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Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit

By: Benjamin Knoll

TL;DR: he says that to address the issues facing our democracy requires basically being nice to each other + more deliberative democracy. Focus more on people's orientations toward each other and their "habits of the heart" (in a Tocqueville/sociological sense).


Looking at politics through the eye of the heart can liberate us from seeing it as a chess game of moves and countermoves or a shell game for seizing power or a blame game of Whac-A-Mole. Rightly understood, politics is no game at all. It is the ancient and honorable human endeavor of creating a community in which the weak as well as the strong can flourish, love and power can collaborate, and justice and mercy can have their day.

It will happen because we—you and I—became so fearful of each other, of our differences and of the future, that we unraveled the civic community on which democracy depends, losing our power to resist all that threatens it and call it back to its highest form.

We can help keep the experiment alive by repairing and maintaining democracy's neglected infrastructure, whose two levels are the primary concerns of this book: the invisible dynamics of the human heart and the visible venues of our lives in which those dynamics are formed.

Today, my definition of citizenship is deep-seated and wide-reaching: Citizenship is a way of being in the world rooted in the knowledge that I am a member of a vast community of human and nonhuman beings that I depend on for essentials I could never provide for myself.

No matter how jaw-dropping or morally offensive I find some people's convictions, I must learn how to speak up in the civic community without denying my opponents their humanity and further poisoning the political ecosystem on which democracy depends.

We must be able to say, in unison: It is in the common good to hold our political differences and the conflicts they create in a way that does not unravel the civic community on which democracy depends.

But democracy demands that we become engaged with “the other” as well as with “our own kind,” with the stranger whose viewpoint, needs, and interests are likely to be different from our own.

they had cultivated another habit of the heart that is key to creating community with people who are not of our tribe: a spirit of hospitality to the stranger.

Equally crucial is a habit called hope.


The greater our tendency toward individualism, the weaker our communal fabric; the weaker our communal fabric, the more vulnerable we are to despotic power. Tocqueville's hope that the communal instinct might provide a counterbalance to American individualism and help us avoid the danger of despotism was based on the vigor he observed in religious, civic, and other forms of organizational life.

If I were asked for two words to summarize the habits of the heart American citizens need in response to twenty-first-century conditions, chutzpah and humility are the words I would choose. By chutzpah I mean knowing that I have a voice that needs to be heard and the right to speak it.21 By humility I mean accepting the fact that my truth is always partial and may not be true at all—so I need to listen with openness and respect, especially to “the other,” as much as I need to speak my own voice with clarity and conviction. Humility plus chutzpah equals the kind of citizens a democracy needs.


These five habits, taken together, are crucial to sustaining a democracy.

We must understand that we are all in this together.

We must develop an appreciation of the value of “otherness.

We must cultivate the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways.

We must generate a sense of personal voice and agency.

We must strengthen our capacity to create community.

Once again, I am using the word heart to refer to an integral way of knowing, the kind of knowing that allows Terry Tempest Williams to claim that the heart is the place where we embrace democracy's complex and challenging questions.

What this man heard from his heart did not give him practical strategies and tactics to negotiate the complexities that lay ahead. Nonetheless, it gave him solid ground on which to take the next steps.

Despite our sharp disagreements on the nature of the American dream, many of us on the left, on the right, and in the center have at least this much in common: a shared experience of heartbreak about the condition of our culture, our society, our body politic. That shared heartbreak can build a footbridge of mutual understanding on which we can walk toward each other.

If we want to support the habits of the heart that make for personal and societal health, we must understand the underlying causes of the “heart disease” that can kill the body politic. Primary among them is inner emptiness, the absence of a strong sense of personal identity, that leaves us vulnerable to false and often toxic systems of “meaning.”

I will focus on two false remedies common among us and corrosive of democracy: consumerism and scapegoating. Both distort the relationship between the individual and the civic community, and both point toward the countervailing habits of the heart we must develop if democracy is to thrive.

The healthy self finds an identity that allows it to feel at home in its own skin and in the company of others, even (and sometimes especially) “alien” others

And yet this is one of the most crucial lessons of the twentieth century, one that we forget at our peril: tension is a sign of life, and the end of tension is a sign of death.

A political system that allows us to keep working on collective solutions to vexing problems but refuses to take any question off the table permanently calls forth creative capacities that lie dormant under autocratic rule. If we are willing and able to hold the tensions that American democracy deliberately creates, the system itself will help us develop the habits of heart required for the health of the body politic.

Language was one of the first inventions that helped us convert tension into life-giving energy.

Religion is a third cultural development intended to help us hold tension more creatively than the fight or flight instinct allows.

A fourth civilizing invention is education. A good education teaches us to hold contradictions reflectively rather than reactively, a habit of the heart that lies behind all social, cultural, and scientific breakthroughs.

Democracy itself is the fifth cultural creation that helps us transcend the fight or flight response

Like language, the arts, religion, and education, democracy does not propose to bring life's tensions to an end. Instead, it offers us a process for using them creatively, providing political structures that promise to turn the energy of tension toward constructive ends.

