In a story often told about the Constitutional Convention of 1787 – the gathering of our country’s founders that produced the blueprint of our great democracy – someone reportedly asked Benjamin Franklin if the delegates had just crafted a monarchy or a republic.
“A republic, if you can keep it,” Franklin is said to have replied.
That comment raises a frightening prospect for our country today, as many of us ask, “Are we losing our democracy?”
That’s a reasonable question, given the breakdown of civility in our political process. When campaign rallies resemble mob scenes, when candidates encourage violence and unlawful retribution against their opponents, then we all need to ask ourselves, “How did we end up like this? And more importantly, how do we fix it?”
Much of the fault lies with our current national leadership. We have a president who has yet to repudiate the sickening Nazi salutes given to him by white supremacists, and who has called our free press “the enemy of the American people.” Is it any wonder that many of us feel shaken?
But Donald Trump isn’t the only leader who has failed to set a civil tone. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to grant a hearing to President Obama’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court – an action that was technically within McConnell’s right, but which defied this country’s belief in the orderly flow of respectful discourse among our three branches of government.
Meanwhile, a recent Washington Post survey found that 52 percent of Republicans would support postponing the 2020 presidential election issue if Donald Trump proposed doing so.
So how do we fix this? And I say “we” deliberately, because the fix is going to have to come from us, the American people.
For starters, put down your phone. Stop letting pundits from the right and the left tell you how to think, and spend some time studying this country’s history, so that you can frame your own perspective.
We have come through other frightening times, including the Civil War and the Great Depression. That Constitution that Benjamin Franklin helped ratify? It was designed to stand the test of time, and we have seen the system of checks and balances reasserted again and again.
Speak up, in any way that you can. Contact not just the lawmakers with whom you agree, but also the ones with whom you disagree. Demand explanations. Hold them accountable.
And finally, put your belief in democracy into action. Join a peaceful protest. Volunteer to help those being targeted in these difficult times – immigrants, those from countries on Trump’s ill-conceived travel bans, or society’s less fortunate, who stand to lose health care and other benefits.
It’s not enough just to vent your anger on Facebook and Twitter. We all need to take action, and the time to take action is now. The founders designed our Constitution to be a flexible, living document with its roots in timeless truths, yet applicable in whatever troubled times we are experiencing.
We hear a great deal about patriotism these days – sometimes from people who have appropriated that term for the wrong reasons – but it is indeed patriotic to follow the long, proud tradition of looking to our Constitution to address inequality. In doing so, you will be following the long line of true patriots who spoke up for civil liberties, voting rights, equality of women and people of color, and the end of discrimination against people for their religious beliefs or sexual identity.
We are responsible for cutting through the cloud of half-truths and outright lies circulating through our democracy today. We must speak truth to power, and we must put our words into actions. Then, and only then, will we have the ability to preserve the republic that Benjamin Franklin helped craft.
Dr. Fred Kowal is President of the 35,000 member United University Professions, which represents faculty on 29 New York State Campuses. UUP is an affiliate of NYSUT, The American Federation of Teachers, The National Education Association and the AFL-CIO.
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