Monday, January 21, 2013

Dare We Still Believe in Democracy?

Idealism (noun) 1. the pursuit of high or noble principles; to represent things in an ideal form, as they might or should be rather than as they are             
--American Heritage Dictionary

Is American democracy on life support? Or is there yet some hope for our sometimes battered but still standing 236 year old republic?

In 2013 it is sorely tempting to look at Washington, D.C. and conclude that democracy just might be broken, that our elected leaders are no longer able to govern us effectively, and that the citizenry is too cranky and selfish for its own good. Gridlock abounds and is now seemingly the norm.  America is more split along ideological lines than at any time since the Civil War.  Partisanship pounds away at any efforts for compromise. Money rules in political circles.  Politicians stagger from crisis to crisis, so often postponing the hard choices, unable to make any kind of resolute decision.

If I was cynic I might draw all those conclusions and even begin to write a eulogy for democracy. But I can’t, not even with so much evidence to the contrary.  For you see I’m a sucker for democracy and the spirit of idealism which undergirds it.

Idealism: as Robert F. Kennedy so eloquently described this civic virtue: "Some men see things as they are and say, 'Why'? I dream of things that never were and say, 'Why not'?" Idealism is, quite simply, hope.  For better days to come. Better ways to be discovered.  Better spirits within each of us.  A promised land.  Not there yet but always courageously pushing ahead.  Sometimes stumbling but tenaciously forging towards tomorrow.     

And so perhaps the real struggle in our nation these days is not about politics.  Not about red states versus blue states.  Republican against Democrats.  Liberals lambasting conservatives.  Tea Partiers taking to task  Maybe the real tug of war is for the soul of America and whether or not we as citizens still believe that democracy works.  Still believe in the best motives on the part of our fellow citizens.  Still believe that a people, given radical freedoms, can find a way to govern themselves and achieve the highest good for the greatest number of people. Still believe, in the words of President Obama, that our best days are yet to come.

Do you still believe in America?  I still do.  Sometimes that belief is kind of corny. So yes I tear up when I watch veterans march in a Memorial Day parade, especially the older ones who proudly embrace the service they gave to their country.  I get a lump in my throat when a choir of elementary school youth sings “America” at a Martin Luther King Day celebration and know these kids actually believe that the dream is still alive. I get the chills when I walk into a voting booth and have the privilege to cast my ballot in privacy and safety, knowing that millions of others would die for that gift. I get a little twinge of satisfaction when I send off my quarterly state and federal tax payments, knowing that in writing those checks I’m doing and paying my fair share.

Do you still believe in America? I know I did again this week when I witnessed the inauguration of Barack Obama to a second term as the President of the United States, and on Dr. King’s birthday too!  What would Obama’s forbears, who just 152 years ago were shackled in the chains of human slavery, think of such a civic miracle?  Could such a revolution have taken place in any form of governance other than democracy? And no doubt, sooner than later, it will be a woman who takes that oath.  Freedom is sometimes slow in coming but it cannot be stopped.  No room for cynicism here. 

Do you still believe in America?  I heard that echo of American idealism in the movie “Lincoln” and the eloquent words President Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural address.  The nation lay in tatters.  Millions dead. Hundreds of thousands wounded and refugees.  Cries for revenge filled the air and yet, in idealism and hope, he dared to give America this charge.  “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

So yes, I’m guilty. I do still believe in America and the promise of American democracy.  It is messy.  It is a perpetual work in progress.  It is a grand experiment.  It demands idealism as its lifeblood.  Cynicism may be chic, may sell newspapers, may even feel good somehow in a warped way, but cynicism is a cancer in the body politic. 

Do you still believe in America?  I’m willing to take that idealistic leap.  Will you? 


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