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Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Was John Adams right?

Marsha Shearer

We rightly revere the Founders who, in their collective wisdom, produced a Constitution and a Democratic Republic that have been the envy of the world. But even back then, there was the realization that democracy is a fragile thing and dependent on the constant vigil of its citizens to assure continuation.

In 1814, the then former president, John Adams, wrote

       “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes exhausts and murders itself. There was never a Democracy Yet, that did not commit suicide.”

(https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-6371)

Adams went on to say that vanity, pride, avarice and temptations are human conditions that seep into government and, if left unchecked, would lead to self-destruction. If history is prologue, then consider this: democracies have had a shelf life of about 250 years. (www.norcalblogs.com/postscripts/2020/07/07). We are in year 245.

So now might be a good time to ask, “How are we doing?” Political scientists, social scientists, and historians are answering and, in varying degrees, saying the same thing—that we are in serious trouble. At an international conference of political and social scientists in 2019, Shawn Rosenberg, a leader in this field, said that democracy is hard work and requires a lot from those who participate in it. It requires people to respect those with different views from theirs and people who don’t look like them. It asks citizens to be able to sift through large amounts of information and process the good from the bad, the true from the false. It requires thoughtfulness, discipline, and logic.

And then he predicted the end of democracy.

(www.politico.com/magazine/story/2019/09/08/shawn-rosenberg-democracy-228045/)

We hardly need to rely on experts to diagnose the condition of the American patient. Compromise, tolerance, discussion and decision making based on facts, respect for others, the ability to deal with change, and citizen participation are among the requirements for a healthy democracy. We can add to that, adherence to the Constitution and appropriate consequences for those who do not. Given the current state of affairs, the diagnosis is plain. American democracy is on life support.

It’s easy to pinpoint the symptoms. Compromise is a dirty word and denotes collusion with the other party who, by the way, is the enemy. Tolerance for differing opinions is nil. Culture wars take the place of hard-headed policy discussions. Change, even if the eventual result is considered to be positive—especially if introduced by the other party—is to be shunned. Respect for others is translated into respect for those who agree with us. Facts are up for debate. These days the politicians’ objective is to choose their voters rather than the other way round. Money and power are the goals—not good governance. These are not the symptoms of a healthy democracy, nor are they assigned to one political party; to varying degrees, they are shared among both of them. Dysfunction prevails.

These are the symptoms of distress being modeled by our lawmakers. Is it any wonder that voters mimic their behaviors? And since voters determine who the lawmakers are, and lawmakers have to please voters, it’s also clear that this dysfunction is contagious and reinforcing. What goes around, comes around—again and again but with increasingly serious results.

The most severe outcome of all this dysfunction is a disunited States of America. It is this result that has put American democracy on life support. This disunity isn’t just the normal give and take of differences of opinion. It is “take no prisoners.” It is lethal. Too many Americans are thriving on these differences but they serve only one purpose and that is to destroy the enemy. Pogo said it best. So did John Adams. Democracies don’t die from attacks or invasions by others. The enemy is us.

So now what? The symptoms have been identified and the patient has been diagnosed.

But if we choose, we can change the outcome by focusing on the ties that bind us together rather than the differences that divide us.

When Benjamin Franklin exited the Constitutional Convention, he was asked by a group of citizens what sort of government the delegates had created. His response was: “A republic, if you can keep it.”

From time to time, we will continue this discussion with the readers of Villages-News.com. In the meantime, think of the many things all Americans have in common. For many of us, that will require a change of focus. Talk about it with family and friends. With the holidays approaching, there is no better topic of conversation. What do you think is the glue that has held us together during other times of division? What are our commonalities? How can these elements bring us back to the Founders vision? Let’s also begin a reasoned dialogue with each other in the comment section.

History is against us. Was John Adams right or do we accept the challenge of Benjamin Franklin? It’s not up to the politicians. It’s up to us.

Villager Marsha Shearer is a frequent contributor to Villages-News.com

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