Colloquy Downeast Blue Hill Maine

Colloquy Downeast

Spirited Conversations in Great Company

FacilitatorJohn O'Shea
Date & TimeWednesdays, September 1, 8, 15, 22
10am-12 pm
LocationBass Room, Blue Hill Public Library and via Zoom

In 2020, the European Union considered sanctioning Poland and Hungary for eroding democracy by disregarding the rule of law.

On January 6, 2021, an armed mob, urged on by the President of the United States, overpowered police and battered its way into the Capitol to stop the Senate from officially recognizing the election of Joe Biden. Two weeks later, President Biden proclaimed in his inaugural address that “democracy has prevailed.” Using the word “democracy” ten times, he claimed that “this is democracy’s day” and expressed relief that “democracy did not die on our watch.” He went on to acknowledge that while “democracy is precious”, it’s also “fragile.”  But Biden never attempted to say what democracy is.

On February 1, 2021, the military overthrew the democratically elected government of Myanmar.

As of May 14, 2021, fourteen U.S. states have enacted a total of twenty-two laws making it more difficult to vote. In eighteen other states restrictive legislation had made substantial progress toward being enacted. The stated purpose of these measures is to prevent voting fraud. The effect will be to make it more difficult for voters to cast their ballots.

Given these developments, it’s hard to recall that back in 1992, after the fall of the Soviet Union, democracy appeared to be unstoppable. In “The End of History and the Last Man”, Francis Fukuyama argued that humanity had reached “the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” Today, with the rise of populism and autocracy throughout the world and the emergence of China as a superpower promoting an authoritarian alternative, democracy is widely perceived to be in decline.

However, whether “democracy has prevailed” in America or is declining globally is difficult to determine without a clear understanding of what democracy consists of. Does a democracy require that the state’s citizens directly govern (as in 5th Century BC Athens) or does representative government qualify as democratic where citizens elect the head of state directly (as in France) or indirectly (as in the U.S.), or not all (as in the U.K.). Or is it sufficient for a state to simply call itself a democracy like the North Korean dictatorship labeling itself the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea?

The colloquy will attempt to identify the essentials of democracy by examining the types of governments/societies that have been categorized as democracies throughout history and by reviewing in particular the evolution of government and politics in America. We will discuss those features that identify a government as a democracy and the extent to which the United States and other governments that claim to be democracies actually possess these features. Finally, we will seek to identify those factors at work in the world today that are destructive of democracy.

Questions for the Colloquy: 

How does a democratic government balance freedom, equality, and security?

Is democracy solely a system of government or is it also, more basically, an approach to human relations?  

Is a widely-held democratic ethos necessary for a democracy to survive?

What can be done to strengthen democracy in the U.S.?

John O’Shea received BA and MA degrees in English Literature, from NYU, a JD degree from St. John’s Univ. School of Law, and an LLM (Master of Laws in Trade Regulation and Intellectual Property) from NYU School of Law. Retiring after 35 years of the practice of law, John and his wife, Diane, now live in Sedgwick, ME and Jupiter, FL.

  ▼ Syllabus/Reading


Reading Materials

Suggested Text:  Setting the People Free (2005) by John Dunn.

Dunn, a professor emeritus of political theory at King’s College Cambridge, has written an insightful survey of western democracy in prose that is jargon-free, if somewhat academic.  Weighing in at less than 200 pages (not counting notes), it is unusually concise for a work of this scope.

Colloquy Outline

Session 1: What is Democracy and Where Did It Come From?

Democracies and Proto-Democracies throughout History

  • Direct democracies, representative democracies, gender-inclusive and gender exclusive democracies.  Democracy v. Republic v. Aristocracy v. Autocracy.
  • English and continental influences on the creation of American democracy.
  • Athens, Roman Republic, British Limited Monarch, Montesquieu, Rousseau.

Session 1 Reading (a short documents prepared by the facilitator)
Addendum–Roman Republic

Session 2: Creation of American Democracy

A Work in Progress

  • The American Republic 1789 – – a limited democracy
  • Jefferson and the expansion of white male democracy
  • Jackson and the further expansion of white male democracy
  • Lincoln and the extension of democracy to Black men (13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments)
  • Backlash: Reconstruction/the “Lost Cause”/”Redemption”/Jim Crow
  • The 19th Amendment–the extension of democracy to women
  • The 23rd and 26th Amendments, the “Equal Rights” Amendment
  • The Civil Rights Revolution 1950s-1960s.

Session 2 Reading

Session 3: Non-Democratic Features of U.S. Democracy

Constitutional Features

  • Senatorial representation based on territory (states), not on population
  • Each state gets a minimum of two representatives regardless of population
  • Indirect election of president through state-based Electoral College rather than direct election by popular, nationwide vote
  • Three-fifths rule (nullified by 13th Amendment)
  • Election of senators by state legislatures not citizens (rectified by 17th Amendment)

Law and Rule-Based Features

  • The filibuster
  • Gerrymandering
  • “Civil death” for felons
  • Voter suppression
  • Money in Politics

Session 3 Reading

Session 4: The State of Democracy Today – – U.S. and the World

Democracy in Decline?

Democracy currently seems to be in decline (per Freedom House; Polity IV Project; Economist Magazine evaluations), compared to 1990 – 2010 when it was believed to have triumphed definitively.

Threats to Democracy in U.S. (and around the World)

  • Strongman populism: disregard for democratic processes and the rule of law
  • Voter suppression
  • Growing inequality of wealth and income
  • Immigration
  • Polarization fed and reflected by social media, “no-quarter” politics, popular delusions, conspiracy theories, and paranoia

Examples of Democratic Regression

Europe: Hungary and Poland

Latin America: Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil

Middle East: Turkey (the remaining nations, except Israel and possibly Tunisia, are autocracies or failed states)

East Asia: Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Hong Kong (China and Vietnam are communist autocracies)

South Asia: Afghanistan, a fledgling democracy, is under attack by the Taliban. Pakistan’s democracy is threatened by Islamic fundamentalists. India, the world’s largest democracy, the rule of law is threatened by Hindu fanaticism and Prime Minister Modi’s authoritarianism.

North America: Canadian democracy appears to be intact; actions by Mexican President Lopez Obrador challenge the rule of law in Mexico; Republican-sponsored voting restrictions, anti-democratic Supreme Court decisions, and widespread belief that Biden’s election was due to massive voting fraud threaten U.S. democracy

What can be done to support democracy?

  • United States
  • Around the world

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