A vital public life is key to democracy: the public realm is where we learn that despite our many differences, we really are in this together. It is where we have a chance to rub elbows with diversity and realize that “the other” not only lacks horns but may enrich and enliven us, that some kinds of tensions are educative, energizing, and even entertaining rather than threatening. Equally important, public life gives us a chance to size up what is happening in our world, speak our minds about it, hear others speak theirs, and perhaps join some of them in taking steps toward the kind of world we want. Today, however, American public life is on the wane. More and more of us are becoming the kind of privatized person that Alexis de Tocqueville warned us about. Overly focused on family and friends, we are detached from—and sometimes actively afraid of—the strangers who are our fellow citizens. As Tocqueville pointed out, when our world is reduced to our kin and a few kindred spirits, we have lost our country.

As long as we equate the stranger with the enemy, there can be no civil society, let alone a democracy where much depends on holding the tension of our differences without fearing or demonizing the other.

As you read through the list, think about the life-enhancing experiences you have had walking around your neighborhood, buying produce at a farmer's market, taking your kids to a playground or park, watching a Little League ball game, or enjoying a break in a coffee shop. Think, too, about how drab your life would be if places of this sort, where you can mingle with strangers, were not part of your experience:

They do suggest, however, that we are an increasingly private and therefore deprived people, deprived of meaningful opportunities to develop democratic habits of the heart. They also suggest that we must reclaim our public life before we sink any further into privatism at the expense of democracy and of the privacy we cherish, a privacy that requires public vigilance if it is to be preserved.

The most important thing “We the People” can do to restore democracy is to restore the venues and vitality of the public life that we have opportunities to participate in on a daily basis. Only via local connections, multiplied many times over, can citizens hope to generate the level of people power necessary to effect political change.


Creating conditions under which students can conduct an inner search does not mean dictating answers to inner-life questions, which by definition do not have answers in any conventional sense. It means helping students learn how to ask questions that are worth asking because they are worth living, questions one can fruitfully hold at the center of one's life.

If we want to teach democratic habits of the heart in our classrooms, we need to help our students explore their inner potential. At the same time we need to help them explore their outer potential—in the school community and in the larger civic community—drawing them into a live encounter with democracy in action.

Students need to learn basic data about the history and the structures of American democracy, of course. But if students are to be well served and are to serve democracy well, we need to invite them into a lived engagement with democracy's core concepts and values. There are at least two ways to do this: by engaging students in democratic processes within the classroom and the school and by involving them in the political dynamics of the larger community.


The question for congregations that want to help members develop democratic habits of the heart goes well beyond asking, “What words in our sacred texts are we called to live by?” The deeper, more demanding question is, “How can we create relationships among us that bring those words to life, ways of being together that are congruent with what we teach and preach?” When a worshiping community develops embodied answers to those questions, its lived witness becomes a draw far more powerful than any doctrine or text.

When a congregation is profoundly clergy-centered—when the pedagogy consists of a clergyperson (performer) downloading information and inspiration to parishioners (audience)—the game is rigged. The theological message may be one of community, but the lived experience is one of dependence on an authority. Under those conditions, not much can be done to build the communal trust that allows compassion to flower, no matter how benign the leader is.

Open and honest conversations in a setting of deep hospitality, held as an ongoing program in a congregation, can plant seeds of healing and civic unity around this and other contentious and painful issues of our time. When a meal between conflicted parties begins with everyone bringing food to share, the silent subtext of the conversation is “We have the capacity to care for one another and collaborate toward a common good.”


Merton's story is instructive, to a point. We need safe spaces, silent and solitary spaces, where we can get the news from within. But when it comes to forming the habits of the heart that make a democracy work, solitude has its limits. We also need safe spaces for small gatherings of the “company of strangers,” spaces where citizens can come together to explore the challenge of living heartfelt lives in the neighborhood, in the workplace, and in the larger world. Fortunately, such spaces exist, spaces where we can reclaim, exercise, and open our hearts in the company of others.

All of us live by the stories we tell about ourselves in the solitude of our own hearts, stories that help us make sense of our lives. Unfortunately, we have a tendency to tell stories that make the self powerless, us isolated, and the now hopeless. And yet something remarkable happens when we craft the kinds of stories that public narrative requires, stories that can be shared with other people. As we begin to understand that we are not alone in feeling powerless, isolated, and hopeless, we paradoxically begin to feel more powerful, united, and hopeful.

Buying a book online with the click of a mouse and receiving it at home two days later (or instantly as a digital download) is more convenient than patronizing a local bookstore. But every time we choose convenience over human contact, our sense of being part of a civic community is dulled. Spend enough time buying books online, and we will forget that a bookstore's purpose is not merely to sell books but to provide a place where the company of strangers can gather—to say nothing of the fact that we may well lose our local independent or chain bookstore.

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