The 2022 mid-term elections looked like race horses running neck-to-neck down the track. The political pundits, stop watches in hand, counted the colors red or blue as the racers passed over the finish line. Many commentators viewed the stakes of the contests across the country as the survival of American democracy framed 250 years ago.
All of this made me remember Walt Whitman’s Democratic Vistas written in 1871 during the Reconstruction period in the aftermath of the horrific Civil War. Whitman had witnessed its terrible toll, tending the dead and dying in hospitals. The choice of the word vistas is not accidental because it implies the long view. Whitman finds democracy in its “embryo condition,” its future dependent on the good character of individuals and a moral consciousness.
How does Whitman view the future of democracy then? Not any better or worse than historians and political scientists view it today. He identifies the same causes for skepticism about its durability that exist in 2022. He states “I will not gloss over the appalling dangers of universal suffrage in the United States,” and cites the “crudeness, vice, caprices of the common voter.” Yet in another place, he enjoins the citizen to inform himself and always vote but to “disengage from parties” because they are “savage” and “wolfish.”
Whitman could be describing current conditions in this passage:
The depravity of the business classes of our country is not less than has been supposed, but infinitely greater. The official services of America, national, state, and municipal in all their branches and departments, except the judiciary are saturated in corruption, bribery, falsehood, mal-administration, and the judiciary is tainted.
The two ingredients he sees essential to democratic progress are diversity and the full play of freedom that will provide equal opportunity regardless of “unequal rank, intellect, virtue, or station.” Whitman understands that the United States is a study in contradictions. While lamenting the greed of the captains of industry, he acknowledges that the success of the democratic experiment depends on the prosperity of the general population; otherwise, unrest and dissatisfactions will erode its foundation. Inherent in diversity is the tendency to divisiveness and unbridled freedom, corruption, materialism, and self-interest detrimental to the general welfare. The antidotes to these negative effects are education and spirituality unbound to established churches.
Whitman does not hesitate to severely criticize the hypocrisy and mediocrity in American politics and decries the “lack of first-class captains and leaders.” Without an infusion of conscience and spirituality, America is on “the road of the damned.” From my perspective, in the last eight years a large portion of Americans and their elected officials have been willing to turn a blind eye on lies, venality, crass opportunism, and failures to act as public servants. Corruption, nepotism, conflicts of interests, and profiteering form public office have been rife. Is this scene so different from what Walt Whitman views in 1871?
From Whitman’s pessimistic vista, he rescues some hope for the future. He writes that great literature can offset the worse effects of a self-interested, materialistic society. Great literature also needs readers. He implies public education will create that education, and collaterally, a cultured society. Whitman could not foresee that consumerism, the entertainment industry, and the mass media might act as countervailing forces.
My hope also resides in the salutary effect of literature as the art form that expands individual horizons and opens vistas to realize greater brotherhood in an imperfect democracy.
November 21, 2022