There is no shortage of fear to leverage for political gain these days. There is fear literally in the air with the current surge of the latest COVID variant, Omicron. The number of guns in our schools and on our streets is a deep concern. We are seeing more extreme and destructive weather that comes with a changing climate. Racial bias harms minority communities in everything from employment to housing, and racial equity still seems far away.
But with the analyses of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol Building that have appeared in every major news source during and since the one-year anniversary passed this month, we have been made aware of the sleeping monster that overshadows all of these: the threat to our very democracy itself. For without a working democracy, there is little hope in our country for needed reform in health-care access, community violence, climate action or racial justice.
Thought pieces published earlier this month by both President Jimmy Carter – “I Fear for Our Democracy” — and longtime GOP strategist Karl Rove — “Republicans’ Jan. 6 Responsibility” – show that the fear is bipartisan. Rove calls on Republicans to “condemn the riot and those who refuse to acknowledge it” and calls out party members who, for the past year, have excused the actions of those “who violently attempted to overturn the election.” Carter worries that those who have for the past year promoted the lie that the 2020 election was stolen “continue to turn Americans against Americans.”
In the work of The Carter Center over the past three decades, Carter has seen how democracies in other parts of the world can fall to “military juntas or power-hungry despots.” If there is any organization or research institution that knows how fragile democracies can be, it is The Carter Center. And if Carter writes that he’s worried about the future of democracy in the U.S., we should all sit up and pay attention.
Democracy requires political work to remain healthy. There is a great distinction made in an opinion column by journalist Ezra Klein, in which he observes that too many of us feel being involved politically is reading news and listening to podcasts and then complaining about it on social media. He writes that real political work “is action in service of change, not information in service of outrage.”
If we are worried for our democracy, if we are unhappy with gerrymandering or voter suppression laws, we need to take action to change it. This involves making phone calls to encourage people to register to vote, canvassing neighborhoods for a candidate or a cause, seeking an appointment to an important board or commission, or even running for office.
We can also work to lower the temperature in our political discourse. I am distressed by the number of people I know who have stopped talking to their siblings or their parents because of political disagreements. We know from research and survey data that Americans are more polarized than we have been since the Civil War. This does not mean a new civil war is inevitable, but it does mean we have collectively become very bad at listening. We have become very good at name-calling and demonizing “the other” — whatever that group or category is that doesn’t look, talk, think or act like we do.
Just because millions of people voted for the other party, does that mean they are all evil? And before I get accused of “pathetic bothsidesism” (an actual reply on my Twitter feed), I do believe that one party is primarily responsible for continuing a lie that is harming our democracy — the lie of a stolen and rigged election. Even Rove admits that. But that does not mean I believe everyone who is a Republican or a conservative truly believes that lie, or that everyone in that party is evil and bent on destroying America.
It does mean that we all need to pay attention to other attempts to subvert our democratic system, such as the voter suppression laws that have been passed around the country, and speak out against them and work to overturn them. We need to ask candidates where they stand on issues, hold them accountable, and work to replace those who would seek personal power over equitable service to their communities. We need to show up for every election and vote for every office.
It also means we need to listen better to those with whom we disagree, and seek to find some common ground on which we can work together to (re)build a system that serves all of us. No one ever said democracy was easy. But if we take it for granted, and don’t work to defend it, it will surely slip through our fingers — and then we all lose.