The Ironies, Messiness, and Surprises of Democracy: Lessons in Citizenship

The Ironies, Messiness, and Surprises of Democracy: Lessons in Citizenship

Dr. Sylvia Rousseau, Professor of Clinical Education, USC Rossier School of Education and Generation Citizen Board Member

The political events of January 2017 provide a trove of lessons about citizenship and democracy. At a moment in our national life in which elements of our democracy seemed to be falling apart, citizens, through ironic, messy and surprising actions, reminded us that they are the keepers of democracy. Citizens reminded us that the beauty of a democracy lies in a foundational set of principles: that all of individuals have an equal right to sit at the table of democracy regardless of race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation, or economic status. The struggle for every segment of a diverse society to claim and occupy their seat, in defiance of those who would exclude them, is both frightening and reassuring. This eternal struggle is also instructive, bearing lessons that a nation is duty bound to pass on to the next generation the awesome wonder of existential democracy. In other words, citizens reminded us of the beauty of democracy. And that we must teach our young people the power of the concept.

The nation entered the month of January seemingly deadlocked in division and vitriol following an unprecedently heated presidential election. Yet within the month of January, the people of the United States of America rediscovered sufficient common ground upon which to start out on a forward march toward a “more perfect” democracy. The farewell speech of one president and the inaugural address of another; the national holiday honoring the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King; and the amazing surprise of the Women’s March on Washington (and around the world) inspired a venture that promised a new and expanded understanding of citizenship. The message was one of resiliency and hope.

The sea of women (with men joining them) marching together in many places around the world in solidarity around women’s, and more broadly human rights, harkened memories of the March on Washington of 1964, at which Dr. Martin Luther King delivered the now memorialized “I Have a Dream” speech. The irony of the 1964 March on Washington was that descendants of slaves, denied the rights stated in the United States Constitution and the Declaration of Independence at the time they were written, were, only two hundred years later, the most powerful and eloquent spokespersons for the meaning of those founding documents. Their allegiance to the principles contained in those documents inspired citizens of all races, religions and backgrounds to join in an unprecedented display of democracy.

That March on Washington of 1964, a key moment in the Civil Rights Movement, ignited a fire in America that led to other protests from citizens who felt they had been excluded from this democracy. The Civil Rights Movement, led primarily by Black citizens demanding their rights, inspired the Native American, the immigrant farm worker, women, and members of the LGBT community to stake a claim on their rights as well. They challenged the limited concept of democracy and humanity held by the crafters of our founding documents, who thought it expedient and proper to calculate the worth of a slave as three-fifths of man. Precedent had been set for insisting on an inclusive democracy in which all citizens were equal. These are the lessons any attempts at civic education in our time must heed and pass on to the next generation.

Many would argue that the lessons of the Civil Rights Movement cultivated a citizenry willing to envision and act upon the possibility of a Black man to hold the office of President of the United States. Indeed, much of the nation demonstrated through their right to vote a deeper and broader understanding of “all men are created equal” when they elected Barack Obama in 2008. A major element of then-Senator Obama’s appeal was his eloquent and passionate references to the revolutionary words in our nation’s founding documents, written in a time when people from Africa (the homeland of Obama’s father) were brought to this country as human cargo to live out their lives as slaves.

The words young Obama spoke were the same words that Dr. King had proclaimed to remind his generation of the meaning of democracy – the revolutionary words of the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Dr. King saw his work as a citizen of the United States to be the “redeeming the soul of America.” He spoke out of love for the principles upon which this nation as built, despite its many stumbles in fulfilling those principles.

It seemed fitting that on January 11, 2017, four days before the nation would celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday and nine days before a new president would be sworn into office, that the first African-American President of the United States of America, would deliver a farewell speech. President Obama, in his attempt to unite a divided nation, reminded the nation’s citizens of their responsibility to uphold the principles of this democracy recorded in the documents penned by the founders of the nation. Instructive in this moment was the endurance of noble principles, despite the human beings charged with keeping them. Also, the lesson was that, despite the human frailties of one generation, history records the forward movement of each generation toward a more perfect union when citizens act. Before 18,000 well-wishers assembled to bid the President a reluctant good-bye, he diverted attention from himself and turned to the crowd. He assured them that the democracy would endure because of them – the citizens. Repeating the words first uttered by our founders, that “all men are created equal,” President Obama reminded the citizens assembled there, “We are a government for and by the people. Not a fiefdom.”

