalist says, “Actually, I’m an atheist.” And the guy says, “Yeah, but are you a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist?” And that’s the point. You have these categories that overwhelm any other category. The Mood of the Nation poll that the McCourtney Institute puts out shows that even when Americans affirm democracy, they have very different things in mind.

Q: On the other extreme, I guess, for people who pay close attention to politics, it’s often shocking to be reminded of how many millions of our fellow citizens generally don’t.
Beem: Our constitution, our political society, is kind of grounded on the idea that you can opt out. You don’t have to see participation in our democratic process as a necessary part of your life and identity. But there’s also more to being a genuine lower-d democrat than just sticking up for your own rights. In a democracy, we are all sovereigns, we are all the ultimate sources of power. We have responsibility. If we are going to have a well-functioning democracy, we need at least enough people to accept those responsibilities.

A friend of mine says that while we are a rights-based society, the way to understand most people’s concept of citizenship is like parents at the pool. We’re sitting in our chair reading our book, letting stuff go on, but if something happens and we need to stir to action, we get up and we run and we break up the fight or get our kid out of the deep end. I think that’s a pretty good metaphor. And if that’s true, we’re seeing stuff going on that requires our intervention.

And I think people are recognizing that; voter turnout was pretty high last election. So I don’t think people are unaware of this. I think people are inclined to just go about their lives, but I also think lot of people recognize this is one of those times.

Q: One side effect of the polarization we’ve seen is that more people willingly say, essentially, democracy doesn’t work.
Beem: The data is controversial, but there’s a scholar at Johns Hopkins who put out a graph of generational cohorts asking the question, Is it essential to you that you live in a democracy? And the graph is a 45-degree angle almost all the way down. There is clearly evidence that young people are clearly more frustrated with democracy than other generations, and they are more open to other alternatives. And you can’t completely blame them—what they have seen in their lives is just this sclerotic, bickering mess. It certainly doesn’t achieve much or address their generation’s issues. If you worry that you are going to have to live with the ever-more-threatening impact of climate change, and you see that a bunch of politicians who are going to be dead long before you don’t appear to care about that problem, you can understand that.

My argument would be, for those people who do affirm the idea of democracy and want to see it continue for themselves and their progeny, those folks need to step up.

Q: How do you grapple with that possibility, that maybe this great experiment of American democracy has simply run its course?
Beem: It could be that that’s true. There’s a really good book, How Democracies Die, and at the very end of book, they say there hasn’t been a genuine multi-ethnic democracy, and we have no choice but to become the first. I think it’s an incredibly tall order, and the reason our podcast is called Democracy Works is because it really requires work. It makes demands of us, as citizens, as human beings. In a tyranny, everybody tells you what to do, you don’t have lot of choice, you don’t have liberty. The grand inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov says, “People say they want to be free, but they really don’t.” And you know, that could turn out to be so. I don’t really think it is, because at the same time all that’s true, it’s also empirically, historically true that people want to stand on their own feet, they want to have a say in what happens, they want to live in peace with people in a society. But if they’re going to do that, they’re going to live with people they’re going to disagree with. I think there are innate parts of our human nature that push us in both ways, and those two parts are always kind of fighting with each other, struggling with each other, and it’s never entirely clear which is ascendent. I would say that even if we are in this moment right now, that is not sufficient reason for despair.

Our future is not preordained. We have a choice here.

Q: Optimism about the stability of our electoral system can seem hard to come by these days.
Beem: Thomas Aquinas lays out the three theological virtues—faith, hope, and charity—and he’s very explicit that hope and optimism are not the same things. Hope is an act of will; you can’t hope for things that are impossible. You can’t hope that you’re going to be able to fly around the room or something. So hope is some goal, some objective that we recognize, it isn’t there right now, may not even be achievable right now, but it could be in the future. And once those two things are true, then we will ourselves to make that hope real, to make that hope valid, and we do that by uniting with other people who feel the same way. For Thomas Aquinas, this is all about salvation—it’s not about democracy. I’m taking these theological virtues and making them basically secular. He would say it’s a sin to give up hope in your own salvation; you could say something similar about giving up hope in democracy. The alternative is you recognize that the possibility of not only sustaining our democracy but improving our democracy is real and genuine. It’s so valuable that it deserves our hope. It’s not something that you just put your finger to the wind. You have to commit to it on an individual level.

Q: Another specific challenge here is the sort of founding American ideal of personal liberty, that freedom to many people means every person for themselves.
Beem: I think it’s the real challenge. I think we are probably the most libertarian society on Earth, and maybe the most libertarian society in human history. It’s part of our culture, and it pushes against this idea of us having a sense of unity, of having something in common with everyone. But again, there are data points that go the other way—look at barn raising in Amish communities, or It’s a Wonderful Life—I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love that movie, and it’s a very communitarian movie. That’s part of American culture as well. Again, in times of crisis—in World War II, we had Victory Gardens, we had people who accepted gas rationing, etc. It might be that we can’t do that now, that that kind of common spirit is just gone. But even after 9/11, you saw it to an extent. I don’t think it’s fair to say there isn’t that dimension to American culture, that it’s something we can’t appeal to. Is it going to work? I don’t know.

 Q: Who are you hoping reads this, and what do you hope is the takeway?
Beem: I didn’t write this for fellow academics—I wrote it to respond to the people who were asking me what can I do. If you have that question, you’re the person I was writing it for, and I hope you can find something useful in it. I hope you feel empowered, and that you’re not helpless, you’re not merely a spectator to what’s going on. You have a role to play in sustaining our democracy, and this is one way for you to do that. Ideally, I’d like it to be the case that enough of us affirm these virtues such that the incentives for them change—that we feel more constrained to behave in ways that affirm these virtues.

If it were the case that politicians were called out for their virtuous behavior and their non virtuous behavior—and especially if people were to call out the virtuous behavior on the part of their opponents—I think if enough people were to do that, we can change our culture, and then our democratic prospects improve dramatically.

It’s absolutely worth doing, for very personal and self-interested reasons. Us doing this makes us better versions of ourselves, but I also think this is not a bad strategy to add to the toolkit of those trying to make our democracy better.