In the run-up to the 2020 US Presidential election, many of the core elements of a functioning society—so long taken for granted—seem to be at risk of serious destabilization. Everyday life has been disrupted by a pandemic that is killing hundreds or thousands a day. Economic hardship and food insecurity are spreading. Political disinformation has destabilized Americans’ very sense of shared reality.
In Episode 4 of Earth Intelligence, we explore the ways in which the quality of our democracy matters for addressing challenges big and small.
There is sensitivity over whether democracy is sustainable. There is that often-cited historical moment, when Ben Franklin was asked by a woman after the US Constitution was agreed in Philadelphia what kind of government they had given America. He is rumored to have said: “A republic, Madam, if you can keep it.”
Democracy is a test of our ability to work together for mutual protection and defense against tyrannical impulses. The sustainability of any democracy is always more present a question than we like to think.
In this episode, Don Shelby asks another critical question: Can we be sustainable, as a species, without democratic republican self-government? Concentrated power degrades people’s access to information and undermines their ability to make virtuous personal choices. Our institutions right now are still learning how to deal with everyone everywhere having access to unprecedented amounts of information—not all of which is reliable or shared with virtuous intent.
Noting the authoritarian threat posed by systematized disinformation, Joe Robertson suggests:
Our best bet is to make sure that as many people as possible have reliable access to good quality evidence-based information and the freedom to make the right choices based on that good information.
Don reminds us that we generally emphasize the prepositions in Lincoln’s closing lines from the Gettysburg address: “of the people, by the people, for the people” and says he prefers to think of Lincoln saying it with emphasis on the word “people”. It helps us to get inside that moment in which Lincoln was fighting to keep the republic and also to heal the country.
Myra Jackson described the spiritual challenge of that deep dark American moment, saying Lincoln faced the terrible fact that: “They’re reading from the same Bible, and they’re praying for the end of the other.”
People who don’t have the same ideas can come together and form something that is more powerful than an existential threat. The privilege and power of those who enslaved millions had been allowed in many cases to overrule democracy itself. The cruelty and injustice of enslavement kept democracy always on the brink of failure. We must be clear in recognizing that some of that very cruelty still stalks our democracy, and this year’s campaign has seen the tragedy of a President seeming to celebrate the indefensible.
People make the mistake of assuming that all opinions must be respected—not the right to respect it, but the opinion itself, no matter how baseless or dangerous. The right to think freely and to freely express opinion does not mean anyone is allowed to override the rights or undermine the protection of others.
Don: Is there a way to heal the country? We’re seeing the rise of hatred, racism and anti-semitism. Is that allowed in a democracy?
Myra gives us the wisdom needed in this moment:
You’re talking to a black woman in the United States of America. All of my history of my people here has been in face of that kind of mentality, and yet we recognize democracy; we recognize and value it… What’s important is that… we always create a space where people can drop ideas of hatred, of limitation, of bias, and join in…
I want to be really clear with all of you: I have seen more democratic action, care in the streets, in these months, than I have in all my life… the people who have gathered to walk in the streets, on behalf of not only democracy, but Black Lives Matter and other folk, to me this is what democracy allows for, and it’s worth all of us getting in and not giving up…
Democracy is not one person taking from another to gain advantage. Democracy is all people committing to each other’s protection. Our very social contract is on the ballot in 2020.