President Lincoln said of American democracy that we could "nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope on earth."
Sure, we've nobly saved it many times—most famously through a Civil War costing over 600,000 American lives, but we've also worked our way through economic depression, two world wars, street protests, political corruption, presidential impeachment, and our share of demagogues.
Now the question is whether we are meanly losing our democracy.
It seems so. Look no further than vindictive social media posts, people screaming at town halls, the implosion of congressional proceedings, redistricting battles, tech companies like Facebook and Twitter agnostically allowing hostile nations to sow citizen division, or Republican Congressman Steve Scalise being gunned down while practicing for a charity softball game.
"Economist" magazine does an annual rating of the world's democracies on sixty criteria and their data shows that the United States has dropped down from the category of "true democracy" to "flawed democracy" starting in 2015, largely because of our distrust of elected officials.
It's exhausting. Every day we are subjected to the same cycle of untruths and insults hurled by leaders and citizens alike, with the resulting drivel endlessly dissected by the media. Thoughtful discussion of public policy solutions to make life better for Americans seems almost happenstance.
Our long-standing ignorance of our democratic institutions (44% of the public cannot properly explain the Bill of Rights according to one poll) is blending with rising levels of political incivility to create volatility.
Happily, our democracy is resilient. The Founding Fathers drew from the Enlightenment's focus on reason, science, and tolerance to create a new type of regime in the history of the world. It mixes together popular sovereignty, majority rule, separated and shared powers across three branches of government, and protections for individual citizens vis-a-vis their own government.
But democracy is not guaranteed. Every generation must earn its continuance. Lincoln said this so plainly in the Gettysburg Address: Any nation birthed in the ideals of liberty and equality must constantly work to realize those ideals.
...government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
President Abraham Lincoln
The cure for what ails us seems easy: simply better manners or increased humility about the wisdom of our political opinions.
But what if better manners and respect don't surface? Must we await a cataclysmic event to reunite us as Americans, like former Speaker John Boehner worrisomely suggested might be necessary?
The answer must be no. We must actively seek out solutions, realizing that we have it in our power to fix this, rather than acting like we're helpless characters in some dystopian novel.
So what do we do? As individuals, stay calm, insist on appropriate conduct, contact politicians and convey that expectation, and vote. Read novels because they teach empathy for others. Dish out low-key moral reminders of appropriate conduct; it's been shown to be effective in pushing people to be more virtuous, at least in the short term. So is being a role model who inspires others.
Embrace complexity. Thomas Jefferson kept an African-American mistress and owned slaves; he also penned a Declaration of Independence that clamored for more freedom and self-rule than the world thought possible. Reality is complicated. Twitter is 280 characters.
Getting outside our self-selected social media echo chambers is more than a good idea—it is now a civic responsibility.
Congress can take steps. It can change its constitutional oath of office so its members swear to act responsibly and collegially, in the best interests of the republic (think of this as a moral reminder). It can simply ban "one-minute" partisan speeches at the start of the legislative day when each party vents at the other. Congress could experiment with campaign finance reform or even public funding of elections to bust this madcap mess of members fundraising all of the time, and all over the country, to raise money to fund simplistic attack ads. Or here's a simpler idea: quit with going home all of the time to run for reelection, but instead stay on Capitol Hill doing your job (more than the average 139 days per year). Start getting to know one another and one another's families. It might diminish diatribes.
The courts could continue to negate the political art form of gerrymandering. It has helped to eradicate centrist voices in the House of Representatives by eliminating swing districts. Citizen commissions could take over drawing electoral districts in all fifty states.
Other solutions exist. We can teach more civics so that citizens better understand that democracy is predicated on moderation and compromise, or more information literacy, so citizens reject the claims of the manipulators. Realize that when you forward or like junk news, you unwittingly become a pawn for attacks on fellow citizens and democratic institutions. Facebook and Twitter are scrambling, but their efforts are insufficient; they can be pressured more through regulation or anti-trust legislation to tamp down violent and misleading content and to close the accounts of bad actors. For too long they have escaped regulation as the communications companies they are, rather than the tech companies they pretend to be.
Prefer less legislation? How about congressional hearings or a blue-ribbon citizen panel that investigates basic truthfulness in American radio/cable news—not to regulate them, which would smack up against the First Amendment—but simply trying to shame the worst of the lot into acting more responsibly.
The solutions tossed out here are surely not the only ones, nor necessarily the right ones, nor easy to implement. My point is simply that we can change our national conversation from the daily drivel we now experience to individual actions and serious public policy solutions that, if implemented or even seriously considered, could help drive meaningful change.
After saying we could nobly save, or meanly lose, our democracy, Lincoln added this: "the way is plain, peaceful, generous, just—a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud." Our political leaders should take a page from that book.
Matthew C. Moen, Ph.D.