I’ve felt a sense of foreboding building up for days. I thought it was a flare-up of COVID anxiety (sadly, routine). But I finally realized it was dread looming in the lead-up to the anniversary of the Capitol insurrection.
I’ll never forget January 6, 2021. My kids and I were huddled on the couch, mouths agape, as we watched the deadly attack play out on live TV. A violent mob, acting at the behest of the defeated president Donald Trump and his political supporters, stormed the Capitol in an attempt to subvert the election of the new president, Joe Biden. We witnessed the end of the peaceful transfer of power in real time.
I haven’t written much publicly about my 2016-2020 political activism. I was focused on local organizing and collaborating with volunteers, and most of my writing was private, directed toward that community.
Briefly: After the 2016 election, my friends and I were fearful about where our country was headed so we got involved. We formed a local community group and together we lobbied our representatives, peacefully protested, and got out the vote. We firmly and non-violently engaged with our political system.
I respect people who use our political process to advocate for their beliefs. This includes people of integrity who hold different political views. I don’t agree with them, but I respect their right. I recognize that functioning democracy requires all of us.
What we witnessed on January 6, 2021, wasn’t advocacy or protest. It was a violent attack on the foundation of American democracy.
Democracy isn’t about agreement. It’s about engagement. Meeting in the arena of ideas and policy, playing by an established set of rules to debate those ideas. It may be a discussion, it may be an argument, it may be a rhetorical brawl, but everyone follows the rule of law.
That’s the ideal. In practice, democracy is messy, inequitable, and, in some cases, broken. There’s dirty politics, dirty money, cronyism, self-dealing, and propaganda. There’s apathy, ignorance, racism, and egotism. This has always been so.
American democracy was also founded by imperfect people, in concert with slavery, genocide and forced relocation of people already living on this land. This is our history. To pretend otherwise is to dishonor our country and all those — past, present, and future — who call it home.
But surely the response to America’s faulty democracy can’t be to throw our hands up — if we do we risk losing our democracy altogether. No matter what one’s political stripe, surely “preserving American democracy” is something on which most of us can agree. Right?
Surely we value our right to vote and have it fairly counted?
Surely we value our free press, our right to gather and speak up, our right to advocate for things we believe in?
Surely we want those rights and freedoms for our kids? For their kids?
America’s not perfect. American government is not going to be perfect this year, next year, or in 2024. But right now, it’s sliding into something unfixable.
Respected leaders from both parties are sounding the alarm for American democracy. They have been for some time, but these calls are taking on greater urgency. Read President Jimmy Carter’s New York Times opinion piece, “I Fear for Our Democracy” (gift link for non-subscribers).
It sucks that American democracy is in jeopardy during a global pandemic. But it is.
If we want American democracy to continue, imperfect though it is, we must be willing to love it more than we hate the other team. I’m befuddled as to how a sports-obsessed nation doesn’t get this. We must love baseball more than we hate the Red Sox (no offense, Boston, I’m trying to make a point).
(To repeat, I’m talking about engaging with people who disagree with my position but agree on the rules of engagement. I am NOT talking about legitimizing people who are trying to break the system with propaganda, or to disenfranchise or harm me or other groups of people.)
The thing is, we’re exhausted. We’re grief-stricken. We’re struggling to make ends meet, send our kids to school, and keep our parents safe.
But there are small things we can do — now — to reinforce our democracy. We’re exhausted, but we’re not powerless.
- Practice kindness as a foundational value and a powerful tactic.
- Differentiate between people who hold different political opinions and those trying to disenfranchise, lie to or injure people. Engage with the former; oppose the latter.
- Take a breath before popping off. Vitriol and cynicism spread like wildfire.
- Use your platform wisely. Stop amplifying the most outrageous people and messages.
- Stay open. Keep coming back.
These things may seem idealistic and overly simple, but in fact they’re foundational. These are the building blocks of communication, and we must use them to fortify our democratic system against those attempting to break it. Because once it’s broken, it’s done.
Talk to people. Engage. Discern. You don’t have to become a political expert. But you have a responsibility to take action. We all do as participants in a democracy. We don’t have to do these things perfectly, but we have to start somewhere.
There are a million ways to do it. Look to your local civic organizations for guidance. Or start by talking to your family, friends, and co-workers. Make art that communicates your values. For more guidance, read The Lightmaker’s Manifesto (affiliate link) by my friend Karen Walrond. This book will change how you relate to the world.
If you’re a Republican voter who fears for American democracy, you’ve got it hard. You may feel conflicted and have skeptical friends. The Lightmaker’s Manifesto is non-partisan and shows what quiet- and even silent activism can look like. If you prefer, listen to the audiobook (affiliate link) — Karen’s grounded, calming voice will help you stay grounded as well.
You don’t have to do this alone; you multiply your impact when you join up with others. Gather friends in a “Democracy Club” and discuss the book together. For more about Democracy Clubs, read my op-ed in the Oregonian.
Let’s love our democracy enough to stand up for it.
Photo credit: Karen Walrond