For as long as I have taught classes on government and politics, I have taught my students that in a democracy citizens get the government that they deserve. What I mean by that is that democracy requires cultivation. There must be active participation of the citizens. To function well, those citizens must do their part - they must try to be informed; they have to ask hard questions and search for real answers. They must be prepared to reject the lies and deceptions of charlatans. It’s not easy and it’s made frustrating by politics, the grab for power that all participants in the process sometimes engage in. But the work to cultivate democracy must happen. Failure of the citizens to do that work results in the degradation of democracy. When that happens, the work to restore democracy becomes harder still because the citizens have lost the habits of good citizenship.
I thought of this as I watched the disaster that was Tuesday night’s presidential debate. It was a real-time display of the shame our republic has become. To be sure, at the heart of our current crisis is Donald Trump. He cares only for himself, a fact made apparent over and over since he began his bid for the presidency. That he has been enabled by a political party so eager to grab power that they are willfully blind to the damage they’ve done to the republic makes the situation much worse.
On Tuesday night, Joe Biden lost his way more than I would have liked. The yelling and shouting over one another in a time supposedly devoted to a serious conversation about our national path forward was disgraceful and further proof of the crisis we are in. A candidate would have to be superhuman not to take the bait from Trump. But even in the midst of it, Biden persistently regrouped, and sometimes acted like a responsible leader, redirecting the conversation to the needs of his fellow Americans. It couldn’t have been easy to do; it certainly wasn’t easy to watch.
At the close of the night, as the president of all Americans refused to condemn white supremacy, it felt as if we had achieved a new national low. In the midst of a series of national crises, including a pandemic he has deliberately and cruelly mismanaged, Donald Trump did what is no longer the unthinkable: he blew the racist dog whistle that he used when he first launched his malevolent ambitions. This time it was less a whistle than it was a siren.
And so here we are, at a national low point willfully brought on by a man who lied when he swore to uphold our Constitution and the imperfect democratic republic that it created. Trump is in it for himself and that could ruin us all. We are in a crisis: a crisis of democracy, a crisis of conscience, and if the president succeeds in persuading his supporters that voting is flawed despite ample evidence that it is not, our low-grade Constitutional crisis will blow up with a fevered roar.
There is a remedy and it can be found in the citizens. We must actively participate; we must cast our ballots and we must follow that vote by putting in the hard work to cultivate our democracy. We must recognize and believe that the whole of this nation is greater than its parts. I have always believed that we have this power within us. I know the obstacles ahead but still I live in hope.