Democracy And Responsibility

Americans cherish their freedom. It has been our signal contribution to the world since we threw off the constraining force of the divine right of kings. For over two centuries, the world has watched what we do with this freedom. Of late, it can be forgiven for questioning whether we are abusing it.

When I logged on to AOL yesterday morning, the first headline was "Trump Protestors Turn Violent and Even Spit on Donors at Fundraiser." When I logged onto Facebook, one of the posts I encountered was a photo of flooding under the banner: "Everyone is Asking Why Black Lives Matter Isn't in Louisiana . . . You Can't Burn and Loot Buildings That are Underwater."

Those who disagree with Donald Trump don't have the right to verbally and physically abuse his supporters. That's not my America. Anger at the Black Lives Matter movement does not sanction labeling its members arsonists and looters when such acts are committed by a minuscule percentage of its supposed supporters. That's not my America either.

American freedom can tear America apart. Freedom abused by some means freedom threatened for all. The practitioners of hateful speech may be exercising their rights, but they dishonor and weaken America. The perpetrators of hateful acts deny freedom to others under the rationalization that they are saving democracy. But freedom and democracy demand more than venting anger, prejudices, and preferences. They demand responsibility.

Democratic responsibility means tempering feelings with facts. It requires not just a viewpoint, which a three-year-old can have, but the duty to support it up with logic based on objective information (the fact that others share the feeling does not make the feeling any more a fact).

Responsibility means respect. Passionate disagreement does not sanction caustic contempt, as easy as this has become through social media. Those who feel the country has not respected them weaken their legitimacy when they refuse to show others the respect they demand for themselves.

Responsibility means building civil society. Electoral success is no more the goal in the public sphere than a high stock price is in the private, though both are too often treated as ends in themselves. They require something more long-term to demonstrate their value. Someone will win in November, but what happens after that? If we sacrifice comity and community to victory, the next four years will look like the last eight. The social fabric of democracy cannot be woven by tearing out its threads.

Responsibility in a democracy means acting in agreement with our values. Given the abhorrence we rightly feel for dishonesty, how then do we sanction lies aimed at gaining electoral advantage for our chosen candidate? Given the universal demand for better character in our leaders, does not that require us to act with good character ourselves?

Responsibility also means building the capability of representative government. Our founders enshrined rule by the many to prevent rule by the few or by the one. Representative democracy is our alternative to oligarchy, plutocracy, monarchy and despotism. Either we make it work, or we invite its alternatives. Those we would tear us apart because it is easy (and for some, fun) show no responsibility for putting us back together. They weaken what we need because it is not perfect, ignoring that what they invite is infinitely worse. As Washington put it in his Farewell Address in 1796, unrestrained passions: "become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion."

Those tempted to generate or pass on a biting tweet or post, or to stand in a protest line hurling spit or something worse at those they abhor, should think not just about how good it feels but about what good it can actually do. Tearing us apart under the self-righteous excuse of saving us is short-sighted at best and irresponsible at worst. Our freedom demands more.