American democracy is still an experiment. In the history of the world, 236 years is not a very long time, but a good start. Democracy is always a challenge and a risk, but I think it is still worth the struggle. My fear is that we lose sight of the big picture as we devolve into demonizing our disagreements, or more aptly, those with whom we disagree. The media does not help matters by mass producing and promoting only the most extreme viewpoints, leaving us to wonder – it is just me? Am I the only one who doesn’t see issues as strictly ‘red’ or ‘blue’ but shades of purple?
Democracy is difficult – it was designed that way by those that established the system (who by they way, were not unanimous). It was meant to have checks and balances, to inspire dialogue and debate, to require that we keep talking, learning and broadening our understanding of all positions before adopting a decision. Parker Palmer, in his book Healing the Heart of Democracy says,
“Protecting our right to disagree is one of democracy’s gifts, and converting this inevitable tension into creative energy is part of democracy’s genius. Government ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people’ is a nonstop experiment in the strength and weakness of our political institutions, our local communities and associations, and the human heart. Its outcome can never be taken for granted.”
This process is not fast or efficient and therefore, does not seem to fit into our fast-paced, ‘getter done’ 2012 mentality. This morning, I heard a Chinese commentator, represented as the “English voice of China’s State TV,” call American democracy “a sweet notion.” I hope that is not all we are, but the more we whittle away at the greater premises of our ideals, the more perhaps we will become just a fairy tale.
The vehement polarization and derogatory language being used about opposing political positions is perhaps the most disturbing developments in our system. Social media has provided a wide platform for this behavior, where many will voice opinions in such a way that they would never say to someone in person (cyber-bullying for grown ups?). Among my own Facebook network, I am happy to say that I have ‘friends’ that hold political positions from the far right to the far left and every point in between. I am not happy to read the hateful, disrespectful words and opinions accompanied by video clips and pictures packaged as “truth,” from people that I have known for years to be loving, kind, reasonable individuals. There is just something, particularly at this time of year, that seems to turns healthy passion into a raging monster from which we need to step back and take a breathe. I will not “de-friend” you because we do not agree. All that does is halt communication, disabling conversation that might help me better understand your issues and for you to see the very personal, high complexity of mine. Thomas Jefferson, certainly one who understood the heat of disagreement at the founding of this country said, “I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend.” We need to keep a calm perspective on what is important.
In the non-cyber world, this eclectic spread of friends makes my life rich and interesting like a beautiful Pointillism painting (Think Georges Seurat or Vincent van Gogh). Up close, it appears to be just a collection of tiny dots of varying colors, with the image they aim to depict completely indistinguishable. At a mid range, the picture begins to take shape, but with all the edges blurred. It is not until we stand back, at a great distance, that the content becomes sharper and the real beauty and meaning of the composition becomes clear. Likewise, it is through all the individual contributions these friends make to my life, one-on-one, that I continually challenge my own beliefs and evolve my understanding of the how we can build a more collaborative and compassionate community, let alone country.
I do not believe that one candidate or political party can wholly represent anyone’s every belief and desire. Individuals as well as governmental, economic and social systems are just too complex. We may abhor one party’s social platform, but believe fully in its economic ideas or like a candidate as a person, but not agree with the ideals of the party that he/she is expected to move forward. Choosing for whom to vote is not an easy decision when considering all the nuances and far reaching consequences that may follow, but casting a vote is critical to the continuation of democracy. I am reminded on each election day, of how many people gave their lives (figuratively and literally) for our right to vote, to participate in our future, as well as how many others around the world do not have this authority. Many are still dying to gain this right that we so easily take for granted.
At perhaps the most polarized time in our history, Abraham Lincoln became the 16th president of the country and presided over a horrible civil war. We can take his example for dealing with the deepest of divides, where he refused to split North and South into good guys and bad guys – everyone had paid a heavy price for their beliefs. As in Lincoln’s second inaugural address, delivered on March 4, 1865, a month before the end of the Civil War, when he called for malice toward none and charity for all, we can see that only in this way could a healing begin. This was not a new thought, calling for reconciliation when a win for the North seemed eminent. Remember Lincoln’s words in his first inaugural address in 1861:
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
In the Allegheny College Survey of Civility and Compromise in American Politics (2010), the findings indicate that 95% of Americans believe civility in politics is important for a healthy democracy and 87% suggest it is possible for people to disagree about politics respectfully. It brings me some measure of comfort to know I am not alone in my opinion that disagreement is not the enemy, and that it is possible to respect each other even when we completely oppose a position.
Democracy is difficult. Get over it and get on with it – inviting “the better angels of our nature” to lead the way through this messy, complex, important democracy that, I think we can all agree – we love and would loathe to loose.