In a 1947 speech in the British House of Commons, Winston Churchill famously and correctly observed that “it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried.”
Messy, disorganized and inefficient as it is, democratic government is one of the best things that humans have come up with in the 50,000 years or so since they started living together in civilized societies. Try as we might to come up with new systems or to recycle old ones, the merits of peaceful, participatory elections and governance keep rising to the top — especially when married to a robust set of civil and human rights.
A deep-seated commitment to democracy is, quite obviously, one of the things that has set the United States apart from much of the rest of the world for the last 240 years. We may debate strenuously whether the United States is a “great” nation in 2016 (and what is even meant by that particular adjective), but there is no denying that our experiment with democracy has been and remains remarkably successful. Ten months from this Sunday, for instance, we can all rest assured that the 45th President of the United States will be inaugurated and commence serving a four year term of office.
Has something fundamental changed?
Given this long, deeply ingrained and, for all of its imperfections, successful history, it seems worth noting and addressing the fact that a lot of people are raising questions about the state of the American democracy this year. Despite the nation’s slow but steady recovery from the brink of economic catastrophe over the last seven years, the dramatic reduction in its commitment to massive overseas troop deployments, the steady decrease in the federal deficit and many other hopeful signs, the public is agitated and anxious.
We see signs of this unease on a daily basis – particularly in the election campaigns whirling around us. In the presidential race, the debates between candidates on the Republican side have frequently descended into shouting matches. As Esquire political columnist extraordinaire Charles Pierce observed a couple of weeks ago, the closed caption on the CNN feed of a recent GOP debate repeatedly read “unintelligible yelling.”
Some candidate events have also been marked by extraordinary levels of tension, anger and even violence. Here in North Carolina, a protester at an event in Fayetteville was the victim of a shameful assault by a member of the audience and a supporter of the candidate in question. Yesterday, the Fayetteville sheriff took the bizarre and incorrect action of saying he would consider bringing incitement changes against the candidate himself.
Meanwhile, over the weekend in Chicago, a rally for the same candidate was canceled after protesters clashed with the candidate’s supporters and fears arose whether the environment for the event would be safe.
Sadly it seems safe to say that the end of such problems is not in sight. With nearly eight months still to go until the election, more conflict and high emotions seem sure to be in the offing. Some are talking openly about a negative spiral in which violence in and around political events becomes the norm.
With many Americans feeling vulnerable as a result of the rapid economic and demographic changes of recent decades and many others feeling vulnerable as a result of the threats to deport millions of immigrants, close the border and, in the despicable words of a group of disturbed protesters at a recent event, “make America white again,” the ingredients for some serious ugliness are certainly present.
The correct response from caring and thinking people
So what to do? How should caring and thinking people – especially progressives, whose very political philosophy is based in large part on opposition to hate and exclusion — respond?
Some on the left – the protesters in Chicago being a prime example – take the position that direct action and confrontation are necessary to disrupt and push back against what they see as forces of reaction and injustice. Better to challenge people they see as would-be authoritarians and mobilize opposition before things get too far down the road, goes the argument.
Unfortunately, though perhaps tempting and even well-intentioned, such an approach would be a terrific mistake if widely implemented. Rather, opponents of reaction would do much better to follow the principles of creative nonviolence laid out by Gandhi, King, Mandela and modern leaders channeling their spirits. This is from the website of The King Center in Atlanta:
Fundamental tenets of Dr. King’s philosophy of nonviolence described in his first book, Stride Toward Freedom. The six principles include:
PRINCIPLE ONE: Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people. It is active nonviolent resistance to evil. It is aggressive spiritually, mentally and emotionally.
PRINCIPLE TWO: Nonviolence seeks to win friendship and understanding. The end result of nonviolence is redemption and reconciliation. The purpose of nonviolence is the creation of the Beloved Community.
PRINCIPLE THREE: Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice not people. Nonviolence recognizes that evildoers are also victims and are not evil people. The nonviolent resister seeks to defeat evil not people.
PRINCIPLE FOUR: Nonviolence holds that suffering can educate and transform. Nonviolence accepts suffering without retaliation. Unearned suffering is redemptive and has tremendous educational and transforming possibilities.
PRINCIPLE FIVE: Nonviolence chooses love instead of hate. Nonviolence resists violence of the spirit as well as the body. Nonviolent love is spontaneous, unmotivated, unselfish and creative.
PRINCIPLE SIX: Nonviolence believes that the universe is on the side of justice. The nonviolent resister has deep faith that justice will eventually win. Nonviolence believes that God is a God of justice.”
In other words, peaceful protest? Yes, certainly. But disrupting political events for candidates or groups voicing hateful ideas – especially ones looking for an excuse to escalate things and launch a spiral of violence? Absolutely not.
A little perspective is helpful
In addition to keeping the principles of creative nonviolence in mind, those concerned about the current state of the 2016 campaign and worried that democracy is somehow in danger would also do well to remind themselves of a little American history from the not-so-distant past. Indeed, speaking of Martin Luther King, Jr., the year 1968 springs to mind.
In that terrible year, the unrest and conflict that occupied the American political scene makes 2016 look like child’s play. Nineteen sixty-eight was a year of a murderous and pointless war, assassination, massive protests, burning inner-cities, a police riot at a national political convention, and a national election that delivered 45 electoral votes to an explicitly racist, segregationist hatemonger. The man elected President would resign five years later as a disgraced obstructer of justice and, in the minds of many, a war criminal.
In 1968 or even 1972, news of a sucker punch thrown at a presidential candidate’s rally would scarcely have made the news in the community in which it occurred, much less national headlines. And still, somehow, the nation and its political system survived.
In other words, sure, things are unpleasant right now. There is an ugly and often destructive tenor to some of the national political debate and there’s no doubt that the nation stands at a difficult juncture. With the increasingly stratified economy, widespread global conflict and existential environmental threats, the need for smart and aggressive public action is urgent.
That said, it’s helpful to keep a measure of perspective when wading through the screaming headlines, email chains and social media posts that inundate so many of us. The truth of the matter is that while the 2016 campaign is certainly raucous and chock full of conflict and disturbing ideas, it is not and will not become a threat to our democracy — especially if caring and thinking people keep their heads and bear in mind Churchill’s timeless admonition.