Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once remarked, “The only title in our democracy superior to that of president is the title citizen.” Dubbed the “People’s Lawyer” and the “Robin Hood of the law,” Brandeis played a pivotal role in shaping U.S. privacy law and dedicated much of his career to combating inequitable concentrations of corporate wealth in the U.S. economy. Despite his powerful position as a justice in the highest court in the land, Brandeis believed that citizens were the backbone of the United States and needed to take their role seriously.
In the 243 years since its formation, our nation has seen radical shifts in society, culture, politics, economics, science, and technology at home and abroad. America’s foundations — based on our core democratic values of life, liberty, and justice — have not only endured but also supported those changes. Even in the face of intense opposition and seemingly hopeless setbacks, the ideals of equality, cooperation, and human rights have continually prevailed and established the United States as a symbol for hope and freedom around the world. In spite of our many faults, we have always been a nation of progress and forward momentum.
In recent years, though, the United States has found itself divided in curious ways. Americans’ trust in their own government has fallen to near-historic lows, as has their trust in the media and even in each other. A creeping paranoia and a discordant mob mentality have swept from right to left and back again, and — perhaps more troubling — participation in the democratic process has fallen to alarming lows.
In the 2016 presidential election, voter turnout dropped to a 16-year low with a paltry 61.4% of voting-age citizens casting a vote for the future of their country. On the left, scores of op-eds, articles, blog posts, and comments began to appear online accusing the United States of being a sort of absurdly failed state, declaring democracy “over” and comparing the country to the fictional state of Gilead. On the right, a gratuitous fear-based moral panic over gun control, illegal immigration, and abortion became a disquieting epidemic. Some elected officials even publicly made false, scientifically impossible claims to try to sell anti-abortion legislation to an outraged public. Those whose political leanings fell closer to the center were rendered voiceless, relentlessly attacked for not being enough of something — although that “something” depended heavily upon who had offered the critique and was, generally, little more than normalized radicalism.
As Americans continue to sit out elections while schismatically criticizing the democracy they refuse to participate in, as elected officials continue to put our national security and sovereignty at risk by hesitating to cross party lines on election security, as our nation continues to embrace the conspiratorial disinformation campaigns of governments that have sought to destabilize Western society for over half a century, and as citizens and leaders alike continue to disregard government-led investigations that prove — beyond a shadow of a doubt — foreign interference in our electoral process, we have no one to blame but ourselves.
Today, Americans of every walk of life seem keen to acknowledge that their society has gone off the rails, happy to wax philosophical about how it all happened but rarely eager to admit their own part in it. In the midst of our gluttony for sensational news and divisive punditry — in the midst of convincing ourselves that our own clan is the only “good” one and our own gut is the only thing to be trusted — we have scornfully disregarded our duty as citizens. We have forgotten that democracies do not become great — nor do they remain great — because of a single leader or political party, but because citizens have worked together to make it so.
To be sure, America’s record as a moral authority for the international community has been tarnished by inhumane family separations, shameful rollbacks on important environmental protections, and an undeniably flawed criminal justice system — all significant problems that can, and must, be fixed through bipartisan efforts. In spite of our failures, being American has never been about being inherently perfect but rather our continual endeavor to right our wrongs. There is, in fact, no nation on earth that has not made grave errors in the past, and which does not have blood on its hands. Despite our many faults — both past and present — we cannot fix what is broken, nor can we create a better future for our children and grandchildren, in silence with our backs to each other and hatred in our hearts.
In his inaugural speech on January 20, 1961, President John F. Kennedy addressed a splintered nation. “In your hands, my fellow citizens — more than mine — will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty.” In the same speech, he warned, “United, there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided, there is little we can do — for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.”
It is true that since our nation’s founding, whenever Americans have decided to work together with their eyes fixed on the future, incredible things have happened. As far back as 1787, party lines were crossed in the Great Compromise, which established fairer representation in our electoral process. Since then, many of the United States’ most noble and significant achievements have occurred only because of bipartisan cooperation. These shining moments include the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the Food Stamp Program of 1977, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and so many others.
When we abandon our shared identity as Americans, we leave the door cracked for a pernicious kind of chaos to sneak in. More than anything, divisiveness and polarization are the greatest threats to democracy anywhere today, creating dangerous individualized realities that render progress impossible. As changes in digital algorithms and social media continue to transform our world into an even more contentious web of disinformation and bias-confirming echo chambers, we must learn to look into the eyes of others and find ways to hear each other out. We must teach ourselves to work together even when we do not agree, even when it does not match our preferred narrative or image.
As new questions about the president’s involvement with Russia — and now Ukraine — bring us nearer to impeachment, and as the next presidential election quickly approaches while federal investigators brace for the impending dangers of further foreign interference, it is again time for Americans to ask what we can do for our country. No matter which party we belong to, no matter our race, gender, age, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or religion, it’s time to set aside our fears, differences, and prejudices to show up for our country. E pluribus unum — out of many, one — united by our shared democratic values and our nation’s long struggle for freedom.