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Jim Selman Headshot

Is This the End of Democracy?

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Future historians may mark the first decade of the 21st century as the time when democracy died. And if they do, they will say that democracy died because people became so resigned and afraid that they retreated into closed and cloistered communities motivated by self-interest, ideological fervor and ignorance. History will note that what began as honest differences grew into an irreconcilable fragmentation of the body politic.

Some will make the case that it all began with the September 11th attacks on America by Islamic terrorists in 2001. That was when religious extremists and fundamentalists shifted their focus from principles and prayer to politics and power -- and drove a wedge between Americans and between America and the rest of the world. Others will say it began earlier with the end of the Cold War and the victorious "American Empire" losing its moral compass, resulting in economic excess and corruption in both the public and private sectors. Some trace the collapse of American democracy to the mid-twentieth century when a great nation lost its innocence in Vietnam, reeled in shock at the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, and witnessed deception at the highest levels during Watergate. We began to distrust our leaders, our institutions and each other. Civil discourse exploded into angry clashes and cynicism in the schools, at political conventions, in the media, and even in our homes. It continues to this day.

Whenever the demise of democracy started, it came to a head during the administration of Barack Obama, a leader whose energy and charisma galvanized moderates and thinking people at both ends of the political spectrum and offered new hope to the world that true change was possible. Soon after his election, however, his faith in America and in Americans began to be systematically and deliberately undermined by partisan extremists on both sides of the ideological divide between liberal and conservative worldviews. In retrospect, American extremism proved just as deadly and destructive to America's future as Islamic extremism was to countries in the Middle East -- they could have been cut from the same cloth. Just as cancer is a malignant growth in otherwise healthy cells that can destroy the individual, extremism is a malignancy that can destroy an otherwise healthy society.

For example, America's health care system in 2009 was all about profits -- profits for the hospitals, the practitioners and the insurers. The liberal push for reform was motivated by the fact that millions of Americans could not afford private insurance, employees were at risk of losing what insurance they had, and American health care was the most expensive in the world by a significant margin. Moreover, the World Health Organization had given the United States a moderate to poor grade for the quality of its health care system (ranking it 37th in the world). Yet, in spite of these facts (or perhaps in denial of them), the conservative extremists mobilized to destroy the liberals' proposal for reform and defended an unworkable status quo. Separation ensued, positions became entrenched and protectionism killed dialogue. Democracy (from the Greek 'demos' -- the people -- and 'kratia' -- rule or power) had been hijacked by the extremists. 'Rule of the people' became rule by some of the people -- the ones on the extremes.

The debate about health care should have been about alternative strategies for coverage, cost and quality. Instead, the ideologues, provoked by corporate economic interests and more than a thousand lobbyists and uncounted millions of dollars in paid media, turned the issue into bouts of personality bashing of elected leaders, a proliferation of inaccurate claims of what was being proposed, and an avalanche of irresponsible gossip, rumors and lies.

To some degree, this sort of idle speculation has always been a part of the democratic process and could have been relatively benign, but by 2010, it had become more than a matter of individual dissent and vigorous disagreement. It had grown to unimagined levels of hostility and rancor -- made possible in a society that had become numb to controversy, a society where individual citizens were spectators of the political process, an increasingly sophisticated society whose extremist leaders managed to inflame and mobilize an already polarized population through Internet technology. Cynics and political entrepreneurs threw gasoline on the smoldering resentments of both sides by deliberately organizing protests designed to shut down debate at the local level and shift the conversation away from the issues. At some point, people decided to stay home and returned to being spectators of the battle, rather than engaging in the process and taking a stand to stop the insanity.

During those years, many people around the world were pleading with Islamic moderates in the Middle East to take responsibility for terrorism and the political poison that had germinated there -- to censure and stop the insane rhetoric and destructive terror that it was inflaming. Yet, we Americans were not able to do the same thing in our own country -- we were unable to take responsibility for the destructive nature of our own 'political' extremists and stop their control and dominations of our 'public spaces'. I once asked a Canadian friend from Lebanon what he had learned growing up there. His answer: "It only takes a very few people to screw up everything for everyone." He might have said it only takes one bad apple to spoil the barrel.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can see how things could have been. We can see that civil wars could have been prevented. We can see that many of our cherished institutions could have been preserved. We can see in retrospect that American democracy -- for many, an "ideal" form of governance, though by no means the only form of democracy -- could have inspired compromise and goodwill instead of dividing us into red and blue camps that were no different than any of the other tribal, ethnic or ideological battlegrounds around the globe.

Resentment and fear destroy relationships at every level. They form the underlying foundations for denial and addiction in every aspect of life. When we become addicted to our points of view and become blind to the well-being of others and the system as a whole, then we pursue practices that are self-destructive until we 'hit bottom' and awaken to the fact that reality doesn't care what we think or believe. Reality is the result of our individual and collective actions and is just "what is". Our arguments about what it should be or how it got to where it is are legitimate. But at the end of the day, they are nothing more or less than our points of view. And when we have multiple different or opposing views and beliefs, the most important question is "How do we move forward?"

Democracy is an invention. It was created by European and American visionaries who saw that if power was to be shifted from a monarchy to the people, there had to be a way to simultaneously validate different points of view while aligning and coordinating collective action. While the structure and process can take many forms, the underlying principle that makes all democracies work is that each member of the democratic society can vote according to their conscience, while committing themselves in advance to support and empower the decisions of the majority. We don't have to agree to be aligned and committed to whatever policies and decisions the majority make. If we disagree, the process allows and encourages continuing discourse and debate. But if we stop communicating or kill the debate, then we have killed democracy.

Today we are on the brink. Is there still time to recover and restore American Democracy to its bare essentials -- a government "of the people, by the people and for the people"? I don't know. I don't know how we will break the death grip of institutional inertia, cynicism, special interests and corruption.

But I do know that we have to begin where we are (always) and empower those we've elected to lead us -- whether liberal or conservative.

I do know that if there is any hope we must use the system we have to change the system -- and acknowledge that the ability to do this is one of the most unique and powerful aspects of the American Constitution.

I do know that each and every one of us must individually ask ourselves if we are Americans first and foremost or if we are something else first -- liberals, conservatives, followers of a particular religious group, members of an ethnic community or political party or agents of some corporate enterprise. We are who we say we are. And if we say we are something other than members of this "American democratic community" first, then we are undermining and will ultimately destroy the possibility of this community for each of us individually and for our collective enterprise as a whole.

There are many like me who believe there is still time -- that the 'soul' of democracy is still alive in the dreams and aspirations of people everywhere. We say we must not give up our faith in each other and ourselves. If we are One Nation (whether we use the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance or not), then we must respect and honor each other and our differences. When we can no longer do this, when we can no longer be Americans first, then we will have lost our freedom (and the right) to choose our way of life and our future together. Then it will be time to bury democracy along with all the other 'good ideas' in the history of mankind that didn't work out.