voice for democracy

Tim Stevenson | Living with the Long Emergency: On being a democracy of democratic virtue – Brattleboro Reformer

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Updated: October 2, 2021 @ 6:54 am

When a democracy has to depend on the rule of law to secure at least a modicum of the virtuous behavior it requires from its citizenry in order to be true to its vision, you know it’s in trouble. A democracy only realizes a truly democratic presence of, by, and for the people to the extent that we are engaged with one another in ways that consistently express and reflect the moral values that underpin a democracy. As James Madison, one of the architects of our Constitution, argued, it was “chimerical” to believe that any form of government could “secure liberty and happiness without any virtue in the people.”
In order for the ideals of our Declaration of Independence — “that all men (sic) are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of happiness” — to be real, these sentiments cannot be simply legislated and policed. Ultimately, they must be lived by the citizens, for they are values of the heart which only manifest when expressed unconditionally, without coercion, in our everyday relationships and interactions with one another.
Nowhere is the sad state of our democracy more strikingly evident today than in the voting rights legislation that has had to be introduced by Democrats during the current Congressional session. This is in response to the voter suppression legislation that 18 Republican-controlled state legislatures have crafted and passed in an attempt to stifle the votes of Democrat constituencies, particularly those of Black and brown Americans.
The consequence of the Big Lie invented by the former President that the 2020 election was stolen from him by fraud, this is but the latest instance of the utter corruption of the Republican Party and its abjectly cynical effort to destroy what remains of our democracy through the perversion of its centerpiece: the vote. In this way, the GOP is continuing its efforts of at least the past 30 years of trying to establish minoritarian rule, and doing so by adopting the weapon of choice employed by many autocratic regimes in the world today, the manipulation of democracy against itself.
Notwithstanding our 4th of July chest pounding rhetoric to the contrary, American democracy has always been a faint shadow of the real thing: just ask most women or people of color. As a nation that was created through slavery and genocide — crimes against humanity that continue to resonate with and contaminate present-day policies and practices toward African- and Indigenous-Americans — our actual state of democracy barely resembles those words found in our Declaration of Independence. Rather than reflect the everyday experiences of all people, the document has largely been a declaration of rights privileged by white males only.
While not the incipient fascists that Republicans have become, Democrats are only relatively better than Republicans. We need to take advantage of this difference, of course, as we did with the election of 2020, and go with the lesser of two evils for defensive purposes. But at the same time we must keep in mind that, albeit the liberal wing of the ruling class, the Democrats are not the real deal when it comes to the true interests of working, BIPOC, female and other marginalized Americans. Given our perilous state, however, it is essential at this moment to support efforts by the Democrats in Congress to beat back voter suppression laws, and fight like hell to defeat the likely Republican treachery in 2022 and 2024.
Most importantly, however, it is the responsibility of all of us who have allowed a distinctly undemocratic political system to rule us to now transform ourselves to a true democracy. This is vital to negotiating life in the long emergency. The moral flab that has been metastasizing, my friends, throughout the body politic from the very beginning must be exorcised. While not easy, we have no choice.
We do this, however, not by picking up the gun as some of our fellow citizens are doing, or otherwise trying to force the rest of society to conform to our vision of democracy through undemocratic acts, but by being a living democracy through everyday behaviors that express the values of a functioning democracy. We’ve got to be the democratic people we’ve always claimed to be, living the words of the Declaration in our homes, neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, communities, highways, and towns.
Is this too idealistic in these polarized times? Perhaps. But nothing less will do. More to the point, we are potentially capable of this behavior, not just as an occasional act, or when it’s expedient, but as an everyday, moment to moment practice, regardless of the circumstances. We can be these people when we are true to the good people we inherently are. Being a citizen of democratic virtue— actually living the spirit and letter of our Declaration of Independence — is the only way our democracy can survive and possibly thrive during the long emergency.
Tim Stevenson is a community organizer with Post Oil Solutions from Athens, and author of “Resilience and Resistance: Building Sustainable Communities for a Post Oil Age” (2015, Green Writers Press). The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.
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