Protecting Core Democratic Values
Recently residents of Michigan learned that a commission tasked with setting socialstudies standards chose to remove the phrase “core democratic values” from the standards, along with several other important concerns. This was done at the behest of a Republican politician running for governor, who got himself appointed to the commission. He complained that that the phrase was partisan. After all, he wasn’t asking for “core republican values” to be part of the standards. I think that this politician flunked civics in high school. Having students learn about the “core democratic values” of the United States doesn’t involve learning the platform and principles of the Democratic Party. Instead, learning about our democratic values is to understand that all political power emerges from the people, who determine the priorities and principles of the nation through the exercise of their vote.
Now this politician argued that the United States isn’t really a democracy. It is a republic. He is partially correct. We are a republic, but that doesn’t mean we’re not a democracy as well. What we are is a representative democracy. While all power belongs to the people (democracy), they exercise that power through their votes to designate representatives, who make the day to day decisions. These representatives are beholden to the people (thus a democracy), who can determine whether they continue in office.
Our core democratic values were articulated by Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln opened his brief speech with the words “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Lincoln admitted that this vision with which the nation had been founded was an unfinished project. But with the ending of slavery that project was moving forward and needed to be protected. While the Civil War ended slavery, more was needed to extend citizenship and the vote to all citizens. That would take a series of Constitutional Amendments and legislation, which extended the vote first to former slaves and later to women. It would take more legislation in the 1960s to protect these values. These are our core democratic values, which must be protected, and which are under attack. There are a number of efforts that suppress the vote and disenfranchise voters (gerrymandering being one such effort). With elections on the horizon, it is important that we resist those efforts to undermine our democratic values, which are well articulated by Lincoln in the closing sentence of the Gettysburg Address:
It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
What is democracy, it is a government “of the people, by the people, for the people.” This is why I value the vote, and always make use of my vote. I might not always choose the winner, but I will have made my views known, even if in the secrecy of the ballot box. Those who serve in government do so at the behest of the people, which is the definition of a democracy. The founders put into place certain checks and balances that are designed to protect the minority view, so that the majority doesn’t run roughshod over them. Thus, this is a democracy, within limits. At the same time they tried to make sure that the nation didn't fall into authoritarianism. We're seeing a drift in that direction both at home and abroad. I pray we don't embrace it.
These are hard-won values, let us not treat them lightly. As Reinhold Niebuhr put it: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” [Reinhold Niebuhr, p. 254].