Old joke: An old fish and a young fish pass one another. The old fish says, \”Fine water today, isn't it?\” The young fish replies, \”What's water?\”
This, I have learned in hundreds of hours of focus groups, is how many Americans think about democracy-or better, don't think about it. Democracy is the system we've, and have inherited, but most in our experiences with any of the alternatives are extremely remote that we view democracy because the default state. As something which just is.
That isn't to say that Americans don't think about politics. Oh, do we. Probably more than is helpful. We have, as a people, some pretty out-there opinions and preferences and expectations about politics.
But mostly when we think about politics, we think about the results we want. These choices often framed in terms of personalities. Certainly, this phenomenon isn't limited to the United States: Jeremy Corbyn, Boris Johnson, Bibi Netanyahu, Emmanuel Macron-the list of personalities more or less define political divides in democratic societies is long and various.
Sometimes the results we want are framed less people, but as policies: higher taxes or lower taxes, more environmental regulation or less, strong national defense or retrenchment. Maybe having policy preferences is civically healthier than having preferences merely for several individuals over others. Or maybe character is destiny and policy is transient, so choosing the better person is the way to go.
I'm unsure myself and your mileage can vary.
But either way, with all the time we spend considering politics, very little of it is devoted to the most important part of our liberal tradition: process.
This hasn't always been so. Lincoln appreciated the greatest challenge to American democracy may be \”a new birth of freedom.\” Keenly aware that the founding generation passed away off in the 87 years between the Declaration of Independence and his address at Gettysburg, he called on the new generation of Americans \”to be dedicated here towards the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.\”
Subsequent presidents, in moments of crisis, echoed the sentiment. Woodrow Wilson called on Americans to \”make the planet safe for democracy.\” In response to the Great Depression that triggered societal collapse in other countries, Franklin Roosevelt offered Americans a New Deal. With Harry Truman listening on, Winston Churchill declared \”a solemn moment for American Democracy\” in the Iron Curtain speech. Taxation, in his farewell address, warned of waning desire for American democracy and called for a renewed \”informed patriotism.\” Around the evening of September 11, 2001, George W. Bush first described the terrible attacks on \”our life-style, our very freedom\” before mentioning the \”airplanes and offices.\”
At such moments-moments when democracy was threatened, under siege, attacked, or rotten-presidents and statesmen have reminded the public that the preservation of democracy should always be our chief political aim.
As the Constitution puts it, to \”secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.\”
Rallying Americans 'round the flag of democracy has never not worked.
And yet, this time feels different. Like our social media-soaked brains and collective attention deficit disorder won't let us focus long enough to recognize-let alone work to resolve-the danger from the moment.
In a new essay, Olivia Troye explains at length how great a threat to democracy the radicalized Republican party is becoming. Not quite four months ago, a mob of normal American citizens-driven by a lie concocted and spread by their elected leaders-succeeded in performing what neither Robert E. Lee nor Osama bin Laden could ever: Sacking the Capitol and forcing the elected representatives of the American people in Congress into hiding.
We are, yet again, at a moment of democratic peril. Just because the siege of the Capitol on January 6 ultimately failed in its goal of overturning a free and fair election doesn't mean the danger has passed. Our freedom and self-government they are under threat from domestic authoritarian cults in tacit-if not enthusiastic-alliance with foreign despots who desire that the world's oldest democracy succumb to corrupt populist autocracy.
Not quite 4 months ago, more than 140 people in Congress objected to counting the Electoral Votes of the free and fair election. Perhaps a number of them are dim enough or deluded enough to think that the votes were illegitimate. But when anything, that's the best-case scenario. It's even scarier that some people in this group knew that there was no legitimate reason to object to counting the votes, but voted to overturn the election anyway.
And yet, 3 months later, we're debating corporate tax rates, Dr. Seuss, and trans bathroom access, like nothing ever happened.
American democracy is under attack. And not in a metaphorical, or a philosophical, or perhaps a spiritual sense.
Our democracy is under attack, legitimate, by a large portion of a major political party which seeks to utterly transform the connection between the government and the governed.
It's time starting acting like it.