This is What Democracy Looks Like

One man–or even a cabal of them–cannot unravel a democracy unless the people allow it. This is why if November 9, 2016, shook my faith in our democratic institutions, then January 21, 2017, breathed new life into it.

Millions of citizens–representing a cross-section of our country–peacefully assembled in our nation’s capital and in cities around the country–in red states and blue states–today to stand for justice, equality, and the progress we’ve made and the work that remains undone.

This was the view of downtown Lexington today:

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Over half-a-million people descended on Washington, DC, the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration to participate in Women’s March there, which began as a second-thought social media post and swelled into a movement. Cities across the United States hosted “sister” events, including in Lexington and Louisville.

It is quintessentially grassroots–an effort of resistance that began from the ground level and earned national media attention and went viral in a matter of weeks.

And it also serves as a dramatic contrast with the Trump Inauguration yesterday and not just because the inauguration crowd was relatively sparse:

The more compelling difference, though, is the competing visions of American democracy presented in the past two days. As Benjamin Wallace-Wells notes in The New Yorker, in addition to veering sharply from the perfunctory nod to one’s place in the grand history of our country, to the need for unity after a particular divisive campaign, and to a call to action to build upon the work that’s been done, Trump spoke in stark, dark, and dreary terms. As the 42nd, 43rd, and 44th Presidents watched from the dais, Trump claimed that the era of “American carnage” had ended.

Fifty six years ago at his own inauguration, President John F. Kennedy called on Americans to, “Ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.” Yesterday, Trump echoed the “I only can fix it” language from his convention speech:

There should be no fear — we are protected, and we will always be protected.

We will be protected by the great men and women of our military and law enforcement and, most importantly, we are protected by God…

We will no longer accept politicians who are all talk and no action — constantly complaining but never doing anything about it.

Rather than a call to action, Trump, as Wallace-Wells writes, makes his audience passive participants in the process. He assures them that they will be “protected” by the military under his command and will have politicians who “do something” for them. There is no talk of shared sacrifice, no emphasis on the need for unity to accomplish results. Instead, Trump talks of unity as a means to achieve security, a frightening start to a chain of reasoning that validates concerns about his authoritarian tendencies.

The aim is to discourage participation, to discourage a sense of investment and a stake in our democracy’s success. It’s the core governing philosophy of the Republican Party–to disengage citizens, muddy the waters, and make democratic institutions our enemy rather than a means of change. In so doing, they secure power while pushing an agenda wholly out-of-step with the interests of the American people.

That brings us to the Women’s March in Washington and cities not only around the United States but around the world. It’s evidence that democracy and the democratic order will not go gently into the good night, that citizens will not retreat under the false promise of some undefined “security,” and that we will heed the call to action issued by President Obama in his first inaugural address:

America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because we, the people, have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears and true to our founding documents. So it has been; so it must be with this generation of Americans…Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

That’s what democracy looks like and that’s what democracy requires. Let’s get to work.

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