Democracy (Afterword) – What We Can Do
“If America hasn’t broken your heart, you don’t love her enough.” – Sen. Cory Booker
I find I can’t leave this series without some suggestions. We aren’t going to save American democracy overnight, but here are four actions that I believe could make a difference within a generation if we can hold on. None of them is a new idea. We just have to do them.
First: teach Civics to every child. We all need to know how our democracy is supposed to work. It’s not politics, it’s the nuts and bolts of what the different parts of local, state, and national governments do, how they fit together, and how the vote of every citizen counts equally. So much of what we argue about is disconnected from the reality of the basis of our democracy. We have to know how it works in order to fix it.
Second: systematically address racism. All citizens must be treated with equal respect before the law, and in all public interactions. Those who have been most oppressed need special attention. Remember, it’s our behaviors—our actions and inactions—that have to be addressed, not our thoughts and feelings. Those are beyond the scope of what government can do. Racist instincts are deeply rooted in humans and will take many generations of building new cultural habits for true change of hearts. Racist behaviors can be addressed now.
Third: elect people who will work for us and with each other. Our elected officials must learn that keeping their job means doing their job. It’s a disaster in any institution when an employee’s personal goal of keeping his or her job becomes separated from doing that job. This happens when appearances and not getting caught trump actually working. The comic strip Dilbert caricatures the worst of this in business, but it is far more dangerous in government. If we hire (elect) politicians because they tell us what we want to hear rather than the truth as they see it, we are literally doomed. They must be rewarded for speaking truth to power, and we, the voters, are the power. We hire and fire. We must insist they do their jobs, listen to each other on all sides, and make the difficult but informed compromises that keep us progressing towards the ideal of America that we want to be. Remember, in a democracy, what you think is right will only prevail if you can convince a majority of the voters. You need the rest of us. It’s frustrating and inconvenient, but that’s the way it is. If you don’t accept that, you’ve given up on democracy, and none of this discussion is for you.
Something that could go a long way towards fixing this problem is ranked choice voting. I won’t detail the process here. Please research it for yourselves. Some local and regional governments have implemented it, and others have it on the ballot this year. It has a chance of giving power back to the majority of voters and reduce the influence of extreme ends of both parties in selecting which candidates we have to choose from in general elections, while at the same time preserving their voice.
Fourth: get to know each other. During the Great Depression in the 1930’s, America was in really bad shape. From my understanding though, as much unhappiness and disagreement as there was, there wasn’t the degree of anger with each other that we have today.
Jim Crow racism was disgracefully rampant, but it seems to me that all the different European-American cultures were more tolerant of each other and of class differences. There were confrontational episodes between working class and business class, and the communist party made some inroads in politics, but there was still a lingering sense that everyone was in trouble and that we were somehow still in this together. There were rich people jumping out of 10th story windows as well as the long lines of unemployed outside soup kitchens.
We lost this communal feeling years ago because we don’t know each other anymore. I suspect it’s one of the reasons why income inequality was able to grow so much. Once people were successful, they forgot all the other people their success depended on. And it does. We all need each other.
We need to create this feeling again, and this time, inclusive of all our cultures. The current risen awareness of racial problems offers an opportunity. We should consider implementing two years of compulsory public service for every young adult citizen in the country, regardless of gender, economic class, race, physical capacity, etc. This can be in the military, the Peace Corps, a jobs corps, a teaching corps, or other groups we invent.
When I was in college, we had required Physical Education our Freshman year. No one was exempt. If you had a physical disability, there were appropriate levels for your capabilities. If you had never run a step in your life and considered athletics anathema, you were grouped with others with similar experience and did what you could. Most of us were exposed to every physical sport or activity you can imagine, from football, golf, and rugby to archery, bowling, and yoga. Some of these were just for a day or two, but we learned what each was about and did them as well as we could. It was one of the most rewarding class experiences of all my years of education, and the least anticipated. I’m sure some hated it. But importantly, it threw all of us together, no matter what our backgrounds or majors or other interests. We got to know who we were in all our diversity.
We need this collective experience as a nation. After two years, each of us will go on to our individual lives, but we will always know something fundamental about each other’s tribes.
Please think about these suggestions. We desperately need to work together to heal ourselves.
Good luck, America. Keep the faith.
October 12, 2020