Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Are we Taking Our Democracy for Granted?

The question: “Are we taking our democracy for granted?” has been on my mind for a long time. It’s been the topic of a few articles in the past several years in the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, the LA Times and it was even the topic of a warning from departing President Obama shortly after the election of Donald Trump.

We do seem to take things for granted that surround us, especially the things that seem to have always been there. There is light when we flip the switch. There is drinkable water when we turn the spigot. There is bread and milk at the neighborhood grocery store. Of course, there are exceptions to these conveniences. The people in Puerto Rico lost their “light switch convenience” when hit by Hurricane Maria. The people in Flynt, Michigan lost their drinkable water convenience when it was decided to divert acidic river water into the metropolitan-wide drinking water system to save money. And the people who live in areas designated as “food deserts” in urban areas of the wealthiest country in the history of the world do not have convenient access to fresh food and vegetables because of “market forces.”

Many affluent American suburbanites take these things for granted because they have rarely if ever suffered from more than a temporary debilitating blizzard. Three feet of snow can literally stop civilization in most of the country. So, instead of getting stressed-out most of us look at the snow storm as a two-day holiday, shovel the snow out of the driveway and get back onto the county-government-plowed roadway and get back to our life. We take it for granted that the road will be clean before we get the driveway shoveled. And we do this because, most times it is. We take it for granted.

So, as of 2018, Americans before us have invested 242 years into building this country. We have built cities, railroads, industrial complexes, a highway systems, air traffic systems, shipping ports, the internet, public education systems, a wealth of scientific knowledge, the largest military industrial complex the world has ever seen, and our democratic institutions that hold it all together. These governmental institutions defend individuals against large organizations. They defend us against the invasion of foreign armies. They defend consumers against the vast power of huge corporations. They allow us the freedom to learn and communicate. They defend those who look out for their neighbors against the impact of criminal behavior. The most important of these institutions is our broad acceptance of the words and ideas within the Declaration of Independence, which recognizes that we were all created equal and The U. S. Constitution that we can usually depend on for the legal system it defines, setting the ground rules by which we should all live.

The democracy that we now take for granted sprouted from the two seeds that these documents represent. We can continue to lean on these words and ideas if we elect people who respect our institutions and keep them strong or make them stronger. But, at the current moment it looks as if the people who were elected in the 2016 election are disassembling the very institutions on which we depend. We should be outraged by this, making noise and mobilized to do something about it. (Yes, in some cases we are. I've seen some powerfully vocal women wearing pink hats while marching, on my TV.) We need to keep reminding ourselves that the government of this great country is not those who we elect to office, but “We the People.” I am a citizen. You are a citizen. And, our elected officials are citizens. They are not better than you or me, they are (only, or at most) equal to you and me. Granted they are in powerful positions, but that power is temporary if we elect to remove them from office.

Even though we, as citizens, were all described as equal at the writing of the Declaration of Independence, we still have not achieved that total realization. There are many examples of the expansion of the right to vote to include those who were originally disenfranchised: women, people of color, men who did not own property, and any citizen between the age of 18 & 21.

And, at times even when some who granted the right to vote were barred in other ways through intimidation, through the requirement of paying a poll tax, by being required to read, or by holding “White Only” Primary Elections. Citizenship was unequivocally granted to African Americans in 1868 with the ratification of the 14th Amendment but, the underhandedness of segregationists in power during the post Reconstruction period slowly and steadily implemented “Jim Crow” laws to interfere with the liberties of Black folks to vote and hold office which then interfered with the rights of assembly, accommodation and education.  We have much to learn, as citizens, about the ebb and flow of attaining civil rights and losing them to those hostile to the concept of equality. (The Strange Career of Jim Crow by C.Vann Woodward  is a good place to start if you need to catch up on this history.)

