On Tuesday this week, the United States of America will turn a musty 247. Like some of us who are aging these days, the reality that our democracy is no longer the vital and inspirational icon it once was is becoming frighteningly evident.

I will be putting my flag out, but I am not sure how much longer I can pledge allegiance to a Republic made up of poorly educated, intolerant, social media addicts who seem to think sound bites make for good governance.

Three Branches of Government: Judiciary, Legislature, Executive

This past week, one of the hallmarks of a democracy, an independent judiciary, issued three opinions that caused me great distress. Biden v. Nebraska (student loan forgiveness), Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard (affirmative action) and 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis (free speech).

These decisions erode fundamental doctrine, hard-won through protest, sacrifice and persistence and will have impact not just on current events, but on lives of children yet unborn. These decisions were driven by political ideology, not solid legal reasoning, and will cause harm to the judiciary at every level.

The Legislative Branch

Over our 247-year history, the Congress has shown itself to be brave, courageous, forward-thinking, stupid, remarkably dull, corrupt and self-absorbed. Blood has been shed in both the House and Senate, with fists and canes in the Senate and guns in the House of Representatives. While most of this occurred before the Civil War, given the current make-up of Congress, with gun-toting elected officials spouting nonsense regularly, I would not be surprised to read of more violence.

Preston Brooks caning Chas. Sumner, U.S. Senate, 1956

It is, of course, too easy to point fingers at these elected officials. We must take a look in the mirror and shoulder our share of blame for the pickle we are in. After all, they represent us and those of us who voted are responsible for them being sent to Washington, D.C. One could also make the case that those who did not vote also share some blame. Either way, the future of our country is on display for the world to see. Personally, I am embarrassed.

The Executive Branch

The man now occupying the Oval Office is the oldest President in our Republic’s history. Teddy Roosevelt was the youngest. The Office remains a bastion of White Men, having successfully denied occupancy to all but one male of color and keeping the promise for “no girls allowed” in the clubhouse to this day.

If Social Security had been the law of the land from the start of the nation, Americans would have technically elected five men who were of retirement age as President. These included the venerable James Buchanan and William Henry Harrison, both born in the 1700s. The other elders were Trump and Reagan. I share this fact to point out that this Nation has been led by the young and the old, and so far, has muddled through.

Vox Populi, Vox Dei

Some of our Republic’s roots are located in the tension between Heaven and Earth, God’s Will vs. Man’s Intellect. That tension is evident today in who gets to decide what happens to women’s bodies when they are pregnant, in how gender identity and intersex is accommodated medically and socially, and in what educators are allowed or not allowed to teach.

Some of our Republic’s roots are located in the mythology-promulgated-as-fact that there is a Master Race, and that Power and Authority are granted both by law and by deity. The latter argument is sustained through cherry-picking history and denying even the most basic of rights to people with the intention of keeping them “in their place,” as evidenced through SCOTUS, certain Governors, and local school boards.

The Trouble with Democracy

Democracy is a messy sport. It requires participation, confrontation, persuasion, and collaboration. It demands concessions of all of us, even when we want to just keep to ourselves and not bother anybody.

Just showing up every couple of years and casting a vote is insufficient to keep a democracy vital and functioning. When we abstain from even that simple act, we are left with little more than partisan cliques. When we abdicate our participation and hand it over to demagogues, we undermine our own allegiance to the truths that were once self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Believing Our Own Hype

The unfortunate truth is that we are not living up to our own press releases. We are not the greatest nation on earth. We are barely a functioning democracy any more. January 6th is sufficient evidence of that. But there is more evidence.

Our economy rests not on what we are manufacturing (goods), but on debt manipulation. We owe $31.4 trillion dollars. Our educational system is ranked 14th among G20 nations (that’s 14 out of 20). Because of the pandemic, researchers estimate that most U.S. students lost 35% of a year’s normal learning. Top fears of surveyed Americans?  Corrupt government officials, death from illness or nuclear war. These three themes represent over two-thirds of those surveyed.

I Know Things are Bad — Tell Me What to Do!

The saddest thing about needing to be told what to do in our democracy is that it suggests that you were never taught or have never had a role model for what it means to be a citizen. I think you already know what to do. I think you may be afraid to do it, or have given up any hope that doing some of these things would make a difference. And that saddens me even more.

Here are actionable things you can do to allay your fears and help stop the erosion of our democracy:

  • Educate yourself as to who your elected officials are and write them. Let them know what matters to you. Then do it again and again.
  • Vote
  • Participate in your community
  • Attend school sporting events even if you don’t have a child in school.
  • Attend live performances of theater, music, put on by amateur groups and/or school groups
  • Go to a school board meeting; better still, run for the School Board
  • Go to a City Council meeting; better still, run for the City Council
  • Join a local service group
  • Protest either in person, through writing letters, or writing your local paper; resist posting vitriol on social media
  • Host a neighborhood pot luck and get to know your neighbors
  • Read things that challenge your beliefs. You don’t have to give up your beliefs, just challenge them
  • Learn how other democracies solve problems
  • Turn off your favorite pundit and practice critical thinking skills
  • Did I mention VOTE?

    Move Along, Nothing New Here

    Back in the early 1800s, a Scottish academic by the name of Alexander Tytler was credited with coming up with the Tytler Cycle of Democracy. This attribution is vague at best, but the notion of stages of a democracy resonates with me.

    He (or someone) rather cynically observed: A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy, which is always followed by a dictatorship.

    Happy Birthday, America!

    Tytler suggested the average age of democracies was around 200 years. We are a bit past that, but only seem to have landed somewhere between complacency and apathy in this model. I don’t know if the model also dictates that we must continue through the other stages sequentially and inevitably (after all, Tytler was a Scotsman), or if it would be possible to interrupt the cycle.

    I hope we can. I think our experiment is worth it. I encourage you to take a moment during this birthday celebration week to re-think how you want to participate in our democracy, then take some action.

    5 responses to “Democracy is a Verb”

    1.  Avatar
      Anonymous

      Wow Mary, that was a really good one!

    2.  Avatar
      Anonymous

      This is excellent, Mary.

    3. Nan Avatar
      Nan

      All birthdays are not beneficent. Test the winds

    4.  Avatar
      Anonymous

      Excellent!

    5. Geri Avatar
      Geri

      The person who spoke at our (alternative) church this morning also address democracy in this way. It is fragile! Jill Lepore’s article in today’s NY Times about amendments and how necessary they are to our democracy also speaks to this. Happy 4th to all. Let us celebrate and take the action we can to preserve (reinforce) what we have.

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