Finding Faith in Democracy at Moments of National Conflict

A scholar of American history argues that unwavering commitment to republican values can turn the nation’s differences into a profound strength.

Yuriko Nakao / Reuters

For David Moss, author of Democracy: A Case Study, history provides a guide for coping with disagreement in a nation as vast as the United States. “Robust faith in the democracy itself has the power to transform our differences from a potentially grave weakness into a precious source of strength,” he writes, drawing on an insight that great American statesmen have expressed from the beginning:

In 1776, not long after the Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin plucked the Latin words “E Pluribus Unum” from the cover of a literary magazine and recommended them as a motto for the nation. E Pluribus Unum – out of many, one.  

It was a remarkable aspiration for a collection of colonies perhaps more notable for their differences than for what they had in common. But Franklin was, as usual, extraordinarily insightful – and foresightful. He saw from the republic’s first breath that the unique promise of America lay in harnessing difference toward a common purpose through self-governance.

Fraught eras are not new.

“Across the nation’s history, the practice of democracy has always been rooted in conflict, including plenty of bare knuckle politics stemming from intense partisan, ideological, and sectional differences,” Moss observes. “The critical question is what makes this conflict productive rather than destructive. How can we distinguish the political conflict of the late 1850s that ultimately deteriorated into the violence of the Civil War from the political conflict of so many other periods that allowed for the peaceful resolution of differences and fostered immense progress over time?”

As he ponders the present moment, he urges a renewed faith in what he calls democratic values:

In the past, political conflict has often proved productive when citizens shared a strong common faith in the democracy, along with a deep commitment to sustaining and strengthening their democracy. This common faith and commitment—what might be called a vibrant culture of democracy—has long been the glue that held Americans together, despite their many differences. Sadly, common faith in national democratic governance had largely broken down by 1860, ripped apart by the evils of slavery, as intense political conflict quickly descended into rancor and violence. This was a rare moment of political collapse in America, but also a potent warning of how dangerous our differences can become when they overwhelm our common commitment to democratic principles.

Today, there is mounting evidence that our culture of democracy has atrophied over recent decades. Although the problem is sharply different from that of 1860, there is still reason to be concerned.  What’s needed is not less political conflict, but rather more productive conflict; and that means strengthening our culture of democracy, even as we continue to do battle—peacefully—in the political arena.  Fortunately, Americans have revitalized their culture of democracy many times before, and we can do it again.  

But we can’t lose sight of the fact that a strong culture of democracy—a profound and unwavering commitment to republican values and processes—is the foundation of productive political conflict and, in turn, the essence of a healthy republic. Ultimately, it is what’s most needed to ensure that Franklin’s noble vision of E Pluribus Unum remains alive and well in America.

David Moss is the Paul Whiton Cherington professor at Harvard Business School. He is speaking about James Madison this week at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. Email with your own answer to the question of how Americans can live together in peace and prosperity despite our many differences in values, political beliefs, ideologies, and temperaments.