The State of our Democracy

Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve."
-- George Bernard Shaw

I often refer to Shaw's quote because I find it to be the most succinct and accurate analysis of our democratic-republic form of government.

But the reality show, masquerading as the 2016 presidential election, should force us to ask: "Do we deserve this?" Prior to offering a reflexive response, consider my definition of the pronoun "this."

"This" is not a critique on Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, but one directed at "us." Do we the people deserve this spectacle?

Cynically speaking, I say we do. We have failed the "salami test" miserably.

Imagine you had a stick of salami and a traveler stopped by and asked you for half. You immediately say "No!" So instead, the traveler takes only a sliver. Because it is not enough to care, you say nothing. But over the next few days, they repeat the process to a point that what's left is no longer worth concerning yourself.

The 2016 presidential election may have brought us to this precipice. It's not Fort Sumter, where a shot was fired and the country was immediately placed on the verge of being torn asunder. It has been more methodical, seemingly harmless in the moment. But the election, collectively, has worked in tandem with other so-called innocuous episodes, and the result is a divided nation -- some hopeful but a larger majority either nihilistic or close to it.

When did party become more important than country? When did we become a nation that is only bothered by statements coming from the candidate we don't support?

In addition to being fortified by the news source that corresponds with our pre-existing beliefs, part of the current General Election tradition is to anticipate the arrival of the "October surprise."

From the political colonoscopy known as the Benghazi investigation to Trump's latest tweet, what will be the next news story de jour that we are told to care about?

Of all the outlandish statements that Trump has made during his run for president, nothing bothered me more than when he threatened Clinton with jail at their second debate.

"If I win I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation -- there have never been so many lies and so much deception," Trump said.

In that single statement, not only did Trump demonstrate little regard or understanding of the Constitution, but he also violated the ethos of the American experiment.

How does Trump's statement square with the following?

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

When the undersigned placed their names below the aforementioned quote on July 4, 1776, they were putting their lives on the line, beginning the pursuit of "a more perfect union" where such tyrannical governments like the one Trump advocated did not exist.

That was the Trump moment where collective condemnation was warranted. But the current political culture suggests the prospect of being governed in a Banana Republic is worth the risk, if it means the opposition is defeated.

Obstruction has become a viable tactic in doing the people's business. Is it acceptable? It depends on whom you ask. It's fundamentally abhorrent because at the core it places party over country.

This is reflective of a faux patriotism that is corrosive to our democratic values. I have long believed that divided government was best to move the nation forward. But we have become a country that only moves forward when one party controls Congress and occupies the White House.

The problem with this option is that it assumes wrongly that the minority opinion has no value. When did governing become a zero-sum game? Is a de facto fiat the only way to conduct the people's business? It sure seems that is the only option available.

We have somehow comingled the definitions between patriotism and nationalism. If we can agree that patriotism is love and devotion of country, how does that differ from nationalism?

Simply stated, nationalism finds it roots in naivety. It does not question, it embraces a form of certainty that makes it vulnerable to the seductive impulses of nativism.

Patriotism embraces dissent, which is the oxygen of democracy. It places the overarching values of the country over the short-term interests of the party.

The hopeful or tragic reality remains: whichever road we take, Shaw is right.

The Rev. Byron Williams, a writer and the host of the NPR-affiliated "The Public Morality".