If you are watching the attacks on US democracy closely, it’s a bit shocking. Basic elements of the US Constitution and a functional democracy are attacked on a daily basis. There are attacks on an independent judicial systems, attacks on independent media (which is essential to provide societal checks on political power — Thomas Jefferson said it was more critical than government itself), attacks on individuals who express different viewpoints, and attacks on free speech and the idea of discussion at all.
Federal judges are being nominated with no trial experience and seemingly just because of personal connections and the ideologies they subscribe to. FBI directors and special investigators are attacked on a personal level just because they are investigating potential crimes of people and the political party in power. Anytime the media digs up particularly damaging materials about a member of one party, they are labeled “fake news.” They are sometimes bashed as “fake news” at the same time that the political figure is complaining about leaks, basically confirming a mere seconds later that the news is not fake at all.
The political head of the United States is siding with dictators of various stripes and going against alliances with the most democratic nations on earth.
It’s easy to think, “hey, this is all just because ‘the other side’ is absolutely crazy, a bunch of idiotic enablers voting against their own well being.” That is tempting, superbly tempting. But it misses some bigger breakdowns, a bigger cancer of our democracy.
Democracy relies on the citizenry (at least, a decent portion of the citizenry) being informed and engaged. The engagement part is often brushed under the rug — hey, as long as people vote, that’s good enough, right?
Engagement is one of the most critical ways that the citizenry becomes informed. It is discussion of viewpoints, cooperative uncovering of information, and sharing of relevant and useful information that leads to large groups of people understanding the same thing.
An op-ed in the New York Times yesterday highlighted this point as well, but I think it fell a bit short by emphasizing only that more civic education is needed in public schools. Sure, that’s a sort of important foundation — people need to learn how government works, what different systems entail, the pros and cons of different core elements of our political system, and the roots of various political theories and ideologies.
However, as we all know, it’s far too easy to let that stuff come in one ear and go out the other. What is really critical is that those discussions not end. Discourse about government, politics, and policy must be a core part of any functional democracy.
It is extremely common to say that one shouldn’t talk politics — politics and religion are the two items that are off the table if you want to have a civil discussion, right? But that’s precisely the problem. We should try to discussion these things. We should become accustomed to having discussions about these topics with enough of an open mind that we acknowledge other people can retain their viewpoints if they so choose. If we can’t discuss politics and policy, we can’t learn together. And if we can’t learn together, we end up in unproductive silos and ideological wars instead of ideological progress.
Every time we turn off and say that we can’t discuss politics because we or someone else might get too mad, we contribute to a cancer on our democracy. Much of the population can’t name one of the three branches of government precisely because they and others spend their lives trying to avoid the topic of politics.
It’s super weird to me that many people view the government as evil, because a democratic government is a government of the people. Sure, we don’t have a pure democracy and there are problems related to corruption, inefficiency, etc., but it is still our government and we are jointly responsible for making it better or not. We are jointly responsible for how good or not it is. If we say that we don’t want to have anything to do with it, we are saying we don’t want to have anything to do with ourselves, with this societal element of ourselves. We are conceding our democracy to whoever is trying to rig the system.
We can’t just attack people with opposite views. We have to engage with them. If we give up on engaging with them, we are contributing to their ignorance.
In simpler terms, we have to talk. We have to talk policy, politics, and government. Keep it civil. Try to make it interesting. But don’t give up on the overall discussion.