There is no shortage of fear to leverage for political gain these days.
Fear hangs in the air with the rapid spread of the Covid-19 Omicron variant. Charlotte’s homicide rate, though lower last year, was still too high. We are seeing more extreme and destructive weather that comes with a changing climate. And racial bias harms minority communities in everything from employment to housing, and racial equity still seems far away.
But with every new analysis of the Jan. 6 violence that overtook the U.S. Capitol, we are made aware of a sleeping monster that overshadows all of these: the threat to our very democracy. For without a working democracy, there is little hope in our country for needed reforms in healthcare, community violence, climate action or racial justice.
Recent opinion columns written by former President Jimmy Carter (“I Fear for Our Democracy”) and longtime GOP strategist Karl Rove (Republicans’ Jan. 6 Responsibility) show that the fear is bipartisan.
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Rove called on Republicans to “condemn the riot and those who refuse to acknowledge it.” He called out the Republicans who, for the past year, have excused the actions of those “who violently attempted to overturn the election.”
Carter worries that those who have for the past year promoted the lie that the 2020 election was stolen “continue to turn Americans against Americans.” Through the work of the Carter Center over the past three decades, the former president has seen how democracies in other parts of the world can fall to “military juntas or power-hungry despots.”
If there is any organization or research institution that knows how fragile democracies can be, it is the Carter Center. And if President Carter writes that he is worried about the future of democracy in these United States, we should all sit up and pay attention.
Democracy requires political work to remain healthy. There is a great distinction made in an opinion column by Ezra Klein, where he observes that too many of us feel that being involved politically is reading news and listening to podcasts and then complaining about it all on social media. He writes that real political work “is action in service of change, not information in service of outrage.”
If we are worried for our democracy, if we are unhappy with gerrymandering or voter suppression laws, we need to take action to change it. This involves doing things like making phone calls to get people to register to vote, canvassing neighborhoods for a candidate or a cause, seeking an appointment to an important board or commission, or even running for office.
We can also work to lower the temperature in our political discourse. I am distressed by the number of people I know who have stopped talking to siblings or parents because of political disagreements.
We know from research and survey data that Americans are more polarized than we have been since the Civil War. This does not mean a new civil war is inevitable. But it does mean that we have collectively become very bad at listening and very good at name calling and demonizing.
Just because millions of our fellow Americans voted for the other party, does that mean they are all evil? And before I get accused of “pathetic bothsidesism” (an actual reply on my Twitter feed), I do believe that one party is primarily responsible for continuing a lie that is harming our democracy – the lie of the stolen and rigged election. Even Karl Rove admits that. But that does not mean I believe everyone who is a Republican or a conservative truly believes that lie, or that everyone in that party is evil and bent on destroying America.
To preserve our democracy, we all must pay attention to dangerous attempts to subvert democratic system — such as the voter suppression laws that have been passed — and speak out against them and work to overturn them. We need to ask candidates where they stand on issues, hold them accountable, and work to replace those who would seek personal power over equitable service to their communities. We need to show up for every election, and vote for every office.
But preserving our democracy also means listening to those with whom we disagree and seeking to find some common ground on which we can work together to (re)build a system that serves all of us. No one ever said democracy was easy. But if we take it for granted and don’t work to defend it, it will surely slip through our fingers – and then we all lose.