C. Vann Woodward writes in The Strange Career of Jim Crow about the great advancement that African Americans made during Reconstruction. Many voted and some held public office. Then came the backlash, the Redemption period. Many whites were angered by the freeing of the slaves. The vast majority of Americans—Northern and Southern—remained very prejudiced toward Blacks. Southerners saw themselves as “redeeming” the South by regaining power over the South, which they had lost at the conclusion of the Civil War, to the “Scallywags” (who were Republican Southerners who supported the policy of Black emancipation) and invading “Carpetbaggers” (who were Northerners who came to the South after the Civil War) who imposed their culture of government over the Southern United States. This was a time in which gained rights were completely erased or simply pressured into submission.

The Second Reconstruction was the time between the end of WWII and 1960. During this time grass roots civil right activists eroded the power of the Jim Crow Laws. Their effectual end came with the Brown vs. The Board of Education ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. This ruling made “separate but equal” (established by the Plessy vs. Ferguson Supreme Court ruling in 1895) an illegal and unacceptable idea within the educational system. The ruling, however, did not take complete effect, however until 1969 when the U.S Supreme court decided the Alexander vs. Holmes County Board of Education ordered immediate school desegregation across the nation, fifteen years after the Brown vs. The Board of Education ruling.

School busing then became the flame which set fire to those who resisted total school integration. In 1972 Boston exploded with anxiety over a court ordered school busing decision. 

The point to this bullet-point history is to expose the sign wave of attainment and loss of civil rights. Many people learn history as it is taught in high school and college where the gains are taught by liberal-minded academics as achievements and the regressions are taught by the segregationist (White Supremacists) as achievements.

This back and forth still occurs. But, we no longer have the luxury of believing that people of color have only made advancements. We can no longer think that LGBT people have “made it” because of the achievement of marriage equality. With the election of Trump, the repeated stories of sexual misconduct and now stories of spousal abuse coming out of the White House and the refusal of other prominent individuals in the Republican Party to criticize the offenders make it obvious that the push back against women’s rights is alive and real. Not only did Hillary Clinton fail to break the Glass Ceiling, but men who disrespect women are trying to push them back down the ladder. With the obvious intention of subjugating them to a lower status.

The first and strongest way to build the third Reconstruction is to vote. We will lose our democracy if we sit back and whine that “my vote does not count.” We can no longer allow the cloud of disenfranchisement to let us complain without action that “there is nothing I can do.” We must work together. We must use Transformative Campaigns  to empower those in our community that feel disenfranchised because we have much work to do.  We must empower as many voters as possible.
We must protect our right to vote and ensure it is always counted. Because, although the U.S. Constitution protects our right to vote, it does not grant the right that that vote will always be counted. This was a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Gore vs. Bush ruling after the November 2000 election.

Other Supreme Court decisions have added to the erosion of the value of our vote.

The 1976 decision – Buckely vs. Valeo was a case about campaign finance. The Supreme Court’s decision was to strike down the limits on expenditures by candidates or other groups (read corporations). 

The 2010 Citizen’s United decision - The Supreme Court’s decision was to establish two primary points, that “money is speech,” and the legal notion that a corporation has at least some of the same legal rights as a natural person. (Remember Mitt Romney’s statement: “Corporations are people too.)

We must stand up for our retention of our right to vote in the same way that we fought for that right initially. We must recognize that this too is a vigilant process. With the gain that businesses have made with respects to their “rights,” the rights of natural persons have been eroded. 

Have we become complacent to this slow erosion? Have we allowed our exhaustion with the pressure of defeat to push us into a place of not voting? Have we become lax in our sense of community?

We can turn this around by voting, by encouraging others to vote, by becoming certified to register others to vote, to develop relationship with nonvoters with whom we talk endlessly about how we can win if we get all of our neighbors to vote, about volunteering to drive the to the poles in order to get them to vote. Yes, I’m talking to you. We need to stop placing all our trust in others. That’s what we do now and it’s not working. As citizens it is our responsibility to get the government to work better by BEING the process.