Common ground and the self-evident truths of democracy

We are not enemies, we are Americans.” In president-elect Biden’s passionate plea for healing he suggests that simply being Americans should be the common ground on which we can all come together. But given the circumstances, we Americans being so harshly divided on so many things, perhaps we could get a little less vague.

In casting about for common ground for Americans besides just the w ord, what about the bedrock sentiment of our founding documents? What “we the people” declared self-evident 250 years ago and presumably still hold in common, that we are all created equal and that government derives its authority “from the consent of the governed.”

In other words, democracy.

Whatever else divides us, aren’t we all in agreement on those self-evident truths? Aren’t we all on the same side when it comes to democracy?

I have only in the past four years come to appreciate what a comfort of one-person, one vote, majority rule democracy, the fact of living in one, has been my whole life.

The comfort of democracy has been with me as long as I’ve been aware of such things. Some years into early schooling whatever democratic values I had gotten by some sort of cultural osmosis were ratified by those assertions in the founding documents of what was self-evident. I could only agree that yes indeed, they seemed self-evident.

Democracy seemed as natural as gravity. As the satisfaction of hunger. Less a rare privilege than simple common sense. Self-evident. What all reasonable people would want if they could get it A different sort of Manifest Destiny. The world’s movement toward it over my lifetime seemed as natural as a tropism, plants turning toward light.

I knew that in a democracy you win some and you lose some. It seemed to me that the left of center side of the political continuum where I hung out lost more battles than we won. Nevertheless there was comfort in knowing that all issues were settled democratically in the end, by majority vote. There was something right about the majority ruling, even if the majority was too many times in my opinion terribly wrong.

I couldn’t think of a more logical way than majority rule for a society to resolve differences in the unavoidable process of governing itself.

The comfort of democracy has somehow survived knowing that in fact we have not strictly speaking been a majority rule democracy in recent times. Republicans have won the popular vote for president only once in the last 20 years and yet have controlled the presidency for 12 of those 20 . Democrats easily received more total votes for the U.S. Senate in 2016 and 2018, and yet the Republicans hold 53 of 100 seats.

It was a jolt hearing McConnell just before the Barrett Supreme Court vote gloat to fellow Senators: never mind if we lose the election. In forcing through this appointment we’ll determine the future course of the country for decades, no matter what the majority want. It’s as if he said: let’s call the loser of the World Series the winner.

. But the hedges against full-on majority rule democracy — Electoral College and Senate — seemed fixable glitches, exceptions that proved the rule.

Under Trump my comforting belief in democracy has been shaken by the determination o n the part of the President, who above all is supposed to represent democracy, to sow doubt about it (and the key element of democracy, a free press).

But more discomfiting than that has been the support for him of almost half the voters, who seem to be more attracted to democracy by populist leader than by the actual democratic institutions their hero was so down on.

So yes, I’ve been naïve in having for so long taken the comfort of democracy for granted. But then that’s what made it comfortable, that you didn’t have to worry. That it was just part of the quality of life in this country that many places didn’t have.

Whatever else we may find for a common ground (not, apparently, the pandemic, not the threat of climate change, not healthcare as a human right, etc.), if democracy doesn’t seem self-evidently a good thing, a basic—a comforting– truth without which we cant’ imagine life, then probably we won’t end up with it.

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