The focus of our July 11 discussion was Bridging the Divide. Many people fear that democracy is at an abyss. Some are trying to drag others down along with democracy itself to serve their own narrow interests. We focused on what can be done to bring those who believe in democracy together to preserve it.
We discussed a conflict between the “big picture” — the long-term democratic vision — versus our current battle between autocracy and democracy. Many historical figures we admire maintained that vision of respectful interaction, even with those who opposed them, including Lincoln, Gandhi, MLK, and Mandela, while engaging in a battle to restore human dignity. The words of Lincoln summarize that view: “With malice toward none with charity for all.” The issue is how to maintain the democratic view of recognizing the validity of every human being as we confront the anti-democratic elements in our society. We must keep autocracy and dysfunction from taking over as has happened in many democracies over the last quarter century.
We discussed ways that autocratic elements try to distract people and keep power for themselves by denigrating those who attempt to bring greater rights or equality into society. “Critical Race Theory” has been portrayed by some politicians and media as a way to make Whites feel guilty about slavery and racial inequality. A balanced view of history — especially in our schools — would include all elements of our past so that students can arrive at their own conclusions, which leads to a more democratic and equitable society. Our educational system must emphasize how to interact respectfully with others toward common solutions. This can be done by practice in the classroom. We should teach students — and encourage everyone — in how to think rather than what to think.
The term “Woke” has its origins in Black history when people warned each other to be alert about potential violence toward them, but now the term has become a weapon to attack those who show concern about inequality. In the 1990s, the term “Liberal” also was turned into an epithet, despite its original meaning of being open-minded. The dictionary defines “Woke” as “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues.” It can be used in a complimentary or disparaging way.
People of all political orientations believe that our democracy needs reform, particularly in the area of voting rights, where both the left and right are concerned about unfair elections. Congress is at a 16% approval level according to a recent Gallop poll because they rarely get anything done. The filibuster, as it operates in the Senate, allows a minority to block legislation that would benefit the nation, such as supporting alternative types of energy. Perhaps those who run for office should be required to have a history of non-partisan public service and to swear an oath to abide by the results of an election. This means that elections would need to be monitored by representatives of all candidates.
There also must be a better way to remove government obstacles to fair treatment of people at all levels. Small businesses and well as many individuals often believe they fall between the cracks. The needs of those who live in rural areas for services, job training and infrastructure have been ignored by both political parties. This has resulted in cynicism by those who think that government never is on their side, and a belief by many in fringe ideas not based in reality.
Our Supreme Court is in the control of special interests. A number of recent appointees have been put in place at the behest of partisan groups, like the Heritage Foundation, that primarily serve the interests of corporations and advocate ending or privatizing many social programs.[*] The Court recently has championed the right of people to carry guns despite evidence that more guns lead to greater violence, has put the country back into the situation of fifty years ago when women who sought abortions — even for health reasons or due to rape or incest — used desperate and unsafe means to end their pregnancies, and has effectively ended the right of accused criminals to be read their rights. The Court has overturned Jefferson’s principle of Separation of Church and State by mandating that government funds be used for religious education. It also has undone protections for LGBTQ individuals who seek equal treatment by showing preference for religious beliefs over equal treatment. In 2010, the Court redefined free speech as giving businesses and unions the right to spend unlimited funds to influence elections, which was equivalent to declaring that David and Goliath are free to engage in a fair fight. Judges must be appointed to courts who respect the needs of the people, rather than corporate interests.
Perhaps the biggest concern of our group is that millions of Americans have been duped into believing that a former president was on their side when he continually denigrated democratic principles, ultimately by trying to stay in office when voted out. Our long-term problem is that many Americans believe what politicians tell them rather than thinking for themselves. Instead of focusing on building up democracies and those who live in them, some leaders build on prejudices while championing the majority against an imagined threat from a minority. Studies have shown that, by far, most members of minorities — and immigrants — contribute to society and pay their own way, as did our own forebears.
Congress already has the power to revamp democracy. It is up to us to elect representatives who advocate democratic principles based on valuing all of We the People. Current issues include the violent use of guns, reproductive rights, climate change, voting rights, and needs of non-urban areas. Congress can put gun controls into place, codify a woman’s right to make her own health decision with her doctor, protect the environment by resolving our urgent need for alternative energy, guarantee equal voting rights for persons of all backgrounds, and work to support rural citizens. Congress also can limit the areas that courts can deal with. Corporations must not be allowed to spend to overturn the welfare of the people.
A battle is justified to overcome autocracy. But it is important to remember that our battle is against autocracy itself, not individuals. Those who advocate autocracy ultimately are working against their own best interests. We become like them when we denigrate others. Thus the democratic value of universal respect. If we lose ourselves in hatred of others, we are in danger of becoming what we hate.
We discussed how to defeat forces that are actively trying to overcome democracy by violent means or by changing laws to skew elections in favor of those making the laws, as is the case in many states. If we are outraged by the dismantling of years of settled law by our courts in favor of undemocratic and corporate views, how do we channel that into effective action?
The struggle between autocratic and democratic elements always has been — and always will be — with us. Overcoming autocracy is only an intermediate goal. Communication toward long-term solutions that serve everyone ultimately must be part of the everyday function of our society. We need to advocate for legislative candidates who represent these values. The issue is not about who is good or bad, but what works to best serve everyone. Revolutions that overthrow autocracy often do not lead to democracy, as did happen in the aftermath of the American Revolution. Failure to prescribe a clear path forward is why many revolutions have failed.
Our fight must be not only to win but to establish an equitable society which best serves us all. We must keep in mind the humanity of the other, or we de-humanize those on both sides of the conflict. Perhaps new terms are needed to combat anti-democratic slogans. If we only are engaged in anger, we may eliminate what we don’t want, but we can move toward what we do want only if we continue to clarify it and commit ourselves to actions to bring about the world we envision.
It is becoming clear to many Americans on the left and right that our two-party system — as now constituted — does not adequately serve the needs of the people. Perhaps an alternative system or emphasis is needed. Your thoughts are welcome.
Also, we were honored to have Rob Katz, our resident songwriter, perform his relevant new composition: “We’ve Got a Lot in Common.” Click here to listen to it.
Steve Zolno is the author of the book The Future of Democracy and several related titles. He graduated from Shimer College with a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Sciences and holds a Master’s in Educational Psychology from Sonoma State University. He is a Management and Educational Consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area and has been conducting seminars on democracy since 2006.