America is called the “Great Experiment.” The notion of revolting against the British monarchy in 1776 was radical, but the idea of a government of the people was downright outlandish. When the Framers sat down in the summer of 1787 to draft the Constitution, they created a government with checks and balances and democratically elected representatives. That document’s ratification created a republic that has endured through a civil war, two world wars, countless smaller conflicts, and a number of contentious social movements. Now, here I am in 2016, on the heels of a divisive election, wondering whether or not this great experiment will succeed. I’m asking myself whether we deserve our democracy.
A Personal Feeling
I don’t pose that question lightly. I served twenty years in the military and swore an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States from all enemies, foreign and domestic. Like many of my countrymen, I have an unwavering belief in the American dream. I’m a staunch believer that, despite our faults, we are the greatest country on earth. Born in revolution, we are a product of immigrants from whose individual cultures we molded into an indomitable spirit that has changed the world. I’m proud to be an American.
We are a nation of doers, or at least used to be. We cherish our freedoms, or at least we did before sacrificing them for safety. Americans are patriots, or were before respecting the flag and its symbolism became uncool. We worked hard to thrive until we were convinced we didn’t have to. We bask in the freedoms and liberties we enjoy, until we abuse them. Our citizens deserve democracy, until we stop practicing it.
Now we rest on the laurels of the great things the generations before us achieved. We have no national vision and no desire to continue their work. We cannot even hold an election with any confidence. For months we have all been inundated with accusations of fraud or manipulation, all screaming around the country at the speed of the 24-hour news cycle and social media news feeds. The world standard for free elections and the peaceful transition of power is beginning to show signs of cracking under the stress.
A Historical Perspective
The 2016 election is hardly the most divisive the nation has ever had. Following Lincoln’s victory in 1860, South Carolina seceded from the Union. Other southern states followed and the Civil War erupted. But even throughout that dark time, history provides us with a perception that both sides still respected each other during a bloody conflict that cost the lives of 620,000 men.
Bell Irvin Wiley published The Life of Johnny Reb in 1943 and The Life of Billy Yank in 1952. By the time he had completed these books, Wiley had read thirty thousand soldiers’ letters and several hundred diaries. For all his prodigious research, Wiley could find only superficial differences between Confederates and Yankees. Northern soldiers were more literate, less religious, better educated, and more political than southerners. But the similarities far outweighed the differences, Wiley concluded. No wonder the two sides fraternized, bantering across lines. Wiley noted that after some battles opposing armies intermingled to bury their dead. In at least one instance, Confederates borrowed Union army shovels.
We survived that struggle and the tense reconstruction that followed it because of that respect. We endured as a nation when many others would have collapsed. It was not a perfect recovery, and we knew that. It would take sixty years for women to earn the basic right of voting, and over a hundred years for blacks to overcome segregation and the Jim Crow laws that kept them yoked as second-class citizens.
There was still much work to be done in those days and, for all our progress, there always will be.
Of all the geographic and technological advantages we enjoy, there is one that stands out: Americans themselves. As a people, we understand that we have problems that must be solved to be better tomorrow than we were yesterday. It is a constant movement that sometimes does not happen in a decade, much less overnight. That simple truth does not meld well in the Information Age where communications move much faster than progress we want to see.
What we have now is not political disagreement – it is a climate that should make us all wonder if we deserve our democracy. The right to protest has become a right to riot. Violent speech on both sides of the ideological spectrum has become violent action on both sides. We cherry-pick facts and lie to each other. Fear is the nation’s new watchword, and malcontents are preying on it. Policy arguments have devolved into hatred on social media.
The Heart of the Problem
We have a fundamental lack of respect in this country for those who disagree with us. Our leaders are largely silent on the point, and we mistake silence for consent. Controversy makes headlines, leaving no room for intelligent debate with those who offer an opposing view. Passionate disagreement has given way to name-calling. Disputes with the stances of our elected officials have devolved into threats against their lives. Supporters clash with fists instead of words.
This is not what America is. The progress of our nation is founded in the actions of the majority and the protests of the outspoken minority. We are not the Borg from Star Trek, have never suffered from national group-think. Opposing viewpoints makes us stronger, not weaker, so long as we are united in in one purpose: to be better. We will never agree on all issues, nor should we. But we must agree that simple notion that everyone is acting in the best interests of the nation, at least from their perspective. Without that mutual respect for those we disagree with, perhaps we don’t deserve our democracy.
Is the Future More Like 1860?
Only nine percent of Americans chose the two major political party candidates in 2016. In the general election, almost half the nation didn’t exercise their right to chose at the polls despite a record turnout in the primaries. We rank 31st out of 35 countries in voter participation according to PBS Newshour. It’s hard to make the argument that we deserve our democracy when so many are unwilling to engage in it.
And then there is the problem with our information sources. How we get our information has changed dramatically over the past decade with the proliferation of social media and blogs. The traditional media must once again become the Fourth Estate – an informative voice willing to speak truth to power and keep the government in check. It cannot play favorites. It is too important to be allowed to descend into partisan rancor that has marred the 2016 election.
America needs a leader – a voice that rises above rhetoric and will work to heal the divide in this great nation. I don’t know if President-Elect Donald Trump is that man or not, although I am sure that supporters and detractors alike have strong opinions on that subject. And that is the point.
The Power of the People
The real solution, as it always has, lies with the people. We need to start talking to each other and not at each other. Reasonable people can agree to disagree. It’s the American way. Unfortunately, so few are being reasonable today. Once we travel down the path of demonizing those who don’t share our views, we place ourselves in great peril. That was America in 1860, and it led to a civil war. That is America today, and it makes for an uncertain future.
How we handle this challenge will define our nation for generations to come and ultimately determine whether or not we deserve our democracy.