Image 20160427 30990 1wfly2z.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

Humility’s value for democracy in dark times

Donald Trump’s boastful and bullying leadership style encapsulates many of the worst features and sentiments of today’s world. Darron Bergenheier/flick, CC BY-SA

Humility’s value for democracy in dark times

This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.


Surveying the world in 2016, it is hard not to get the feeling that it is starting to come apart at the seams.

The civil war drags on in Syria, with a range of external actors willing to engage enough to perpetuate the violence but not enough to resolve the conflict. Iraq and Afghanistan descend further into the abyss, living monuments to the dangerous mixture of vicious idealism and wilful ignorance that marked the early response to the September 11 terrorist attacks.

With ongoing conflicts and state repression in many other parts of the world, we face growing numbers of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. These different names describe a similar reality, of people trying to find a place where they can live safer, healthier and happier lives.

The challenge of balancing care towards others with responsibility towards citizens is being felt most acutely in Europe, where countries are struggling to balance political and humanitarian demands.

Syrian refugees protest at their treatment in the Hungarian capital, Budapest. Mstyslav Chernov

The backdrop to this increased instability is a socioeconomic sphere marked by deepening inequality, a world in which neoliberalism acts like acid on our political structures. In turn, these trends help fuel populist and nativist movements in Europe and the US. This is exemplified in the rise of Donald Trump, an individual who manages to encapsulate many of the worst features and sentiments of today’s world.

To borrow a phrase from Hannah Arendt, we are living in “dark times”. She was not simply referring to the horrors of the second world war; the phrase had wider historical resonance, referring to a period when the political realm was shrinking and breaking down. But the increasing frailty of the political order was concealed. As Arendt observed:

… it was by no means visible to all, nor was it at all easy to perceive … until the very moment when catastrophe overtook everything and everybody.

In this sense, it seems an apt description for the world we find ourselves in.

Jeffrey Isaac borrowed Arendt’s phrase for his 1998 book, Democracy in Dark Times, which stood in contrast to the confidence surrounding liberal democracy after the Cold War. The years since then have largely confirmed Isaac’s concerns that we may not be well equipped to deal with the most serious challenges now facing democracy.

In the quarter of a century since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the limitations of our democracies have been increasingly laid bare. Some of the defining crises of this period – the 2003 Iraq war, the 2008 financial shock, the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident – share both a misplaced confidence in our abilities to understand and control situations and an unwillingness to accept responsibility for the consequences of the failures that followed from such hubris.

On a more basic level, what these experiences reflect is a world increasingly out of balance, one in which arrogance and unaccountability combine in a corrosive synergy.

An alternative approach

In this context, surely there is value in considering a different approach – one that replaces an excess of confidence with a much more humble stance attuned to the limitations and vulnerabilities that unavoidably shape human life.

What exactly does a humble approach entail? And what role can such an old-fashioned idea as humility play in today’s world?

Humility traditionally has been associated with spirituality; conceptions of it can be found across the major religions. A believer accepts there are some things that they cannot know, that they cannot comprehend.

This is a condition all people share, which can be a way of generating compassion and mercy towards others, as all are equally inferior to God or any of the higher powers that we may believe in. Self-reflection – meditating on our limitations – lies at the heart of this understanding of humility.

One can reach a similar conclusion from a secular starting point. One does not need to believe in God to appreciate that there are very real mental and physical limitations that shape what is possible.

In this sense, humility has enduring relevance for both religious and secular approaches. Arguably one of its great strengths is that its value can be appreciated from a range of religious and cultural backgrounds.

Beyond domination and magic bullets

It is important to recognise the strong social element at the heart of humility. Reflecting on one’s own position is done with reference to others, and appreciating the way we all share certain physical and mental limitations can provide the foundation for more other-regarding behaviour.

This emphasis on reflection and knowing – on meditating on one’s self and impact on others – flows over into the way we engage with the world.

Russian President Vladimir Putin revels in his masculine persona. Presidential Press and Information Office

A humble approach means not knowing whether good or bad will result from action, but accepting the possibility of bad occurring and accepting what may follow. This accepting of responsibility for consequences, whatever they may be, is a valuable counterpoint to a world in which passing the buck has become all too common.

And in abandoning the will for mastery, the illusion of control, humility also rejects traits found in a hegemonic form of masculinity. While this does not mean that humility should be considered “feminine”, it certainly stands as a challenge to the patriarchal modes of thinking that still dominate politics.

So what does humility mean for democracy? For citizens, it might actually mean lowering expectations of their leaders. This does not mean passively accepting fools and hypocrites, but being more realistic about what we ask of politicians.

Matthew Flinders has emphasised this point in his work, suggesting that:

… too many people expect politicians to be able to deliver simple solutions to complex social problems without contributing to the solutions themselves. There are no simple answers to complex questions, no easy wins, no magic bullets, or technological fixes to the challenges that will define the 21st century.

Likewise, humility demands of leaders a willingness to accept the limits that shape what is possible. In many ways, it returns us to traditional democratic notions of compromise, restraint and deliberation. Perhaps this seems a bit conservative, but when our political structures are being eroded and undermined, a concern with conservation does not seem inappropriate.

In a world where bullies like Assad, Putin, Trump and Xi seem increasingly confident in themselves and their way of treating others, does it make sense to advocate a humble approach?Wouldn’t it be better to fight fire with fire, or, at the very least, adopt a stronger stance than the one humility might imply?

Certainly, there are dangers in advocating a more cautious position in a world where bluster and bravado seem to bring success.

However, if one considers the trajectory of events following the terrorist attacks of September 11, what becomes evident is a tragic course of violence being repaid with violence, of alienation and insecurity becoming more entrenched in a progressively fragmented and unstable world.

In many ways, the “war on terror” has replicated on a larger and more intense scale the errors of the “war on drugs”, which has been waged with little success for more than a half a century. Given the ample proof that a forceful, uncompromising response may deepen the problem and reinforce divisions, perhaps it is time to consider alternative approaches.

If one turns to contemporary politics, there are signs that publics may be open to leaders who adopt a more humble stance. One can see the grandstanding of Trump attracting interest, but there is also an opposing trend: growing support for softly spoken and principled politicians like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders.

The extent to which status-quo figures and much of the mainstream media have sought to deride and discredit Corbyn and Sanders may actually point to the underlying strength of their approach. In a contest of pride and bravado, Trump will defeat most, but his limits are much more evident when facing someone who will not play his game.

The support for Bernie Sanders indicates the public is open to more humble leadership. Phil Roeder/flickr

Humility, not passivity

It might seem inappropriate to be calling for humility at a time when democracy faces a growing array of serious challenges, and doubts about it are voiced with increasing regularity and tenacity. Historically, humility has had negative connotations, associated with self-abasement or accepting a lower position than one is due.

Certainly, passivity does not match well with a democratic ethos, but if, instead, one understands humility in terms of an awareness of one’s limits and an acknowledgement of what has yet to be achieved, it has the potential to offer a powerful vision of how to approach democratic government.

Retreat from the world is not a viable option, but one must come to terms with the constraints on action that limit what futures are open to us.

A humble approach entails a recognition of the significant achievements of democracy, while appreciating that its strength ultimately – albeit perhaps paradoxically – comes from what it lacks: its inevitable imperfectability and its constant incompleteness. Such a perspective is well matched for a fundamentally human form of government.

Democracy, like the people it is composed of, will always be flawed and frustrating, but also inspiring and promising. This idea of democracy as an ongoing project, marked by a constant attempt to narrow the permanent gap between ideal and reality, echoes the words of T.S. Eliot:

The only wisdom we can hope to acquire

Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.