He further lifted up the role of “citizen” by stating, “It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy; to embrace the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours because, for all our outward differences, we all share the same proud title: Citizen.” This is the message each generation must pass on to the next, for in it lies the promise of each generations to contribute to the renewed and more inclusive democracy of their time. It is both the hope and the awesome responsibility we give to each generation as they participate in the existential democracy of their times.

On January 20, 2017, the nation witnessed the inauguration of a new President of the United States. It was a day of victory for those who had exercised their right to vote and elect the next president. Donald Trump had won at the elation of some, and the disappointment of others. But that is democracy at work. Because few expected him to win, his victory was a surprise – or perhaps more like a shock. His winning the electoral college but not the popular vote made Inauguration Day more complex and messy. But again, this was democracy was at work.

The irony again was that in this election, a segment of our citizenry historically assumed to be enjoying the privilege assigned to them by the nation’s founders, based on race, made it known that they now felt like the outsiders in our democracy. Rural White citizens, and those who had lost their jobs with the introduction of new technology and the nation’s shift from an industrial to an informational economy, felt they were losing their seat at the table. They felt excluded by this democracy. They saw themselves reclaiming their seat at the table of prosperity and well-being by electing Donald Trump as their president.

A sizable portion of the population for whom the words of the nation’s founding declarations were exclusively intended had declared themselves to be disgruntled with their status in the nation. January 20th revealed the underlying messiness, ironies and surprises that accompany a democracy. The divisions within the nation were evident, and they seemed to threaten the democracy. The lesson here is that feelings and the realities of oppression are not limited to one race, or one religion, or even one gender. Democracy requires a vigilance that takes note of any group or individual who feels left out. Divisions based on race or gender or religion or sexual orientations require compassion, understanding, and an abiding belief in the equality of every person, making it mandatory to hear their voices. Democracy, however, is crippled when any of its citizens refuses to acknowledge the full humanity of any other citizen based race, gender, sexual orientation, or any other misguided notion of humanity. Therein lie the pernicious seeds for destroying our nation.

We should pay attention when one group forms to resist an out-of-control killing of Black men, mainly by White police officers, by organizing under the banner of Black Lives Matter. But the nation also needs to pay attention when another group responds with All Lives Matter. Or even when they retort with White Lives Matter. This is a circumstance that requires us to return to the meaning of our founding principles and ensure that all citizens are intentionally included under the banner “all men (and women) are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” Those rights were declared to include “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Under the best of circumstances prescribed by the words in our Declaration of Independence, the phrase All Lives Matter would have meaning, but within the historical context of lynch mobs, the astoundingly disproportionate number of Black men killed by police officers, the mass incarceration of Black men, the failure to recognize the connection between unfair employment practices and the rise of crime, among other realities for Black men, the phrase rings hollow. Our nation has yet to govern in ways that declare all lives matter. However, the nation needs to hear the protests of White men who feel neglected as the nation moves into another era. A democracy must resist the appeal of zero-sum game, in which one group can only advance if the other group loses.

Education for democracy and education as democracy cannot neglect to make the promulgation of the principles in our founding documents our legacy to the next generation. Education cannot be merely about test scores and other superficial measures of success. Our success will be measured by the strength of our democracy upheld for all its citizens from generation to generation. Leaving any group behind is a flawed democracy or no democracy at all.

The final January surprise came when the nation awoke on Saturday morning, January 22nd, to the resilient beauty of a democracy. Women in cities throughout the United States (and around the world) joined in sisterhood to stake their claim on the words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Once again, the one group of citizens who are in many ways still the “outsiders” called upon the nation to join to a renewed movement toward democracy. The most eloquent speeches invoked the principles of democracy recorded in our founding documents, written during an era when women could not vote. But the principles stand despite the limitations of the men who wrote them. Like their predecessors, the women who fought for and finally won the right to vote, this generation of women had organized their own March on Washington to take a united stand against the oppression that continues to objectify them as sex objects and discriminate against them in the workplace. They sent a message. Not just to President Trump. But to all the world.

