Many of us feel tired. Tired from the election. Tired from the last four years. Tired from the hostility. Tired from congressional stalemates and an unwillingness to work together, to compromise. Tired from feeling like we have enemies in our neighbors, friends, family. Tired from knowing that, for some of them, we are enemies. Tired from the pandemic in all its ramifications.
It is important to recognize that fatigue and give it its due. But it is an unaffordable luxury to do more than that. It is, in fact, dangerous; dangerous to our own spiritual health and dangerous to the democracy which we see as a powerful engine for building and maintaining a just society.
This moment – after the election, with the pandemic still raging – is a moment of opportunity. The pandemic, the election, the last four years of a maniacal White House have laid bare festering wounds in our society that some have denied, others have ignored, and others have suffered from. The massive wealth gap. Inadequate childcare options for working people. Indefensible compensation for home health care workers. A legal and tax system that is mired in the 1950’s when it comes to the changing ways in which people work today and the tie of health insurance to employers. Inadequate access to quality medical care. Housing crises across the big cities of the country. Food deserts. Mass incarceration and for-profit penal systems. The poverty and addiction found in small towns abandoned by manufacturing plants and mines.
And, of course, racism. Nativism. Antisemitism. Anti-immigrant hatred.
The beginning of opportunity is recognition. Recognizing these problems can start us on our way to addressing them. And we, people of (more and less) affluence, have a responsibility to be part of the work towards a more perfect union.
In this post as well as the next one, I want to address two pieces for our immediate attention. The first, today, is global, the second – next week – is personal. The first piece is our democracy. The second is our personal outlook.
Fortifying Our Democracy: Five Pieces
American democracy has faced a barrage of challenges and attempts to undermine, subvert, and destroy it. Whatever the outcome of this presidential election – Mr. Biden is certainly the winner – this will not go away.
While we recognize those attacks in order to address them, it also is important to recognize the vibrancy and resilience of that system and those who have defended it. Many times did individuals and institutions push back against the attacks. Democracy has not gone away.
There are five things that need immediate attention.
First, the issue of voting. Our democracy needs that we ensure the right of all qualified to cast their ballot. That we simplify registration as well as ease of voting. That we update the mechanics of voting. That we secure our voting systems from foreign manipulation and attack. That we increase participation in voting. This ought to be a high priority of the new Congress, perhaps second to addressing the pandemic and its consequences.
Connected to voting, our democracy needs that we address the baleful use of gerrymandering districts. Democrats and Republicans both are guilty of this. Responsibility for districting ought be taken out of the hands of the people who will benefit from it and assigned to a non-partisan commission, as some states already do.
Third, Congress needs to restore its own power, first by re-learning cooperation and compromise and, second, by legislating to serve the country. Congress should not defer to the President, nor should it allow us to depend on the Supreme Court to legislate. Our founders created a system of checks and balances that works well, albeit not perfectly, when it’s practiced correctly.
Fourth, we need to revitalize a free and vibrant press for the additional checks that it provides. New technology and the market conditions accompanying it are devastating this industry. But the knowledge it provides is indispensable to a healthy democracy.
The Fifth Piece: Our Own Cynicism
For the last piece, we need to look at our own hearts. What is Trump’s attack on the federal government – as well as some state and city leaders – but an extension of our own cynicism about politicians, taken to an extreme degree?
When we bemoan the mendacity, incompetence, and self-serving character of some elected officials, we are right. But when we do not, likewise, celebrate public servants who are people of character and virtue, and who keep at the forefront the individuals that they serve and the common wealth in which we live, we are both dishonest and short-sighted.
While I have read of many crooked politicians that I didn’t know – growing up in Chicago, it was more fun than reading the sports pages – I have known a few more closely and know them to be the kind of people and officeholders that I described above as deserving of celebration. When we say, “all politicians are dishonest,” and then hear our children say the same thing, is there any wonder that destroying government institutions is desirable? Is there any wonder that they don’t want to vote because, at best, for them it is only a choice between the lesser of two evils?
It is time for us to be more honest, careful, and critical in what we think and say about our political leaders. A healthy democracy requires no less than criticism when it is deserved and affirmation when it is earned.
What Can We Do?
You might be wondering: what can we do about these things?
The answer to the issue of cynicism is obvious. The others, maybe less so. But here are some initial thoughts.
Address your local representatives, state and federal. Tell them that these things are of urgent concern to you. Contrary to popular opinion, most political leaders are sensitive to what they learn from their constituents.
Find organizations committed to remedying these various issues. Shouldn’t be too hard to do. If you can Google the origins of the word “publican” or the history of spittoons in Eastern Europe, you can certainly find a group that you can support and work with. Do the work that they do. Contribute money to support their work
Third, talk up these concerns. These all are bipartisan issues. In our polarized political environment, these can be the issues that unite Republicans and Democrats.
We can’t afford to be Nero playing the violin while wisps of smoke already are rising. We can’t afford that for ourselves. And we certainly can’t afford it for our children and grandchildren.
Repair Work of Our Own
Next week, I’ll take up the question of what we might do within ourselves to be more constructive participants in this moment of American democracy. I’ll look at this quandary of political division and share thoughts about how we might participate in living with difference in a way that is respectful of that difference while maintaining our own perspective and integrity.
In the meantime . . . let’s get to work.