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In a panel discussion of whether America’s difficulties were the fault of media or politicians, Congressman Barney Frank interjected, “Our constituents aren’t all that great either.”
Abraham Lincoln warned of the fragility of a democracy confronting an authoritarian-driven mob: “And when such a one does [appear] it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs.”
The House Select Jan. 6 Committee’s investigation of officials encouraging authoritarian dictatorship is essential — in a country where 44 percent of U.S. households, 50 percent of Republicans and 18 percent of Democrats have guns.
And yes, a democracy requires independent, respected institutions, such as judges and courts, human rights and voting rights, newspapers and libraries.
However, Thomas Jefferson’s oft-quoted preference of “newspapers without government” (over “government without newspapers”) was followed with the less mentioned, “but I should mean that every [person] should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”
Both Jefferson and Lincoln were emphasizing the need to prepare us as citizens.
Americans will someday search for the enemy who caused our democracy to crumble and wash away. They will discover, as Walt Kelly’s cartoon Pogo observed, “we have met the enemy and he is us.”
The founders realized all Americans would need to be well-informed and involved to function as democracy’s governors. They made it job one for each of us. Volunteers, handsomely paid with the rights and freedoms of democracy, in exchange for responsibilities willingly accepted.
To train us they provided free public education. Iowa created more one-room schoolhouses than any other state (12,000-plus). The founders created a postal service with reduced rates for books, magazines, newspapers and nonprofits. The colonial libraries have expanded to over 9,000 today — 542 in Iowa.
Each of us can help keep our democracy — or push us further down the slope to fascist dictatorship — in hundreds of little and big ways each day. Whether you chose to praise our election officials, teachers and librarians — or drive them to resign (as in Vinton). Whether you choose to subscribe or advertise in newspapers.
Whether you volunteer in political campaigns, contribute what you can, and never miss voting. Stay informed about policy and politics, while questioning unsupported assertions. Learn enough about other democracies’ evolution into authoritarian states to spot those changes here. Participate in neighborhood associations and civic organizations.
Pew reports only 40 percent of Americans are committed to democracy. A third of Republicans and 17 percent of Democrats say, “a strong leader who can govern without interference from other branches of government is a good thing.”
“Which side are you on, boys?” union organizers sang in 1930s Harlan, Kentucky. It’s a question you must answer today. The most important decision you’ll ever make. You can’t sit this one out.
Which side are you on?
Nicholas Johnson is the author of Columns of Democracy. email@example.com