I started to write this op-ed column about six different times.
With the 4th of July approaching, it was going to be about our democracy, but then the Supreme Court struck down a common-sense New York gun law.
I thought about commenting on our heavily armed society and the power of the National Rifle Association, but then the Supreme Court delivered its opinion striking down Roe vs Wade.
Then it was going to focus on the erasure of 50 years of progress for women’s equality, until the police in Akron, Ohio, killed a fleeing Black suspect with 60 bullets.
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I thought about our heavily armed society again – and our paramilitary police and the racism inherent in our institutions. But then the Supreme Court ruled against the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate carbon as a pollutant.
I next considered writing about the existential threat of climate change, and how that ruling could subject everyone on the planet to more extreme weather and suffering. But then an angry, young male opened fire with a high-powered rifle on a crowd of families celebrating Independence Day in Highland Park, north of Chicago, killing seven people and injuring dozens more.
The news in recent weeks has been devastating on every front.
Most of those developments can be traced to policy decisions made by our elected representatives, so that brought me back once again to democracy.
Ours does not seem to be working. What President George Washington once called “our great experiment” is teetering on the brink of failure.
We know from public opinion data and research that most Americans support common-sense gun laws, a woman’s right to choose, racial equity, improved training for police and federal action on climate change. So why is our government of the people not producing the desired results?
Because our political system has become a zero-sum, winner-take-all game.
Spreading disinformation (what we used to call lies), exaggerating (or inventing) a candidate’s accomplishments, crying “fraud” even before an election has happened, intimidating voters at the polls, funneling millions of dollars into attack ads through PACs that hide the donors, all of this is dismissed as “electioneering.” It is gamesmanship. But if democracy is merely a game, we all lose.
There is plenty of blame to go around. We could blame the counter-majoritarian structures like the U.S. Senate, the filibuster, and the Electoral College – which several times has produced results that do not mirror the popular vote. We could blame campaign finance laws, or those who stay home when it comes time to vote. We could recount the centuries of racist and sexist laws and practices that have produced economic winners and losers, resentment, and income gaps too great to overcome even over several generations. We could blame gerrymandering, the lack of national referenda, the lack of term limits or the structure of the Supreme Court.
But like that famous Pogo cartoon of 1970 that helped publicize the first annual celebration of Earth Day, “We have met the enemy – and he is us.”
Too many of us have lost our willingness – or our ability – to hold our government and our politicians accountable. Even though we know partisan ads tell half-truths and sometimes outright lies, we still listen to them.
Even when we believe that a candidate has reprehensible and unethical behavior, many of us vote for them, maybe simply to get lower taxes or because we thought the other candidate was too “arrogant.”
We do not take time to read up on each candidate, or at least not enough to get past the “D” or the “R” after their name on the ballot. And too many of us swallow conspiracy theories, hook, line and sinker, without trying to find different sources or fact checking or even questioning if the conspiracies seem plausible.
The good news is that there is still time to reinvigorate our democracy. We are not an authoritarian system or a monarchy or an oligarchy – yet. We can write and speak our opinions openly, and join with others in peaceful protests. We can research information on candidates and ask them to sign on to the basic principles of democracy listed on the website of the Coalition for Trusted Elections.
We can call out intimidation and violence and take a stand against it. We can call out misinformation and lies when we see them and when our fact checking confirms they are false. We can share our findings on social media. We can write, email, call, and ask to meet with our elected officials. We can write op-eds and letters to the editor, and we can support independent journalism, which still has the ability to seek out truth.
These are just a few of the options still open to us.
Yes, a functioning democracy takes work. But if we do not take the time to invest in that work now, we may soon find our choices and freedoms even more limited. And when we realize then what we have lost, it will be too late.