Winston Churchill said the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.
More than two centuries ago, the French diplomat Joseph de Maistre said, “Every nation gets the government it deserves.” Nowhere is that more accurate than in a democracy.
I have given those quotes a lot of thought over the past year. From a deteriorating planet to a disrupted international order to dangerous and violent ideologies, we are surrounded by no shortage of serious challenges. From within, however, we face two real threats to a healthy democracy: first, the uninformed or disengaged voter, and second, a breakdown in the separation of power between independent branches of government. In a democracy, true power lies in the hands of the people — but only if we fulfill our responsibilities of citizenship, for only we can hold our representatives accountable.
Over the life of our great country, progress has been made only when ordinary citizens fought for change over a sustained period of time. From ending slavery to winning suffrage. From Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts to the Affordable Care Act. From upholding a woman’s right to choose to legalizing same-sex marriage. Each of these efforts, and so many more, bent the long arc of the moral universe toward justice. Each of these battles was messy — some were even bloody. And all of them started not in the halls of government, but in the homes and hearts of ordinary citizens. Through their persistence, our union became more perfect, more equal, more fair, and more just. And we became a shining example of democracy — forever imperfect by nature, forever improving by design — for the world to see.
None of us can afford to take this progress for granted. The responsibilities of citizenship mandate engagement. They also require an informed appreciation for the essential role of government in our daily lives. For it is we the people who make our government what it is. If we abdicate our responsibilities by being uninformed or disengaged, then our elected officials will feel free to do what best suits their narrow, short-term self-interest.
Elections. A basic responsibility of citizenship is voting. Yet so many people either do not vote or they vote against their self-interest. Why? Either they do not believe their vote matters, or they have lost confidence that any elected officials can improve their lives, or they do not take the time to understand the leadership abilities of the candidates who are running, their core values and beliefs, or their position on issues that affect citizens’ lives. When citizens sit out an election and end up with a representative who did not hear their unvoiced concerns, they get the government they deserve.
It has been just over a year since an election where the winner of the popular vote didn’t win the presidency, and where many — the majority — of Americans felt disenfranchised by the winner, whose message of what being an American means often excludes Americans of color, Americans of different origins and religions, Americans of different sexual orientations, and Americans not fortunate enough to be wealthy. And yet, painfully, 43 percent of eligible voters did not vote.
It has been a hard year, but thankfully one where ordinary Americans elected to rise up and fight for our democracy — grounded in a spirit of inclusion and opportunity for all to compete on an even playing field. It began with the Women’s March, and then marches in cities and towns across our country. It continued with an incredible wave of people who decided to run for office and show up at town halls over issues such as health care, city council meetings where budget priorities are being set, and, most recently, in the November elections.
But a functioning democracy also requires checks and balances. One of these comes directly from voters, but in between election days, it comes from the three independent branches of government. If the legislative branch defers to the executive or vice versa, or if the courts cower beneath political intimidation, we confer too much unchecked power, eroding our democracy. This becomes particularly problematic when one political party controls both chambers in Congress and the White House. So it has been heartening to see this power checked by both the courts and the press, who have both stood strong in the face of gravely concerning attempts at intimidation.
Whenever we feel disappointment in our representatives or their responsiveness, we need to remember that they derive their power from the consent of the governed. And then we must inform ourselves, engage, speak up, and vote in all elections, as growing numbers of Americans discovered in the past year. Vote. Vote. Vote. The only way a democracy works is if we all do our part. It is certainly worth the effort.