BEYOND | Democracy and the Fight for Civil Rights in America
On September 17, 1787, as the delegates departed from the Constitutional Convention, Ben Franklin was asked what kind of government we have. Franklin responded, “A Republic, if you can keep it”. These words have never been truer than they are today. Over the past few years, our Democracy has been rocked by instability, attacks on our Constitution, and one party, of our two-party system, that has been taking an extreme lurch towards totalitarianism. Reflecting upon Franklin’s words, one wonders, did he ever envision this is where we would be today? With our democracy on a worrisome trajectory, created in part by the same people who are sworn to protect it, these words are more salient than ever. But maybe, just maybe, we could modify one of Franklin’s words to fit the current state of affairs. Change his response to “a Republic if we can keep it” – we the people, that is.
Many of us wake up every day, go about our lives, and never once think about the system of government that holds this country together, taking this country we live in for granted. While it is by no means the shining beacon on the hill that many of our older generations yearn for, it still remains a temple of democracy worth protecting, fighting for, and changing to be better, fairer and more equal for all. After all, our Constitution states that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” But the America we live in today is far from better, fair or equal and we have a lot of work to do before it can honestly be characterized as such. We the people, that is. For in this country, we have the power of our vote – the most important right of any American, and one that is under a staggering assault by one of the parties in this duopoly of power within our government.
In Federalist 61, Alexander Hamilton decried the nature of “factions,” what we have come to know as political parties. He stated that they were “the most fatal disease” of any government. For historical context, it is important to recognize the concerns that our founders foresaw with political parties, or as they called them, factions. In Britain, factions had led to multiple bloody civil wars, during the 17th century, and a failure of the government to be able to govern. The founders feared the mindset of factions and the deleterious effects they could have on our fledgling democracy. As I sit here today, writing, I understand their fears so personally. They were not unwarranted, but instead prophetic as we can see in the duopoly that exists in American politics, and furthermore the deterioration and loss of morals that has occurred in the Republican party specifically.
There are so many worries about our democracy today. From conspiracy theories that gaslight the gullible to the culture wars fettered in discrimination and hate to the never-ending assault on our right to vote to the attack on our public education system to the serious and disastrous issues in our criminal justice system to the refusal to provide real equality for everyone in this country to the very real threat of insurrection we experienced just this year – the country is in a very precarious position with no clear solution in sight. Despite all our problems, the scariest one is the problem within: the problem of one party that will do whatever it takes to get their way, while another party tries to play the game in a moral and ethical way, not seeing the danger right in front of their eyes. We the people must keep paying attention. We must make our voices heard, for that is the only true power we have in this democracy.
Real change does not happen overnight, a fact that none of us enjoy but is a reality, nonetheless. The long game is hard, it is defeating, and requires true tenacity and grit. Currently, there is no fight more important than the one for our democracy. And while many people may write off what is going on as “more talk from Washington” or “just politics,” I cannot tell you how wrong that is. Those that wish to destroy our democracy are hoping you will not pay attention. In this way, you make their job easier, allowing no accountability and no one to decry what is going on. As mentioned earlier, so many of us take our system of government for granted, as many other failed democracies did before us. Is this where you want to see your country? I can certainly say, it is not the direction I hope for. We are living in a post-truth world, making the fight for what is right and true never more important.
I can only imagine a world where our democracy does fail, and where the party lurching towards totalitarianism ceases power in a coup. This is not a country you want to live in. This is a dark dystopia where equality is a forgotten word and hate is the prevalent currency. A country where a minority forces their beliefs on the rest of us, where the separation of church and state is no more, and where our civil rights are curtailed greatly. A nation where someone like me could find themselves unable to marry the person they love, where my trans allies are refused medical care, where my friends of color are denied their ability to vote, where women are denied autonomy of their bodies completely. It could even go further, maybe even akin to the illustrated dystopia we see in The Handmaid’s Tale. This is a scary, but not so foreign, possibility. And it is closer than many might think. In fact, it is closer than ever in American history.
As a Jew, I know how dangerous ideologies can be. People commonly forget the Holocaust, which was a horrific genocide that killed an estimated 6 million of Europe’s Jewish population, in addition to another 5 million gypsies, homosexuals, communists, Slavs, black people, physically disabled, Jehovah’s witnesses and religious dissidents. This event of mass extinction did not just happen overnight. People did not just wake up one day and Hitler had killed 6-11 million people. It happened over time; a calculated and methodical removal of rights followed up by a messaging campaign that enabled German people to think of Jews as second-class citizens and then many years later the rounding up and mass executions of my people as part of “the Final Solution of the Jewish Question”. And while Nazi Germany is a far cry from where we are at the moment, this history serves as reminder, demonstrating how a slippery slope can lead to horrific outcomes.
But it is not here yet and there is so much we can do. We must fight for our democracy, our rights, and our hard-won battles for equality over the past 70 years. We must push back, stand up and be heard. For this is the only power we the people have and we must exercise it. The only way we will see the better world we wish to live in is if we are to believe in it, build it and fight for it. The forces against us will deter and resist every step of the way but we must not let them win. We must find the inspiration of our founders to fight for the preservation of this 245-year experiment in democracy. I promise you, none of us want to wake up one day and wonder what more could we have done to save our democracy?
In these divisive times, full of animosity and hate, we must come together in this fight if we are to be successful. We need to learn how to talk to each other again and not just past each other. Until we can learn how to come together for something far more important than any one issue alone, we will be in a losing position. It is up to us to determine the future of this country and continue to push and fight for the civil rights and equality of all, but we will not be able to do that without democracy. We need to take our power back and vote people of integrity into office – people who are going to live their oath, and not people who will bend to the will of a narcissistic ideologue because that is the way the political winds are blowing. We must stay involved, in every election, not just the Presidential years. We must fight at all costs for the right to vote for everyone. But most importantly, we must stop taking our democracy for granted.
The power is in your hands. You are the future of this country. The Peter Parker (Spiderman) Principle states, “with great power comes great responsibility,” and there is no greater responsibility than our civic duty to be involved in our representative government. You possess a great power: the power to vote, a right that people in many other countries have literally fought and died for. Never underestimate the power of your vote, your voice or your rights as a citizen of this great democracy we are fighting for every day. The reality is, Donald Trump was a wake-up call and there will be more. Except the next one, may not be so blinded by ignorance and egotism to cause their own self-destruction.That person may be perceptive, calculating and knowledgeable of all the painful flaws which exist in our democracy, taken advantage of by the previous administration.
As Martin Niemöller, an anti-Nazi German Lutheran priest imprisoned in Dachau concentration camp, so eloquently articulated: “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.” Our future is not set in stone, we are the makers of our own destiny, but we must speak out, we must stand up and we must fight for the rights we are owed. We the people are the last line of defense for our democracy and if we want to live in this better, fairer and more equal country, then we have to fight for it before it is gone.