Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Til it’s gone
— Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi”
There are many divisive issues these days: climate change, renewable fuels, perpetual war, health care, tax reform, higher education, trade policy. The list seems endless.
However, most agree on preserving democracy’s fundamental pillars: free speech, public education, voting rights, and an independent judiciary.
Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison offered us insights.
• Media. Jefferson wrote, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Media are one of the few industries expressly protected by the Constitution (First Amendment). They were to serve all people with a “marketplace of ideas,” a check on abuses by the powerful, from which “truth” would emerge. There would be no central control of media by either government or big business.
Americans’ 19th Century “internet,” its “social media,” was transportation — rivers, roads, a transcontinental railroad, and pony express. Our “email” was their postal mail. Low postal rates encouraged the distribution of books, magazines and newspapers.
For the FCC to repeal net neutrality, ownership limits, or the Fairness Doctrine, or politicians to say media are “the enemy of the American people,” chops away at democracy’s pillars. (Now 46 percent of voters believe media make up anti-Trump stories.)
• Free public education and libraries. Jefferson continued, “But I should mean that every (person) should receive those (newspapers) and be capable of reading them.” In his epitaph, he chose to be remembered as “Father of the University of Virginia” — omitting any reference to his presidency.
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Madison agreed: “a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
Free public schools would enable citizens to inform themselves. Free public libraries would provide every American access to the information resources of kings.
When legislatures don’t fully fund public universities, adding to the trillion-dollar debt of graduates, they are undercutting democracy’s pillar of “free public education.” This not only hampers America’s ability to compete with the nations that do provide tuition-free college, it also strikes a blow against democracy.
• Voting rights. Over time, the opportunity to vote — a democracy fundamental — was expanded from white, male, landowners older than 21 to everyone older than 18.
State legislatures that pass laws making it more difficult, rather than easier, for all to vote, or that draw district lines enabling a minority of voters to elect a majority of their representatives, are attacking a democracy fundamental.
• Independent judiciary. The founders created a respected, independent branch of government, the judiciary, as a constitutional check on Congress and the executive branch. Federal judges’ independence was protected by their lifetime appointments. Justice would be delivered under a “rule of law” rather than a law of rulers.
To disparage the judiciary, charging bias, or lack of competence, to appoint those unqualified, weakens a democracy’s last, best protection of our civil rights.
We probably can survive most wrongheaded public policies. What our democracy can’t survive are attacks on its fundamental pillars. Let’s defend what we’ve got before it’s gone.
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• Nicholas Johnson is a former FCC commissioner who maintains www.nicholasjohnson.org. Contact: email@example.com