Let there be no doubt: Our president is destructive to our democracy. From freedom of the press to our reputation abroad to the fundamentals of voting, he is busy dismantling and discrediting our most important democratic institutions and ideals. He has set fire to the office of the presidency, and it’s spreading like wildfire.
Let there be no doubt: His predecessors in both parties are also to blame. Their neglect of these institutions for more than a generation added kindling for this fire. The president was just reckless and selfish enough to light the match.
Neither the president, his election opponent nor the former president is “the problem,” and a new president or party in power won’t fix this mess, no matter how much our ideological minds tell us so. They are the symptoms of a much bigger problem. Democracy in America is in trouble.
Look at the current state of our political parties and discussions. Both major parties seem to have lost their fundamental principles, and they are reduced to nothing but ends-justifying-means tactics. The Republicans are busy doing everything they opposed when the Democrats were in power. Consider the recent health care bill as evidence. The Democrats can’t muster a vision for governing that is bigger than “not him.” As evidence, consider the four special elections they’ve recently lost. Our ideological conversations in the media are like watching 5-year-olds sniping “you did it first” at each other.
Look at what we’ve done to our imagination about democracy. We’ve made it mostly about government. The Democrats seem to think that more government and more regulation are inherently good, and they have set up a way of paying for it that is unsustainable in the long term and that largely supports their base in the public and nonprofit sectors. The Republicans act as if more government is inherently bad, and they have set up a way of not paying for it though tax and regulatory cuts that is unsustainable in the short term and that largely supports their base in the private sector. Our civics classes, which are barely taught or taught poorly, are all about government rather than about governing. We’re asking the federal government to do too much and other institutions to do too little. We’ve made “politics” a bad word and wonder why we can’t get things done.
Trust in almost every institution is plummeting. We witness and experience the disintegration of police-community relationships and watch a generation of Americans shorten their life span through the opioid epidemic. I suspect the outrage, bias and hopelessness that connect both of these situations have more to do with policy failures in our schools, cities, employers, courts, clinics and churches than what the federal government or presidency can do alone. “Justice” and “freedom” are not just ideals; they are supposed to be lived experiences, for all of us, in the institutions where we spend our time.
As the mechanisms of democracy have stopped working to govern amid our differences, we’ve grown further apart by ideology, geography, race and identity — just to name a few. The two toxic outcomes of this are the belief that compromise is either not possible or that it’s wrong.
Our imagination and practice of democracy simply don’t work in the world we live in now. We don’t have the time or the luxury to blame it on our current president or either political ideology. Economic, social and technological revolutions demand new democratic realities.
On this July 4th, we can gain new inspiration and instruction for the future by looking back to Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America.”
De Tocqueville toured the country in the 1830s, coincidently at a time when another reckless and racially biased narcissist, Andrew Jackson, was president and Russia was a significant foreign threat.
More important, it was a time when the founding fathers had all passed and the first generation born after the first Independence Day was busy constructing the institutions of our democracy on the foundation created by these founding fathers. It was an entrepreneurial and exciting time. De Tocqueville said America was in the midst of a “democratic revolution.”
He describes a country where every individual needed a sense of “public morality” and where every institution, not just government, had a role in shaping this public-spiritedness and in building the governing skills a democracy demands. For example, he sees a uniquely American role for voluntary associations: “[B]ut what political power would ever be in a state to suffice for the innumerable multitude of small undertakings that American citizens execute every day with the aid of an association?”
These “small undertakings” are made possible by the tensions between freedom and equality that government must negotiate, but they are made real by the daily role that churches, schools, businesses, nonprofits and families play — and the governing role that all of us have as citizens (legal or not).
What unites supporters and opponents of the current president is unhappiness with almost every institution around us. If everyone agrees things need to change, let’s figure out how to make it a common endeavor. It’s not easy, but it’s necessary.
Democracy has to be reinvented in every generation. Our world is infinitely more complex and much bigger than de Tocqueville’s, and it will almost certainly take a generation of hard work. But “democracy in America” should still be learned, practiced and experienced in the daily roles we play, the decisions we make and the power we all have to exert our influence: in school boards and classrooms; business boards and conference rooms; nonprofit and neighborhood community meetings; and city council and legislative conference committees.
Maybe a wildfire is what we need: to clear the ground on which to build new and better democratic institutions all around us. On this Independence Day, we face a daunting and depressing task if the future of our republic depends on reforming the current mess in Washington, D.C. It’s like solving world peace. Good luck with that.
The task becomes more doable — both necessary and inspiring — if we think about the future of “Democracy in America” as solving our own “piece of the world.” There’s good in that. Let’s get to work.
Sean Kershaw is executive director of the Citizens League.