Barbara Mezeske: Who will be left to keep democracy going? – HollandSentinel.com
What is the bedrock of democracy?
One might say “history.” After all, history gives us the story of Athens, the Greek city state that in the sixth century B.C. achieved the first self-proclaimed democracy, though not a perfect one. Only male citizens could participate. That left out nearly 70 percent of the population, including women, slaves and the foreign-born.
History also gives us the European Enlightenment of the 18th century. That movement was as much philosophical as political, and valued liberty, human reason, tolerance and the separation of church and state. The ideas of the Enlightenment, incubated over nearly a century of thinking and writing, gave us both the French Revolution of 1789 and our own American Revolution in 1776. Still, those ideas did not yet enfranchise women, or outlaw slavery.
One might also say that the bedrock of democracy is the body of documents that lay out its principles. In America, these begin with the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Emancipation Proclamation.
One might say “the rule of law,” because without laws to constrain those who are rich, or powerful, or those who are well-born, a democratic country becomes one where might makes right. Wielding power through money, the military or corruption takes the place of widespread participation in government.
But the real bedrock of democracy are its citizens, ordinary people who embrace the idea that participation in government is the duty and right of everyone.
In our country, roughly 20 million people work for the public sector: that is, they receive their paychecks from the parts of the economy controlled by federal, state and local governments. In a democracy, such employment has always been considered apolitical. You can be a police officer, building inspector, township clerk or community health nurse, no matter your political affiliation.
On top of those who actually get paid to work for government, there are those who volunteer. These are the people who sit on community boards, who run and are elected to school boards, who man the polling places in elections. And while there is sometimes pay for these folks (i.e., minimum wage per hour for poll workers), most of what they do is uncompensated.
Here’s the point: Democracy does not exist because of actions from the top, but rather because citizens buy into the idea that they have a role to play in governing their towns, states and country. They do it willingly, and often for little reward, other than knowing they are contributing to their community.
This is why the continued conversation about the illegitimacy of the 2020 presidential election is so corrosive. Those who argue, without evidence, that all local, state and federal elections in which Republicans won were fair, but the presidential contest was somehow rigged or stolen are striking at the very heart of our democratic principles. The hard evidence of recounts and investigations cannot be set aside or ignored, just because their side lost.
Voting is the most basic way we participate in our democracy. To cast doubt on the outcome of elections — especially after the scrutiny to which those contests have been subjected — strikes at the heart of democracy.
And so do the actions of a small number of vocal and passionate people who show up at school board, county commissioner and health department meetings and try to intimidate, threaten or bully people who work for all of us — many in volunteer positions. This newspaper and others have documented the way people harass and abuse fellow citizens who make decisions about vaccinations, masking in schools and school curricula. This is an organized opposition, fueled by social media, and encouraged by some politicians.
Here’s the awful part — that really cuts away at the bedrock of democracy: If ordinary, apolitical citizens with an interest in education, public health or the voting process are dissuaded from doing these jobs — paid or volunteer — who will be left to do the work of democracy? Who will we be able to trust to be impartial in the face of scientific evidence or vote counts?
What to do? Begin in whatever small way you can — a letter, an email, showing up at a meeting, talking to neighbors — to support the people on the front lines of the battle. Don’t allow one side only to claim the headlines and rally their base.
The bedrock of democracy is all around us, but that doesn’t mean it can’t crumble away in a seismic shift to authoritarianism which finds its own history, its own documents and its own source of authority in the sheer exercise of power.
— Community Columnist Barbara Mezeske is a retired teacher and resident of Park Township. She can be reached at [email protected].