Kathy Walters: Tend to the garden of democracy
Are we losing our democracy? Three weeks ago, at the Economic Club in Chicago, former President Obama cautioned of the possibility when he spoke of a divided population falling prey to those offering “simple solutions” and how “things could fall apart quickly.” His words of advice were: “Don’t take for granted the institutions, values, and norms that we’ve built…you have to tend to this garden of democracy.” Then, referencing the rise of Hitler in Germany, he went on to describe a distant image —Vienna ballroom, late 1920s, society luxuriating in arts and science, many people confident their lifestyle would continue into perpetuity — and only a few years later 60 million people died.
Hearing that, I felt intense fear and sadness. For me, as a child, the notion of democracy had felt like the air we breathe – amorphous, eternal and invincible. But like many of us, I grew up thinking democracy was simply “the rule of the people.” Thus, to hear democracy might be at risk, when our right to vote and regular elections seems so unlikely to fall to the wayside even in spite of our political climate, what else is there that might be failing?
Some have said China’s economic rise has undermined our confidence in our democratic system. Others believe lobbying, special interest groups, and partisan point scoring all create the impression the rich are more powerful than the poor and America’s democracy is for sale. And many blame social media as the culprit for paradoxically weakening instead of strengthening democracy.
Often we turn to social media when we’re agitated and insecure, seeking simple answers and a tribe to bond with. Facebook might temporarily soothe our insecurities but in truth it only creates a self-perpetuating loop: the more we believe simple answers, the more we stick closer to our tribe, and the more agitated we become. Or as John Gables explained in his recent TED talk “Free Yourself from the Filter Bubbles,” “there is too much noise on the internet – too many people, too many ideas – so we use technology to filter it out. And what happens is it lets in only people and popular ideas we agree with so we then become more extreme in our beliefs and less tolerant of anybody who’s different from us.” Which, of course, means we might more easily and strongly want to disagree.
But that’s a good thing because to say “I disagree” or “you are wrong” that’s what makes our democracy real. Given that, then what might truly be failing?
In “The Dying Art of Disagreement” (Sept. 24, 2017), Bret Stephens, offers this suggestion. He says “to disagree well you must first understand well. You have to read deeply, listen carefully, and watch closely. You need to grant your adversary moral respect; give him the intellectual benefit of the doubt; have sympathy for his motives and participate empathically with his line of reasoning. And you need to allow for the possibility that you might yet be persuaded of what he has to say.”
It was with those words I knew why my notion of a democracy had always held a more amorphous and invincible quality. It’s not simply the government acting in the interests of the many or systems which allow people to choose their rulers. Nor is democracy just a set of agreed upon values like tolerance, diversity, human rights, free speech, and pursuit of a common good. For me, democracy also includes an open, vulnerable experience with another human being. Like a conversation where we each discover, though we have different viewpoints, we’re delighted by the similarity of our underlying values and surprised to find we might just be able to compromise on a few of our beliefs.
Maybe at this year’s New Year’s eve party we could heed Obama’s advice and instead of assuming all is well, strike up a conversation with someone we don’t know and ask, “if I say the word ‘democracy,’ what comes up for you?” Given time, maybe that’s how we best tend to this garden we all share.
Kathy Walters is the mother of a teenage boy. She works for Kirkwood Mountain Realty and lives in Gardnerville.