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Can Democracy be Saved?

When I was a Peace Corps Volunteer teaching English in Thailand, I took advantage of my time there to provide a window into American culture. I shared pictures and stories from home and told about our customs, holidays, sports, and even politics. It wasn’t rah-rah Americanism, but a way to connect with people from different backgrounds. I hope that my students, now in their 30s, recall something about American life and have an overall positive view of the US. I know I feel that way about Thailand.

In making our cross-cultural journey, my fellow volunteers, and others like us, somewhat idealistically felt that we were peacetime soldiers, spreading goodwill and values—and hopefully providing insight into the principles of freedom and democracy. Of all the exports that the US has to offer the world, these are the most precious; Americans have historically felt that we are the vanguards and keepers of democratic principles.

How sad, then, to hear that millennials today seem to be “losing faith in freedom”, increasingly skeptical of free speech, and wary of even democracy itself. This is symptomatic of an overall trend away from democracy, one that is related in part to Donald Trump—but only in part. The plague goes deeper. We have met the enemy, and it is us.

For one thing, as a recent article in The Atlantic pointed out, Americans believe less in public schools than we did just a few years ago. Putting aside the educational arguments around charter schools, private schools, and vouchers, the greatest value of American public education has been to create American citizens. This value is not about test scores, or math and English skills. It goes beyond even social studies and civics education. Rather, by attending public schools, American children have learned to be around those of different backgrounds, while American parents have had their closest exposure to direct advocacy and democracy.

Support for public schools is not a political position; Republicans and Democrats alike have an interest in an institution that has been a bedrock of our society and that has nurtured most of their voters. But the more that this system is fragmented, the more we create multi-polar sets of educational organizations, the less we will come together when we disagree. The trend line of dwindling support for democracy is only likely to increase when fewer and fewer children go through the rigors of public education.

I said this was only partly about Donald Trump, but here is where he comes in—bigly. The President is not comfortable with democracy and does not speak its language. It is not only that he fails to recognize the undemocratic nature of his minority presidency and governs only to the segments of the country that constitute his “base”. It is not only that he seems unperturbed by foreign influence in our elections and those of other western democracies. It is not only that he has spoken against the rule of law, free press, objective truth, and free speech, all of which are necessary to sustain a democracy.

It is that we let him do it. The enemy is us.

A recent broadcast of the radio show “Fresh Air” described how Josef Stalin, clearly one of the most undemocratic and illiberal leaders of the past century, orchestrated a famine in the Ukraine that killed roughly four million people. The guest, Anne Applebaum, a Washington Post columnist and co-director of a think-tank that seeks to combat disinformation, described some of Stalin’s strategies. One thing he did, with brutal effectiveness, was to turn citizens against each other by blaming the richer peasants for the poorer peasants’ plight. This tool should be familiar to those of us who’ve watched populists in Europe, US, and Latin America—on both the right and the left—inspire your "base" by instigating anger against perceived enemies (immigrants, minorities, and political opponents).

In listening to this interview, it wasn’t hard for me to make the connection between Stalin’s propaganda campaign and those conducted by Vladimir Putin in Russia today. Whether we can make a direct link from Putin to Trump is still an open question and currently under investigation, but it seems evident that our President seems enamored with strong arm tactics and strategies of division. It is harder to imagine him making a full-out speech in favor of democracy than one in which he lauds dictators while scapegoating political outsiders.

In life, it is easy to take a present-oriented view and assume that what we have will certainly last into the future. But our country’s 241 year experiment in democracy is not an inevitable march to progress, and there are many historical and current examples of democracies and republics sliding back to authoritarian rule. I wonder if we are now at an inflection point, a phase when citizens’ belief in our system is flagging at the same time that certain leaders are ready to exploit that vulnerability.

How, then, do we get back to an ideal in which people share and promote belief in democracy, true freedom, and free speech? It’s not so easy to change our political leadership, but we can take action ourselves. One commonly offered suggestion is to get involved locally, by joining a community or advocacy group That’s surely a worthy suggestion. Here are three other ideas:

Be an advocate for public education. If you are a parent with young children, send them to public schools. And once there, become active, through the parent association or other group. If your kids are no longer of school age, read up on education in America and set the record straight for others. Of course, there are many things that need to be improved, but American public education has made remarkable achievements—taking in all students, including new immigrants and children with disabilities—and binding us all into a somewhat coherent civil society across 50 states and multiple municipalities.

Expose yourself to opposing viewpoints and consider losing a debate with the other side. In my case, I sometimes read The National Review and The New York Post, and also check out opinions of school choice, pro-charter, and pro-voucher educational reformers (views generally different from mine). Consider the points your opponent makes. Engage with an opinion that differs from yours and engage in a mental debate—and if you lose, that’s even better. It shows you are thinking and willing to consider the other side.

Nurture your inner artist. Visit galleries, museums, plays, musicals, and concerts. Find a show or exhibition that is edgy and provocative. Don’t be perturbed if it is controversial. As citizens, we need to allow such art to flourish, because only in a true democracy are these types of work allowed to exist. You don’t see cutting edge art thriving in dictatorships.

During my Peace Corps days, my fellow volunteers and I had a national curriculum that middle school English teachers were supposed to follow. We didn’t do so. Instead, we taught an English that was more practical than the stilted form found in outdated Thai textbooks. Moreover, we supplemented this by designing and teaching lessons on HIV/AIDS, which was a looming crisis at the time. Hopefully, one of us got through to at least one 13-year-old, who later used this knowledge to protect him or herself from disease. Maybe not. We will never know.

But the cost of inaction on our young Thai students was frightening to us and inspired us to take matters into our own hands. Today, we face a similar situation as citizens. Is the loss of democracy a scary enough proposition? I think it is. If enough people agree, we can take the small steps available to us. Or we can do nothing. If we choose the latter, I am afraid we will look back years later at a time when our golden chance to sustain our democracy sadly slipped away.

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