Democracy, Part 1 – Do We Believe in Democracy?
“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” – Winston Churchill
Of all the challenges that democracy presents to Americans, one of the most difficult is that it requires us to incorporate into our government and our lives the beliefs of people we disagree with and who do not understand us.
Our democracy is more a process than a structure. The United States is not really based on a particular philosophy of government. Instead, we are a diverse people with competing philosophies and cultures determining by majority decision what the philosophy of government will be for the next few years.
It’s very important to understand that this is not a consensus. It is a victory of one philosophy over another. Every two years we get another chance in Congress and some local offices. Every four years another chance with the presidency and most governors. Every six years we get another chance with Senators. In between, we must live with the people and philosophies that have been elected. We don’t have to like it, but we must accept the result and work for change within the law. That’s democracy.
The question is this: do we prefer to live for a while with ideas and beliefs that seem wrong and are sometimes destructive to us, or would we prefer to put those people and their ideas in the background for good and rule without their interference at all? If we decide the latter, we have given up on democracy. Some Americans seem to have made this decision. There are real assaults on democracy itself when people try to undermine legal voting processes or turn legal protests into violent riots.
It doesn’t matter whether you are a conservative republican incensed by a perceived pandering to minority groups, or you are a progressive democrat revolted by perhaps ignorant (perhaps not) expressions of white, straight, and/or male superiority that oppress and insult the disenfranchised. Either way, if you cannot allow for opposing beliefs to be expressed and become policy within constitutional restraints, you have to ask yourself if you really believe in democracy.
I can’t answer this question for you, but I want you to ask it of yourself remembering that history has not been kind to democracies. They are fragile. Perhaps this is because democracy really isn’t the best form of government. If so, then good riddance. I just don’t know of anything I’ve ever heard of that is better over time. Perhaps an enlightened dictatorship? That depends on your particular definition of enlightened and won’t last past that person’s life anyway. Maybe we’ll find something new, but I’m not holding my breath.
If we do believe in democracy, here’s what we must do.
First, we must recognize that we need each other. That means we must get to know each other. This part is not about political solutions, but about who we are and how we live in this country. Those of us who are part of the “white” identity have a greater responsibility to listen to others, because our point of view is always present and often oppressive even if we aren’t very aware of it because it’s so normal and beneficial to us. Those identities which are and have been for generations oppressed in our society must be heard by us.
Second, given that humans are flawed creatures with a long history of failures at collective government, we can’t expect perfection ever. What we should expect is constant political struggle that tolerates (I cannot hope to say “embraces”) opinions from all side. We must express those opinions in every way possible that is consistent with preserving our country. Only by allowing universal expression can we correct misunderstandings and arrive at decisions that incorporate all of us, even if they will never be a true consensus.
Third, I have said before that the means is the end. We must all protect the process that we use to make decisions, whatever those decisions turn out to be. Everything that we do must have some part that protects that process. This happens only in an environment of freedom of speech, freedom of the press (yes, even THAT press), an independent judiciary in which no one is above the law, and means and freedom for every adult citizen to exercise the right to vote. Efforts to suppress voting is anti-democratic and illegal. Recognize it as such, call it out, and oppose it, no matter what side it benefits in a particular case, or what social wrong it claims to right. We must also have an educational system that prioritizes critical thinking. This means introducing our children at appropriate ages to conflicting points of view without resolving them. Get them used to varying degrees of uncertainty. It must become our way of life.
For those of you who preach freedom from both sides, remember this: one of the requirements of freedom in a truly free society is that you give up the right to tell someone else how to use it. This is the root of the American dream. If you believe, as I do, that we need to fix systemic racism and systemic poverty across all races, with their associated institutionalized violence, and the extreme income inequality throughout our broken nation, we have to convince enough of our fellow citizens to find a way to get them done and do it through Congress.
We won’t do this by closing others (or ourselves) off from the conversation. Though you wouldn’t know it from the current lack of dialogue, there are reasonable ideas about how to fix these things on both ends of the political spectrum. These ideas need to be debated seriously, policies proposed, bills written, and votes taken.
The recent (beginning with presidents Bush and Obama) trend towards powerful presidents just making a decree that will be overturned by another powerful president must be reigned back in. The fact that you may agree with a particular decree doesn’t make it right in a democracy. The process matters. The means is the end.
Respecting and caring for each other are not separate from the basic individual freedoms promised by the idea of America. It is dependent on them in ways that may not be clear now but will become painfully clear if we lose them. I quote James Baldwin again. “The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose.”*
September 8, 2020
*Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. Vintage International, 1993, p. 76.