How to Protect and Improve American Democracy (in Five Steps)

After the Insurrection of 1/6, many shocked politicians repeated the phrase “This is not who we are.” 

I heard the phrase so often that it began to irritate me: It seems to me that, clearly, the event itself took place, and all agree that our country is riven by divisions. Misinformation is pervasive, and the insurrectionists were deeply convinced they were right. Trump built up to this stunt with four years of behaviors straight out of the authoritarian playbook. And for four years, millions of Americans accepted his behavior, and thousands of elected officials, who should have known better, supported it. And in the days leading up to 1/6, the Capitol Police apparently clung to the race-biased assumption that a predominantly white mob, though infected with white supremacists who had been cyber-organizing for weeks, couldn’t possibly require as much security as a BLM protest.

So, it may be more honest, and more constructive, to tell ourselves that, in Ibram X. Kendi’s words, “what we saw at the U.S. Capitol is part of us. That is who we are. It’s not all of us, but it’s part of us.”

That admission can motivate us to accept how crucial it is to healing and improving our country’s very political culture. It will be a complex, long-term process, and I humbly propose the following five steps:

First, let’s recognize and name authoritarian behaviors as soon as they manifest, and denounce them in unanimity. And that means studying the rest of the world far more closely. The majority of the world’s population live not in healthy democracies but in authoritarian states or dysfunctional democracies with authoritarian-leaning leaders. People who know those countries recognized the tell-tale signs of Trump’s authoritarian streak early on: stoking fear and hatred of perceived enemies, using dog-whistling to make people conflate political differences with racial ones; filling the air with so many lies it becomes impossible to counter them all; intimidating political opponents with obnoxious character assassination; accusing your enemies of exactly what you yourself have perpetrated, in order to deprive their accusations of rhetorical power; convincing people that their own institutions are hopelessly corrupt and therefore untrustworthy. Too many Americans were untroubled, or even joined in, when these Trumpist-authoritarian tactics began with his campaign in 2015. We must not commit that mistake again. 

Second, the persistence of political dog-whistling and hate groups show that anti-racism, anti-gender-bias, and anti-heteronormativity initiatives are not only essential but need to expand beyond cities and elite institutions like ours, and into other parts of America. But it must be recognized that many Americans view these initiatives, wrongly, as shame-based, vindictive cults: a fear that Trumpist politicians throughout America leveraged for electoral victories. So, I propose strategizing about how the positive, nurturing, and community-building nature of anti-bias work can be enhanced and made more widely understood, in order to get buy-in from more Americans and disarm the reactive fears.

Third, let’s admit that having just two major political parties has poisoned our political culture, and let’s promote the growth of a multi-party system. Our two-party system encourages ideological conformity by pressuring politicians to uphold their party’s approved list of stances, rather than act according to their knowledge and wisdom. It exposes every politician to shaming from the other side for the actions of fellow party-members with whom they have no actual association. It incentivizes crude, bipolar combat among politicians, which citizens adopt and mimic in their own lives. In the press, it allows intellectual mediocrities and extremists to take advantage of “balance” and “equal time” doctrines to get more media coverage than they deserve and claim immunity from moral denunciation. A multi-party system, on the other hand, diversifies and enriches political discourse and would encourage the collaboration and coalition-building we need to move our country forward. 

The two-party system will be a tough dragon to slay, but it could be weakened over the course of a few decades, using a combination of campaign-finance reforms and electoral reforms like ranked-choice voting. Such initiatives have already been taken in towns across America and a few states, including Alaska and Maine. Those initiatives should be supported and expanded upon.

Fourth, students should demand, and teachers should teach, media literacy far more comprehensively. Keeping well informed is ever more difficult in today’s media environment. It’s not just that hoaxers and conspiracy theorists have more elaborate tools to keep their followers swimming in oceans of lies. Even “legitimate” news sources peddle in Junk News: insubstantial, misleading summaries of events; facts devoid of historical perspective; stories built around he-said-she-said quotes taken out of context in order to shock and attract clicks. Like the Dark Side of the Force, Junk News is easier to obtain, quicker, and more seductive than rich, factual analysis, and it keeps readers addicted to outrage while giving them the illusion of being well informed. Let’s call out our news sources when they serve up junk, and let’s demand better.

The fifth recommendation is personal, and it happens to be my New Year’s resolution, so I’ll express it using “I” statements. The 1/6 Insurrection was a culmination of four years of fear and hate stoked by the president and his enablers, but those hateful feelings are ultimately the responsibility of the Americans who harbor them. Trump made me mad, but my anger is my responsibility, and mine alone. So, I can do things to lower the emotional temperature in myself, and then help lower it when I’m with others: I can reflect on whether my intake of news makes me fall too easily into the rabbit hole of rage addiction. I can stop myself from contributing to misinformation by repeating rumors or mischaracterizing events. I can choose to connect with others more often person-to-person, and less often online. I can listen to others more actively and digest their words more carefully before I speak, or even choose not to speak. I can remember that the goals of expressing outrage and persuading others often conflict with one another, and I can temper my speech accordingly. I can be willing to hear criticism and take it to heart (as I am willing to hear anyone’s criticism of this piece). I can commit to arguing respectfully with others when I must, and compromising and working with them when I can. I can accept where other people are at in their intellectual journey, and not judge them because they’re in a different place than I am. I’m going to work hard on these things. Want to join me?

A healthy democracy is more than holding elections, and even more than a set of practices. It’s a culture. The last four years have taught me that protecting and improving America’s democratic culture is – along with racial justice, gender justice, and climate justice – yet another of the great challenges of our time. And like those challenges, we can meet this one if we name it, understand how it intersects with the others, and commit long-term to vanquish them all.

Dr. Dillon is a history teacher at Grace Church School.

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