What happens to a democracy when people stop talking to one another about what matters to them and the country? When people are afraid to speak their minds because they fear the personal blowback likely to come their way? Or worse, when they come to believe that their concerns, their views and their values just don’t matter to anyone anymore, and so they “turn off and tune out,” to quote an old line?
What happens? That’s when democracy dies. Not necessarily in darkness but in silence.
Political voices matter on all sides even when it is uncomfortable for those in power or for those looking to replace them. Maybe that’s when freedom of speech matters most — when the people of a democracy, any democracy, debate their future and the future of their country among themselves.
Sen. Kamala Harris got a lesson in direct democracy from a 91-year-old woman named Roberta Jewell. Harris dropped by a Muscatine, Iowa, nursing home for a standard photo-op moment with a room full of elderly nursing home residents playing an afternoon game of bingo.
Jewell called Harris over and pointedly asked her how she was going to pay for her “Medicare for All” health care plan. When the California Democrat tried to explain that we are already paying for health care for all through the cost of emergency room care, the senior citizen was having none of it.
“No, we’re not,” Jewell told Harris. “Leave our health care system alone. We don’t want you to mess with it.”
It’s good for candidates to hear directly from the people whose lives will be affected by their plans and proposals, and hopefully, they will take those opinions to heart.
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That’s how democracy should work, thanks, in large part, to the protections of the First Amendment. As a people, we have a right to debate and discuss the issues of the day, express our views without fear of retribution and vote our conscience. And then we have the responsibility to accept the outcome, win or lose, knowing that in two or four years, another opportunity to win our issues will come around again.
For more than 200 years, our constitutional freedoms have kept American democracy strong and our political system stable, when others have faded away into socialism and statism. And none has been more important to the success of our republic and the preservation of our democratic ideals than free speech.
Ben Franklin, when he called for the improvement of “the common Stock of Knowledge,” didn’t envision a global technology able to reach every corner of the planet. But today’s town square has morphed into the ubiquitous social media, spurred on by an increasingly subjective news media. Instead of friendly arguments, too many political platforms have normalized hateful rhetoric and the personal destruction of those who disagree with them.
Political debate in the time of Washington and Jefferson and Adams could be harsh and personal in tone, but the anonymity of social media and its reach are rapidly changing the country’s political environment and not for the better. It’s turning democratic debate into a belligerent shouting match and that’s not good for politics or the country.
Despite concerns over the growing antagonism and division that seems to emanate from so much of social media these days, this new medium still has the potential to fulfill Franklin’s dream. It still represents the very essence of democracy by giving voters the means to freely voice their complaints and concerns to their political leadership and interact with each other to debate the issues of the day.
But as our political discourse continues to devolve into name-calling and worse, it’s worth wondering whether either side can tone down the rhetoric, talk to, not at, each other and put the country first. At its core, democracy works when we fight (figuratively) for what we believe in, but also listen to each other and respect our differences.