Democracy Is Not an “Ism” —by Jinny Batterson
We’re living in a strange season, locally, nationally, globally. First came a novel corona virus to which few humans have immunity. It has spread fear, illness, disruption, and death to nearly every country. So far efforts to contain, cure, or prevent it have met with uneven success. In many parts of the United States of America, the outbreak seems to be worsening.
As people everywhere began to cope with the pandemic, it quickly became evident that self-isolation and social distancing were the best ways to slow the virus’s human spread. In the U.S., those at the “bottom” of society were least likely to be able to self-isolate. Most lived in crowded conditions. Those who were employed mostly worked in low-wage service jobs necessary to society’s functioning—“essential workers,” they were suddenly called, as if a dignified label could make up for generations of poor pay and poor living conditions. Others chose not to isolate or distance because these practices seemed an impingement on their liberty.
To add to the trauma of the pandemic, we’ve recently been confronted with other examples of our inequitable society. Video footage went viral of a white police officer in Minneapolis squeezing the life out of a prone, handcuffed black man by kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes while other officers looked on and bystanders yelled for him to stop. It became less and less possible to talk about “resisting arrest” or “a few bad apples.” The systemic corruption of America’s criminal justice system was broadcast worldwide for all to see.
And we have an American election coming up, one that’s poised to be expensive, divisive, and prone to distortions at many levels. Is it any wonder many of us are disturbed? Whatever happened to the “shining city on a hill,” a beacon of hope for oppressed people everywhere? Whatever happened to our democracy?
I’m not exactly sure, but I think part of the difficulty is that we’ve confused democracy with ideology. Many of us self-identify at least partly using a series of “isms”: conservatism, liberalism, progressivism, socialism, libertarianism, federalism, communitarianism, environmentalism. Every week seems to bring a new label.
Democracy is not supposed to be easy. It is always a work in progress. Some guidelines our U.S. founders laid out have generally held, but there were huge blind spots in our original framework of laws. Some of those blind spots have persisted, as the George Floyds and “essential workers” of our country have recently reminded us.
Democracy requires that each human has some say in decisions that impact him/her/them, regardless of circumstances. In small settings, that say may be direct. As groups get larger and more diverse, it becomes necessary to have “representative democracy,” where officials are elected to represent a neighborhood, town, city, county, state, or nation and to champion the interests of their constituents.
Democracy requires that each human be willing to listen to perspectives that differ from his/her/their own, to acknowledge the humanity of others, to be humble about the limits to any individual’s knowledge or judgment. Whatever “isms” we subscribe to, we all breathe air, we all drink water, we all eat food. While we’ve been busy discounting and insulting each other, our air and water are getting dirtier, parts of our food supply are at risk, and more of us are becoming sickened by the corona virus.
A few of our political leaders have stressed our connections across our divisions: “We’re all in this together. We’ll get through this together.” Too many of us may not get through at all unless we start acting as if we believe that, meeting each other beyond our “isms.” Happy In(ter)dependence Day!