We face a choice when we wake up this July 4th.
Having just gone through a week that at least one historian has noted “will certainly show up in the history books,” it is tempting to give up and crawl back under the covers from the mental exhaustion of simply living through this time. One wag on twitter said that this July 4th felt like attending a birthday party where the honoree was in hospice.
So there is that choice.
Or we can take a different route to celebrate the idea of America even when (or especially when) the reality falls short. It is that second road I’ve chosen, carrying on a family tradition by attending the annual July 4th parade in Takoma Park.
My reason is simple. Giving up on democracy should not be an option, given what so many have done before in the face of similar, or sometimes worse, challenges. Yes, many Americans were not free on July 4, 1776. Many others are losing their freedoms today. Yet for me, attending a community Independence Day parade to celebrate the idea of America, as well as to recognize the many examples of our country working together that we still see all around us, is a simple way to take a stand not to give up on democracy. Not on this July 4th.
And who knows, I may get a chance to see Vanadu.
We are facing a crisis in democracy in the United States. There are many reasons, and the following strike me as especially urgent (*skip below for more details):
- We made it legal to bribe politicians.
- We allowed corporations and oligarchs to sustain a four-decade war against democratic government.
- We limited access to the polls for significant numbers of our citizens.
- We try and explain away authoritarianism and sedition by a major political party, a party that has an anger management problem.
- We succumb to the fear that seeks shelter in the authoritarian lie because too many Americans lack the courage to face the unknown.
- We don’t do the boring and hard work of democracy.
It is possible to look at that list and become exhausted and discouraged. But when that feeling overwhelms you, think of those who fought the fight before, often against much longer odds.
- Think of young Fannie Lou Hamer, who said, “That’s why I want to change Mississippi. You don’t run away from problems — you just face them.”
- Think of twenty-year-old Andrew Goodman; Michael Schwerner, a 24-year-old former New York social worker; and James Chaney, a 21-year-old Black man, who worked to register Black voters in Meridian, Mississippi. On June 21, 1964, the local deputy sheriff stopped them, took them down a deserted road, and “turned them over to two carloads of his fellow terrorists. They beat and murdered the men and buried them at an earthen dam that was under construction.” It wasn’t until two members of the KKK cracked that federal officials were able to solve the case.
- Think of young Jonathan Daniels, an Episcopal seminarian who in 1965 pushed aside a young Ruby Sales and took a bullet in rural Alabama intended for her, so that she might live to continue to fight the fight.
- Think of the 160,000 Allied troops who stormed Normandy beach and flew bomber missions overhead on D-Day in 1944 — men like my Uncle Joe Reeves and August Bolino, our neighbor who passed away last year at the age of 99. This was a time when the countries of the world came together for democracy and to combat bigotry, racism, fascism, and hatred. Over the next three months of fighting, 209,000 Allied troops would die before the Nazis were pushed back across the Seine.
- Think of House Select Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, a man who has spent his career fighting to protect the right to vote in the most difficult areas of Mississippi. As Robin Givhan writes, “The Jan. 6 hearings have been for the benefit of the American public and Thompson has been the dignified host inviting folks in. His tone is calm and slightly melancholy. But he never gives off even a whiff of resignation. He has been resolute in his belief that America is the greatest country in the world and that the insurrection was “a hiccup” in our history. For Thompson, democracy isn’t shattered beyond repair; it’s damaged, but fixable.“
And somehow, Givhan adds, Thompson is convincing.
So, when we wake up this morning, we have that choice. To my mind, too many people have given their all — the “last full measure of devotion” as Lincoln so memorably phrased it — to see that democracy has a chance in America for us to turn back now.
Wealthy oligarchs, white supremacists, religious nationalists, and others have always been here to try and stop us. We have to recognize that there are those who benefit from discord and distrust, and who will work hard to undermine any efforts to reduce their influence over others. Their role in our society needs to be diminished and controlled, but it takes sustained work.
It is easy to think that our reality is all that matters. It is easy to decide that the hard work is not worth doing, as nothing will change. However, if we look beyond ourselves to see the interdependence of all, we can see how that long arc of the moral universe bends — yes, ever so slowly at times — toward justice.
Interdependence means finding “a unifying message of community and love,” as Andrea Mazzarino writes. Americans should work towards a solidarity dividend found when we connect across racial and class lines in interdependence. Author Heather McGhee notes we first need to get on the same page to achieve that dividend.
(T)he forces selling denial, ignorance, and projection have succeeded in robbing us of our own shared history — both the pain and the resilience. It’s time to tell the truth, with a nationwide process that enrolls all of us in setting the facts straight so that we can move forward with a new story, together.”
That won’t be easy. Unfortunately, Mazzarino notes, “occupying the hearts of many Americans today is Donald Trump, a damaged man who personifies our basest instincts. He needs to be identified forcefully by leaders of all stripes as the threat to democracy he is.”
But today I can look at the interdependence of life and the fact, as Fannie Lou Hamer framed it, that “nobody’s free until everybody’s free” and joyfully attend a July 4th celebration. I can honestly believe that although the country has taken a few hard blows recently, the patient isn’t anywhere near hospice care.
It will take voting and doing the never-ending work of building democracy day-after-day to keep the country out of the ICU, but we can win and see the American experiment continue.
Join me in that commitment — in whatever way works for you — and in celebrating a happy and hopeful July 4th!
More to come…
*Here is more of the backstory on the elements of the American crisis in democracy:
- We made it legal to bribe politicians when the Supreme Court decided that corporations were people and that campaign spending (i.e., money) was free speech. Both decisions were insane on the face of it, yet both were strongly supported by wealthy oligarchs and business interests. As former president Jimmy Carter pointed out, “As the rich people finance the campaigns, when candidates get in office they do what the rich people want. And that’s to let the rich people get richer and richer and the middle class get left out.“
- We allowed corporations and oligarchs to sustain a four-decade war against democratic government in order to secure their power over us, because we’ve confused unbridled capitalism with freedom.
- We limited access to the polls for many of our citizens, most especially after 2013 when, in the Shelby County v. Holder decision, the Supreme Court ignored the will of overwhelming majorities in Congress and gutted the provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that required the Department of Justice to sign off on changes to voting in states with histories of racial discrimination. Chief Justice Roberts — who has worked to achieve this goal since his time in the Reagan administration — claimed we were a post-racial society. The flood of voter-suppression laws enacted against communities of color proved otherwise.
- We try and explain away authoritarianism and sedition by a major political party when they have told us time and again who they are and have shown they will do anything — including cheating and lying — to stack the Supreme Court to end constitutional rights for millions and hold onto power. And that same political party has an anger management problem. The toddler-like tantrums thrown in the White House by the former guy seemed to provide approval for all sorts of acting out. Unfortunately, much of what now goes for acceptable political speech on the right involves guns.
- We succumb to the fear that seeks shelter in the authoritarian lie because too many Americans lack the courage to face the unknown. While the family autocracy of Trumpism will inevitably die, the right wing in America is moving towards the soft fascism of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who has eroded that country’s democracy over the past decade, seeking to replace the equality at the heart of democracy with religious nationalism. Many in the Republican party embrace that approach, including the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), which met earlier this year in Budapest.
- We don’t do the boring and hard work of democracy because building things is hard, and we don’t even do the easy things like vote in presidential, midterm, state, or local elections.
Image: Marchers in the 2010 Takoma Park July 4th parade by DJB