This series of January events provide rich lessons for our democracy. The examples of the ironic ways by which “outsiders” have contributed to the preservation of the principles of democracy from which they once were excluded are marked by sacrifice, hard work, and sometimes disappointment. But it is also instructive that people are drawn by principles that will outlast their lifetime, and save a nation from a falling. The challenge of this generation is to inspire a new generation to so love these principles that they are willing to fight for them, sacrifice for them, and insist on them. That is what civic education is – nothing less. It is about changing the meaning of education to something so noble as to be called education for democracy and education as democracy.

The most powerful lesson of January 2017 is that diversity matters. Those who have experienced the dehumanizing effects of a democracy flawed by racism, genderism and classism – to name a few – often cling the hardest to promises made to humanity by men who had limited understanding of their own words. The disenfranchised often assume the role of re-enlivening a democracy in danger of demise hampered by the myopic vision of the privileged. When the disenfranchised and the privileged can enter genuine dialogic and dialectic relationships, respecting one another’s humanity, new and greater expressions of democracy can emerge. These are the lessons that our nation needs right now, in this critical period of our democracy.

Our educational institutions would render a great service to our democracy by acting upon the inextricable connection between education and democracy. Education for and as democracy requires citizens to understand the historical context in which the issues of our times have emerged. Otherwise actions to solve current crises can be misguided. Further, citizens need to have knowledge of the branches of government and their respective functions – not merely as memorized material to score well on a test. But as a means for holding their government accountable. They need experiences with methods of scientific inquiry to be able to test the claims of those who they elect (or do not elect) to lead. They need to be able to decide for themselves whether it is reasonable to weigh issues like whether the dramatic changes in the weather are evidence of climate change. They need to be able to discern through evidence and logic the difference between fact and opinion or lies. They will learn those lessons in the context of schooling. They need a passion for the principles of democracy, nurtured by schools organized democratically to ensure every child has equitable access to rich learning experiences. Civic educators who understand the complexities of preparing students for citizenship realize that civic education cannot be addressed through isolated programs, but in partnership with schools committed to the same principles.

Civic education signifies pedagogies that build students’ capacity to construct knowledge in community with others – even those with whom they disagree. Segregated schools and policies that sort students by perceived ability grouping perpetuate a limited conception of democracy that denies the full expression of humanity. Discrimination in education denies students the opportunity to experience the richness of diversity that brings fresh meaning to democracy in each generation. Although different perspectives on life may spark debate about the meaning of our Constitution, it is healthy for students to learn to engage in these debates while still respecting the right of others to disagree. Debate that brings new life to words penned over two hundred years ago by men who, ironically, could not conceive of the full meaning of democracy, is a good debate worth having to shatter each generation’s propensity to limit “freedom” to just themselves. Civic education programs will take a wrong turn if they give schools a pass on their role in preparing students for citizenship. Citizenship is a shared responsibility that can bring democracy to new dimensions of existential democracy.

In the face of today’s challenges and divisions in the nation, pessimism is the easy escape for those who are unwilling to accept the charge every generation is given: to renew and redefine democracy in their own times. The other option is keep hope alive, by recognizing that we are heirs to a remarkable experiment in our democracy that is working the way our founding fathers intended. The inescapable irony, however is that they sowed the seeds for the democracy to also work in ways they never intended or envisioned. They would never have imagined people of color, women, poor Whites, people of all religions working to remove the limits the founders imposed on their own desire to create a” more perfect union.” We are in a constant battle between those marginalized, and those in power.

Civics education for young people needs to be at the heart of this struggle. An enduring democracy depends on each generation to push the principles of democracy forward with enhanced meaning, capable of wrestling with the inevitable challenges still to come.

The founding fathers, out of limited understanding of the import of their words and out of limited compassion for the humanity in us all, penned documents that would change the world, but in ways far beyond their understanding. That is how democracy works. It is never static nor limited by one generation’s vision. It is renewable by the fresh vision of each generation that rejects the limitations of past generations while embracing the enduring truths bequeathed to them from past generations.

Generation Citizen is a nonpartisan, 501(c)3 tax exempt organization which does not endorse candidates; our goal is to engage our staff, participants, and stakeholders in political and civic action on issues that matter to them personally and in their communities. The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the writer alone and do not reflect the opinions of Generation Citizen.

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