12/01/2012 11:12 am ET Updated Jan 31, 2013

What Do I Mean By 'Dying America?'

My outrageous question -- "Is America Dying?" -- carries an obligation to conduct a thorough examination, with sound theoretical analysis, of our national civic health.

Such analysis assumes critical and timely importance as a result of Election 2012 and the reelection of Barack Obama, a self-described transformational president.

In this discussion, therefore, I want to begin by explaining what I mean by the terms "America," "American democracy," and "dying."

America: A National Experiment in Democratic Ideals.

My conception of "America" does not fit any simple geographic, legalistic, or jurisdictional definition. It does not mean "the government." Nor is it a shorthand reference to the United States of America. I use the term "America" as did Alexis de Tocqueville, connotatively, to express the subjective character as well as the objective parameters of the system within which "we, the people of the United States" conduct our public affairs.

I define America as a national experiment in democratic ideals.

My connotative definition is based on the notion that America has always been an idea more than a thing. This conception (which is critically important to my rhetorical "dying" inquiry) applies anywhere, anytime, any way in which Americans come together -- in some democratic manner -- and work toward collective public purpose in the spirit of our national experiment in democratic ideals.

My America is what Tocqueville billed as "the great experiment... a spectacle for which the world has not been prepared by the history of the past" (Democracy in America, 1835; Vol. I, p. 25). It is the then-unprecedented pursuit of freedom, equality, and justice through a precarious framework of popular self-government.

Thus the Great Experiment -- the spectacle for which the world had not been prepared by the history of the past -- was an effort to let a nation of theoretically free and equal people pursue fuzzy, imperfect, imperfectible democratic ideals such as freedom, equality, and justice through a restrained government of elected representatives.

American Democracy: The Practical Mix of People, Politics, and Government Whereby We Pursue Democratic Ideals.

I use the term "American democracy" to refer to the practical mix of people, politics, and government whereby we have pursued democratic ideals, fairly effectively, for the past two centuries.

These functional elements -- our people, politics, and government -- have, collectively, represented extraordinary civic chemistry and provided critical contributions to the democratic process. There have always been some unsavory aspects of our political personality; but for the most part, that civic chemistry has encouraged democratic ideals, even when those ideals represented abstractions, uncertainties, contradictions, and dangerous tensions within our national polity.

American democracy, as I see it, is a philosophical and practical exercise in national democratic self-government, a procedural and substantive exercise designed to answer the important sequential question: (a) Can . . . , (b) How can . . . , and (c) How far can we pursue democratic ideals as a nation through limited, representative government?

Dying: American Democracy No Longer Works the Way It Has in the Past; and We Seem To Be Tiring of the Great Experiment Itself.

The central idea of this unconventional analysis is a complex and disturbing question for 21st Century America:

Can our nation -- a people of growing cultural diversity, with increasingly divergent values, and dissentient governance inclinations, in a constrained systemic environment -- continue to sustain our collective pursuit of freedom, equality, and justice through the traditional framework of limited, representative government?

To put this idea into more urgent terms: "How far can America pursue the Great Experiment without succumbing to the inherent, destructive tendencies of democracy?"

Our Great Experiment is a tricky endeavor, and its course can never be easy or straight. It requires sustained national commitment -- by a multiplicity of citizens, political subcultures, and geographical entities -- to democratic ideals and the balancing of inevitable strains among those ideals, such as freedom-versus-equality, individualism-versus-security, and majority rule-versus-minority rights.

Tricky too is the notion of controlled, popular governance, which has within it, not only the potential for what philosophers call the "good life" but also the democratic seeds of tyranny and anarchy and perhaps dissolution. Interminable conflict is built into a federal republic which gives authority to the people (through their elected representatives) to pursue, democratically, imperfectible ideals and unsavory practices. The people even have within their authority (through constitutional revision) the power to alter and degenerate the Great Experiment itself.

Our constitutional founders hoped, of course, that America would -- forevermore -- pursue democratic ideals within a limited, representative framework. But they realized that, with the passage of time, American democracy might falter, and Americans might forsake their historic experiment.

Organic Degeneration.

In physiological terms, most healthy organisms experience spurts of growth, perform vital functions, and regenerate themselves periodically over the course of their lives. But this process can be altered, degenerated, even terminated by unhealthy developments within the organism and/or its environment. Organically, "dying" can be viewed as the increasing inability of a living system to perform normal, sustaining, necessary functions of life.

In this series, I approach America as an organic system undergoing democratic alteration and degeneration and I pose important considerations as Obama America faces the transformational challenges of an adverse environment.

A particularly interesting reflection of that adverse environment is the current campaign by discontented citizens to secede from the United States. My next post will consider whether the secession petitions being filed with the White House represent a serious threat to our Great Experiment.

Author's Note: This is the fourth in a fifteen-part series of discussions about Election 2012 and the future of American democracy. This series includes edited, updated material from my book, The Future of American Democracy: A Former Congressman's Unconventional Analysis (2002). I'm grateful to University Press of America for allowing me to borrow from that publication for my discussions on Huffington Post.