Democracy requires an informed, educated citizenry.
Democracy requires citizens that possess sufficient civility to hear and process differences of opinion before coming to a conclusion.
Democracy requires citizens who will compromise with people they may not like; who prefer reaching some objectives rather than holding out for an all or nothing deal in order to keep their political opponents from reaching their objectives.
Democracy requires faith among the citizenry that the nation's common good will be honored and protected. Citizens in a working democracy believe they stand on a common platform with their political opponents; that they both rest on something strong enough to support and make room for their differences.
American democracy began, and has been sustained by, such ideals.
As a result, every four years, Americans have witnessed the peaceful transition of power from one person to another and often from one party to another. Americans have had no riots on election day. Americans have not had armed guards prohibiting the newly elected officials to assume office. Americans would not tolerate that. Even if the leaders of their own party attempted to annul an election, Americans would demand that those leaders be arrested.
Richard Nixon resigned when his own party leaders decided he had crossed the line of protecting the nation’s common good. He might have survived the opposition of the other party. He could not survive the loyalty of his own party to the common values it shared with those on other side.
American democracy has survived because of these difficult-to-maintain values. It will collapse if we do not retain them.
Unfortunately, that is a real and present danger.
For one thing, we are not valuing the need to maintain an informed citizenry. Most other countries are investing in education. They are seriously evaluating what works and what does not for mentoring young minds in the arts and sciences. Meanwhile, we continue our long slide into illiteracy, barbarism and our increasing tolerance of violence. Because of this loss of an informed citizenry, politicians must hide from us any of the substance they may actually possess. To win an election they must hide their opinions until they enter office, simply because we can no longer process much more than a clever soundbite.
We are yawning our way past the warning signs of an approaching society in which the few will be wealthy, healthy, educated and powerful as the many remain illiterate, poor, unhealthy and powerless. We are headed, in other words, to the very type of society I experienced in Latin American decades ago. It is a society most Latin American nations have since rejected, as it turns out; a society in which a few own the stuff; the many get the shaft.
As a young adult, I awoke several times to the sight of tanks in the street. During the night, some distant cousins of the guys in power had taken over the government. There were aways explanations, which we would hear the next day on the radio. The new guys claimed that the old government had been secretly communist, or fascist, or about to turn over the nation to the Americans or to the Russians – always something no one else could either confirm or deny. Meanwhile, the people on the street yawned. None of them had a say in anything anyway. A few families owned everything. They controlled everything. The revolutions were power grabs among controlling families, social conflicts in which the bulk of the people hardly mattered. Many Latin American countries in those days existed in a state of feudalism, complete with serfs, lords and ladies and dynastic marriages.
Those revolutions always made me proud of my country. In my country, a common person could get a good education, a fair wage, and a doctor’s attention. In my country, a common person might become anything he wished to become. In my country, hundreds of thousands of people might march on Washington and give speeches about inequality and injustice without fearing the soldiers bayonet or the the terror of the dreaded knock on his door in the middle of the night. My country was different because my country was a real democracy.
I knew even then my country was imperfect. I noticed how our government propped up gangs of thugs throughout Latin America because some American senator had been in a fraternity in Harvard with one of those thugs. But I shrugged all of that off to “American leaders don’t always understand Latin culture.” Despite these power grabs and demeaning attitudes toward my new friends, I knew that real Americans didn’t really act that way. They would do better if they only knew what was happening. Americans wouldn't like it if we were helping oppress the masses of common people. America was a democracy and didn't like the idea of a few powerful people making the rules for the many powerless ones. In a real democracy, we were constantly improving the way we pushed society to embody the values we had professed.
These many decades later, I watch as we rush toward the same sort of social and political environment I experienced back then. Sometimes I wonder if we will ever again honor a president or a senator who is not of our own party. I wonder if we will ever again strive to build the sort of social ramps upon which a common person may walk out of poverty and ignorance and into true participation in Western Civilization. I even wonder if we still recall what Western Civilization is or how its values are transmitted. I wonder if we will ever pull out of our present nosedive into savagery, rudeness and willful disdain for wisdom.
Democracy is always a mess. That's because it involves, by definition, a union of differences. When people lose the ability to tolerate these difference in order to guard their unity, when they stop respecting those with different opinions, regardless of whether those people reciprocate their respect, democracy dies. If it is no longer possible for a Ronald Reagan and a Tip O'Neal to have coffee once a week because they both love their country more than they dislike one another, democracy dies.
All that is left when that happens is a constantly shifting kaleidoscope of charismatic empty-headed leaders, tanks, and large plantations. The people must then sort themselves into two groups – the small and powerful aristocracy and the many but powerless serfs.
If that happens in our country, it will not be a new arrangement. Human beings have historically organized themselves that way. But for a brief two hundred years, we had something different.
We had a democracy.