The Promise of American Life eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 523 pages of information about The Promise of American Life.

The American state is dedicated to such a duty, not only by its democratic purpose, but by its national tradition.  So far as the former is concerned, it is absurd and fatal to ask a popular majority to respect the rights of a minority, when those rights are interpreted so as seriously to hamper, if not to forbid, the majority from obtaining the essential condition of individual freedom and development—­viz. the highest possible standard of living.  But this absurdity becomes really critical and dangerous, in view of the fact that the American people, particularly those of alien birth and descent, have been explicitly promised economic freedom and prosperity.  The promise was made on the strength of what was believed to be an inexhaustible store of natural opportunities; and it will have to be kept even when those natural resources are no longer to be had for the asking.  It is entirely possible, of course, that the promise can never be kept,—­that its redemption will prove to be beyond the patience, the power, and the wisdom of the American people and their leaders; but if it is not kept, the American commonwealth will no longer continue to be a democracy.

IV

THE BRIDGE BETWEEN DEMOCRACY AND NATIONALITY

We are now prepared, I hope, to venture upon a more fruitful definition of democracy.  The popular definitions err in describing it in terms of its machinery or of some partial political or economic object.  Democracy does not mean merely government by the people, or majority rule, or universal suffrage.  All of these political forms or devices are a part of its necessary organization; but the chief advantage such methods of organization have is their tendency to promote some salutary and formative purpose.  The really formative purpose is not exclusively a matter of individual liberty, although it must give individual liberty abundant scope.  Neither is it a matter of equal rights alone, although it must always cherish the social bond which that principle represents.  The salutary and formative democratic purpose consists in using the democratic organization for the joint benefit of individual distinction and social improvement.

To define the really democratic organization as one which makes expressly and intentionally for individual distinction and social improvement is nothing more than a translation of the statement that such an organization should make expressly and intentionally for the welfare of the whole people.  The whole people will always consist of individuals, constituting small classes, who demand special opportunities, and the mass of the population who demand for their improvement more generalized opportunities.  At any particular time or in any particular case, the improvement of the smaller classes may conflict with that of the larger class, but the conflict becomes permanent and irreconcilable only when it is intensified by the lack of a really

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The Promise of American Life from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.