Teaching Democracy in an Era of Anti-Democratic 'Democracies'

As a teacher and as a citizen I am worried, but I do not feel powerless. Anti-democratic movements are growing in size and power in western democracies. They use the mechanisms of democratic process to threaten the fundamental ideas that democracy is based on. Their success underscores the importance of promoting democratic values in school, the media, and society, not just focusing on elections as if they were sporting contests.

The news, right now, is not good for people who believe in democratic values like liberty, equality, and brotherhood. The right-wing French Front National has growing support among youthful voters ages 18 to 30 while Germany's even more vitriolic anti-immigrant and anti-Islam Alternative for Germany shows increasing strength in public opinion polls. Austrian voters, fueled by antagonism toward refugees from Mid-Eastern conflicts, nearly elected a far-right candidate as President. The Israeli Prime Minister just welcomed into his cabinet a rabid ultra-nationalist as Defense Minister. The Turkish parliament voted to end parliamentary immunity so that the government could prosecute Kurdish members. Hungary, Poland, and Croatia all have right-wing governments.

An opinion article in the British newspaper The Guardian warned that Europe was veering to the right at its "peril." The author, a Croatian philosopher, argued, "In today's disintegrating Europe, we are at a historical and decisive moment." But with the Republican Party in the United States poised to nominate Donald Trump as its Presidential standard-bearer, it is not only in Europe that democracy is in danger. At rallies Trump leads the crowd in chants of "Build that Wall" and the campaign has also attracted very nasty support from anti-Semitic neo-Nazi groups.

In his November 19, 1863, address at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery, Abraham Lincoln defined democracy as "government of the people, by the people, for the people." But which people? Does it include basic rights for all of the people or just those who marshal electoral majorities or seize the reins of power? As part of coverage of the 2016 Presidential election these questions need to be openly explored in every classroom.

In the United States, an expressed goal of education is the creation of an active citizenry committed to democratic values. Promoting democratic values means that teachers need to be involved in developing antiracist, nonsexist curricula that allow students to explore social contradictions. A major theme in U.S. history classes can be examining the conflict between the promise of America outlined in the Declaration of Independence and the reality of life in the United States. Through involvement in this kind of historical exploration, students learn how societies change, how people can become agents of change, and reasons to embrace the pledge of "liberty and justice for all."

When Ted Cruz denounced "New York values" during his Presidential bid, I created an "I ♥ NY Values" iron-on tee shirt promoting New York and democratic values. The shirt listed respect, dignity, equality, fraternity, peace, justice, diversity, education, caring, and commitment, but I am sure it should have included others.

American citizens, including students, should start defining democratic values by reaffirming a commitment to two of the nation's most subversive documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble to the United States Constitution.

The Declaration is based on the "self-evident" truths that "all men are created equal" and possess "unalienable rights" that include "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." The Preamble to the United States Constitution states that "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

Equality. Unalienable rights. Justice. Domestic tranquility. General welfare. Liberty. As the United States celebrates Memorial Day, these are democratic values worth teaching about and preserving.

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