Most of us think we know what democracy is.
Perhaps we should think again.
Democracy is, of course, government of and by the people. However, there is a lot that familiar formulation leaves unsaid. How and when do the people choose? How do the people correct their mistakes? For which people does the government work and not work? By which people is it chosen? All this was much simpler in earlier times, particularly before the internet connected (or perhaps disconnected) so many people. It begins to seem to me that democracy is really a complex process used by people to manage a free society.
We all relearn daily that democracy can be one person’s heaven and another person’s hell depending on who you are and where you are sitting. The nature of majority rule always creates some minority of citizens who likely are unhappy with a direction the country is taking. Fortunately, the Founders tried to put some safeguards against tyranny by any group into our Constitution but those safeguards are today insufficient. And because of money in politics, gerrymandering, and the Electoral College, it is increasingly common that a party elected without even a plurality of votes gains control of one or more branches of our government.
For much of our history, too many Americans were effectively locked out of our democratic process and were forced to struggle (often against violent resistance) to make their voices (votes) heard. Remember the Civil War.
Today, for many, the struggle continues. New assaults on voting rights and the multiplying influence of money in politics have led to a situation in which most Americans feel that their government no longer represents them and that their voices simply do not matter.
At the same time, a new form of tribalism is taking hold in America. Partisanship is on the rise and issues of identity have become increasingly paramount in American politics. The nation is splintering: young versus old, urban versus rural, college graduates versus those with less education. And beyond the above there are the harmful rifts that recent elections have opened with their focus on race and ethnicity.
Increasingly, Americans see the other party, broadly defined, as a foe to be defeated not as fellow citizens to be worked and lived with.
Despite all that, we still have more in common with our fellow Americans than we usually admit, even to ourselves. With the exception of a fairly small vocal minority, Americans would be surprised at the many things they agree on. When people actually sit down and talk outside the echo chamber of social media, they find—often to their surprise—that they want many of the same things from their government.
What we need is more neighborly connections between Right and Left and between haves and have-nots in this country.
It should not require an act of God or rare genius to find a way for some form of social media to bring more people in America closer together rather than further apart. Why can’t more Americans reach out to people they do not know or understand? How about simply reaching out to learn about other people’s lives and how they feel and think—not really to persuade them of anything?
Curiosity can be a great driver to learn and people are generally quite curious. Many harbor a wish to know more about their fellow citizens who see the same world so differently. But it is often difficult to identify those people who both disagree with you and may be open to respectful exchange of ideas. But some of those people might also see the broader social benefit of having private conversations with citizens with whom they may disagree.
Some sort of mobile app might make it easier to engage in exchanges of views without attempting to persuade the other person. Such an app could give us all the opportunity to better understand how so many Americans understand the same world so differently.
If such a thing could be developed—and only an experiment can answer that question—it could organically grow and spread and might over time begin to reverse some of the divisive trends that are so splintering our beloved country today.
All reactions and ideas are more than welcome to help plan such a process!