A few weeks ago I was in Washington, DC and while there I was able to take a tour of the nation’s Capitol building. While the guided tour itself was not overwhelmingly impressive (it was really just a tour of three rooms), I was struck by how choked up I got while touring the large exhibit area connected to the main entrance. Mind you, while I vacillated between being choked up by certain elements of the exhibit and choking on some of its content (most pointedly when the video describing the U.S. Senate said that “because U.S. Senators serve six-year terms, as opposed to the two-year terms of the House, the Senate is a more collegial body than the House”), there were certainly moments where I was absolutely captivated by the emotional tug I felt at the promise of democracy. Now, I have a feeling that my notion of what democracy looks like differs from many who were also touring the Capitol, nonetheless, the mere promise of such a enterprise kindled in me something I rarely feel about my nation’s leaders anymore: hope in the promise of government.
What is the “hope”?
In a nutshell, I hope for a government that is guided by wisdom and compassion instead of hubris and self-interest. I want a government that is concerned with the vulnerable more than it is bound to the purse strings of corporations and the owning class. I want a government that has not become its own professional class but instead is there to serve with humility and reason. I want a government that has not become a proxy for one religion or another and instead embodies pluralism along multiple lines of identity. I want a government that is brave enough to govern with a long-term vision even though it may not be politically expedient or “profitable” in the short term for their political careers. I want a government that safeguards OUR future (the “our” being all of humanity) above other political and personal interests.
The 5th century Greek origins of the word democracy, demos (people) and kratos (to govern, rule; power), suggest that the people are the heart of this system, not merely polling numbers to be assuaged or manipulated. And, in recent decades it seems that this notion has slipped further and further from the arena of U.S. democracy as “the people” have been steadily replaced by the power and rule of “the few”. To be sure, I’m not at all naïve enough to think that the U.S. ever had a full democracy in the most robust sense of the word – our history is too riddled with examples to the contrary for me to assume that race, class and gender have not been powerful mediators of one’s capacity to engage in this democracy. But, that does not mean that I cannot hold out for a democracy that can embody these principles; that we can someday have a political system that truly responds to the needs of the people.
I feel this most acutely at this historic moment when the inevitability of global climate change and the ever-increasing likelihood of a 4-degree Centigrade future is upon us. At no other time has there been a greater need for government to be grounded in our best attributes as people and our best values as a society. The cowardice shown by my government since James Hansen’s 1988 Congressional testimony has been unbelievable. Its tap roots have ranged from deep ignorance to the selfish protection of their power and the support from the fossil fuel industry to delusional notions that climate change is not even happening, and yet whatever the reason the result has been the same: political inaction that has led us to a truly dire situation. In the face of this, we cannot afford a government operating from a “business as usual” perspective and need our leaders to step up as never before in a true embodiment of the potential and promise of democracy.
What is my part?
Critiquing government these days is like shooting fish in a barrel and so it is only fair for me to question myself as a partner in this mess. For example, to the extent that corporations have reached more and more deeply into the political machine, in a small way I have allowed them to do so. I was upset about Citizens United, but I did not protest it. I educated students in my university classes about the political implications of it, I talked to colleagues and peers about how SuperPACs were impacting elections, I complained about it to my neighbors, but I did not actively participate in doing anything about it. In fact, I have never engaged in fighting for solid campaign finance reform laws. I am not saying this as a backhanded critique of others (I mentioned this as a problematic aspect of the “left” in a previous blog), but am earnestly noting that while I have my U.S. Senators’ and my U.S. Representative’s numbers in my phone and call them regularly about other issues, my response to Citizens United shows that I have not done enough to meet my responsibilities as a citizen in a democratic republic such as ours. Thus, it is not a fully honest assessment to critique my government without assessing my own levels of participation, making corrections when and where necessary, and then moving forward with even greater conviction and involvement. In this way the hope and promise of government also becomes the hope and promise of its citizenry. I have a close friend who just this week deactivated her Facebook page (no small feat for her) because she could see that it was more distraction than information. What happens to us when we are less distracted? There is room for more engagement. And so for those who have the time and capacity (recognizing that issues of class, race, gender, and the like are still mediating our ability to fully participate in this democracy) it is our responsibility to do so. A living, grassroots, radical democracy is within our grasp, but only if we are willing to engage as we are able and literally take it back.
Referring back to climate change for a moment, this is a crisis of unbelievable proportion and the response must be in equal measure, meaning that we as a human family must respond as a human family and our governments must be able to operate from that place of wisdom and collective human interest. This is not New World Order propaganda, nor Socialism, nor Communism, nor “weak-willed politics”, nor anti-U.S. sentiment, rather it is a clear recognition that we are one species and have one shot at addressing climate change. Government that holds this larger, human, connected vision will be a government that can lead us through the inevitable challenges with grace and dignity and an affirmation of the best of who we can be as people. But, that government will not come to the fore if we as people do not make it so. Standing in the Capitol building there was no shortage of fodder for critique. But there was also something else – ideals, values, and beliefs that within them still hold the hope and promise of government of, by and for the people.