07/15/2013 03:56 pm ET Updated Sep 14, 2013

The Mental Demands of Democracy

On a roadside ridge between Moldova and Transylvania, an energetic, middle-aged Romanian cyclist who had stopped for lunch told me he wasn't too impressed with democracy. It's been almost 25 years since the overthrow of Ceaușescu's communism, he said, and we have a poor economy, corruption, and political dysfunction. Democracy, he implied, exacerbated the elites' lust for money and power and prompted the people to vote for their selfish, short-term interests rather than the good of the nation. Democracy's promise had paled against a people's struggle to rise to democracy's mental demands.

Like Romania, but with less than two years of experience, Egypt is struggling with the mental demands of democracy after half a century of dictatorship. Beyond the electoral and parliamentary institutions, democracy demands collective commitments to a regime of the rule of law, the institutions of civil society, and an educational system which promotes independent thinking. Democracy demands participation in what we might call a cultural curriculum of deliberative compromise.

I'm much more confident in the prospects of Romanian democracy than my accidental lunch companion. But his--and Egypt's--distrust of democracy echoes reservations I hear from others all over the world. I'm privileged, in moderating the Aspen Institute Seminar on leadership, values and the good society, to have conversations with American and international business, government, and non-profit leaders about the mental demands of leadership in a democratic age. In those conversations, thoughtful, democratically-inclined leaders--from India, or Nigeria, or Spain, or Brazil, or China, and yes, from Egypt--will say with heartfelt, if startling, frankness: "I worry whether my country is capable of democracy."

What do they mean? Their concerns recognize the fragility of democratic institutions and its underlying culture. Their reservations also implicitly recapitulate Plato's and Aristotle's caution that direct democracy could channel our baser rather than our higher instincts.

The American Founders, too, understood that the many could abuse power as much as a single tyrant. Correspondingly, they set up multiple, competing institutions to divide power and power-holders, individuals and parties alike. They sought, additionally, to develop and reinforce the mental and moral habits of conversation, deliberation, and consensus. That is, they recognized that democracy is more than a value-neutral process in which the desires of the majority are shaped and aggregated in elections and then translated into policy.

To talk about the mental demands of democracy is not to make a judgment about a people's intellectual capacity, but to reiterate that democracy-as-process presupposes habits of thought and action expressed in democracy-as-value. The value-neutral definition of democracy is equally applicable to Germany in 1933 or Iran in 2013. What distinguishes illiberal democracies from liberal ones is, of course, the underlying values-- the habits and dispositions which inform a culture of deliberation as a way of life. "Creative democracy," in John Dewey's words, "in thought and a personal way of individual life," a way of life that sees the expression of difference as a means of "enriching one's own life-experience."

In foreign and domestic policy we have neglected the cultivation of democracy-as-value. Abroad, we are not always attentive to the fact that others' cultural inheritances have systematically repressed the habits of democracy as an individual way of life. To say this need not take the form of cultural exclusivity or imperialism. Rather, it is to recognize that the mental muscles of democracy need time to become strong through practice. At home, we have neglected those mental muscles in allowing the habits of public service, deliberation, and compromise to atrophy.

This is where democracy-as-process and democracy-as-value coincide and reinforce each other. When David Brooks contends (NYT July 5, 2013) that Egypt "seems to lack even the basic mental ingredients" for a liberal democratic transition, he is making an observation not about mental capacity, but about the collective willingness to embrace democracy-as-value as a personal way of life. As Dewey put it, "[T]o get rid of the habit of thinking of democracy as something institutional and external and to acquire the habit of treating it as a way of personal life is to realize that democracy is a moral ideal and so far as it becomes a fact is a moral fact."

Egypt is working to make democracy-as-value a moral fact. And so are we. Egypt reminds us that a truly liberal democracy is not a mechanism by which I and my party get my way; rather, it is a habit of deliberation in which, together, we find our way. Democracy places mental and moral demands on all of us to navigate together a richer and more ordered path through the challenges we face. We can hope that Egyptians are beginning to learn this. In our own dysfunctional and polarized political arena, perhaps we have something to learn too.

Todd Breyfogle is Director of Seminars at the Aspen Institute. He holds a PhD from the University of Chicago's Committee on Social Thought.