Pop quiz: Name the three branches of government. List the rights enumerated in the First Amendment. Which Amendment guarantees equal protection under the law? What does suffrage mean? True or False: The Pledge of Allegiance was written by a socialist. What is Arthur Miller’s The Crucible about and an allegory for?
Who said, “To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.”? A. Theodore Roosevelt, B. Hillary Clinton, C. Abraham Lincoln, D. Thomas Jefferson.
I noted last week the religious undertone of former President George W. Bush’s statement about nationalism and racial superiority as “blasphemy against the American creed.” I also wondered whether we today have our forefathers’ mettle and wherewithal to defend American ideals. Will we pass them on to our posterity?
Bush’s choice of words suggests democracy is our shared, common religion. It is akin to a human body requiring constant attention. Like a body’s muscles, democracy requires daily exercise through active participation. It also requires good dietary choices. If garbage in, then garage out.
As life is for youth, Americans have taken their birthright for granted. We assume that because we always have had it, we always will. Nunc et semper, sine fine popularis regiminis. That assumption has caused its current unhealthy state and could lead to its untimely demise.
Over the past decades, we’ve become civic couch potatoes. We’ve quit teaching democracy formally in schools. We test to measure the three R’s and occasionally science but neither civics nor history. The result: The dumbing down of the American electorate. Only 25 percent can name the three branches of government and 37 percent cannot identify at least one First Amendment right.
The Founders were understandingly wary of sectarianism, tribalism in today’s lingo. They tried to contain it despite their efforts conflicting with the Declaration of Independence’s, our national creed, essential line: “all men are created equal.” They failed to recognize healthy tribalism is essential for a thriving democracy.
Tribalism, as Andrew Sullivan points out, is our “default human experience.” It’s is in our DNA, but it need not control us anymore than what Christians dub the Seven Deadly Sins.
Tribalism is emotive and rational. Of the two, as it is with much in life, emotion wins out. We’re a tribe here in Clear Creek. It’s the reason we are passionate about expanding I-70. For our neighbors east and west of us, I-70 is simply a functional aspect of day-to-day life, a rational problem to be fixed like a pothole. They cannot appreciate the emotional energy we invest in it because it’s not their home.
Tribalism results in moral dissonance. Donald Trump proclaimed he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it. Many thought at the time he was bloviating. Not now with good reason. That says something powerful about a certain segment of the American people, something fundamentally disconcerting.
Most of the world’s people live under authoritarianism. For them, democracy is a dream. In his poem, “Dreams,” Langston Hughes urges people to hold fast to their dreams because if they die, life becomes “a broken-winged bird / That cannot fly.” As we know, a bird unable to fly is dinner for the cat.
What, then, is the state of our democracy? Is it dying, waiting for its plug to be pulled? Will it wither for lack of use? Will it be like the deferred dream in Hughes’ poem “Harlem”: Dry up like a raisin in the sun, or just explode?
Every tribe must have a unifying myth. Otherwise, it fractures and dies as we nearly did during the Civil War. America’s unifying myth is an inclusionary, liberal democracy as opposed to an exclusionary, illiberal one. Our ethos is liberty and justice for all.
As bumbling a public speaker Bush is, he was most elegant in his proclamation. One wishes more Republicans had his backbone, moral courage, and eloquence.
Quiz answers: Legislative, executive, judicial; Religion, speech, press, assembly, petition; Fourteenth; The right to vote; True; Salem witch trials, McCarthyism; Theodore Roosevelt.
Now, recite the Preamble. Hmm…