Democracy’s demise and the rise of civic duty

Scanning the horizon of Lake Constance last evening, I was reminded that I spent five formative years of my life here. It was on this lake that I learned about democracy, pursuing a master’s degree in political science and literature at the University of Constance. I dedicated an entire year to writing my master’s thesis on the peaceability of democracy, traveling as far as Washington, DC to conduct research at the U.S. Library of Congress.

Back then the Internet was a DOS-based tool, green lettering against black screens. No handheld device could regurgitate a bit of information (or misinformation) with a fingertip tap. I took my time, allowing the information to sink in, happy to have found a subject so interesting that I would eat, sleep and breathe democracy for twelve months. Democratic principles seeped through the very essence of my being. Heck, it even informed how I chose to parent my kids. No room for autocracy when building the self of another.

But now, as a woman in the midst of life, I search the horizon for that hopeful time when my life still stood before me only to realize that democracy is as fragile as life itself.

Steven Pevitsky and Daniel Ziblatt recently penned a thorough book entitled How Democracies Die. Taking a historical and contemporary look at existing democracies and their failures, the authors guide the reader through the principles of institutional forbearance (observing restraint based on unwritten laws) and mutual tolerance (political parties seen as rivals, not enemies). They warn about the great paradox of democracies: “…the very defense of democracy is often used as a pretext for its subversion,” (page 92). One need only look to Hitler’s rise to power, attained through democratic means.

The authors also run through the ways in which Donald Trump has systematically dismantled democratic principles, labelling any perceived rival as an existential threat, much like Russian’s President Putin, Venezuela’s President Ch├ívez or Turkey’s President Erdogan have. Trump’s corrosive behavior toward democratic norms is alarming. And yet the authors claim such corrosion has indeed been on the rise for decades.

Its origin can be found in the evolving partisanship between the two major political parties. The Republicans’ obstructionism during Obama’s eight-year administration sealed the deal. The party’s inability to keep Trump off the ticket was the final nail in the coffin of current American democratic institutions.

Twitter tirades have become the norm. Outright, provable lies are seen as predictable. The authors cite social scientist and New York’s Democratic senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan in a statement he made in 1993: “Humans have a limited ability to cope with people behaving in ways that depart from shared standards,” (page 200). Later they go on to nail the current dilemma. “Unwilling to pay the political price of breaking with their own president, Republicans find themselves with little alternative but to constantly redefine what is and isn’t tolerable.”

Uh oh.

I could continue to cite this brilliant book, but I leave it to you to grab a copy and plow through the helpful insights it contains. The bottom line is that it is up to us to bridge the divide that has festered within our hearts. While political party affiliation used to be a minor consideration, today it has become a label of who we are and what we stand for. It is time for us to reclaim our entire selves because we weren’t born a Democrat or a Republican. It is a choice.

We can choose to live civic lives. To be kind to strangers at tram stops. To go the extra mile to ensure our fellow citizens and residents feel safe and cared for. We can fill places of worship with what is good in this world. We can engage in daily brain training to focus on three positive things in one minute. To make gratitude a habit. To put away our differences and pull up those struggling.

We all have a personal bank account of time. It is limited and most of us do not know when the gig is up. We can choose to spend our days lamenting or spend them loving.

Yes, my friends, we truly can.

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