The promise of American democracy is that all people are equal in our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is the bond that propelled 13 colonies to make war against the greatest military of the day and that pitted brother against brother in the Civil War. It is the social contract that has compelled generation after generation, through one challenge after another, to seek ways to better fulfill our commitments to Justice, domestic Tranquility, the common Defense, the general Welfare, and the blessings of Liberty.
That’s why every voice not only must be counted, it must be heard as well. Listening to those voices is critical to the effective decision making that builds a better democracy. Ignoring them over long periods of time is like allowing a forest to grow drier and drier and drier, the kindling awaiting a spark. That’s exactly what we’ve done, repeatedly, throughout our history. And every time, we relearn the lesson that eventually, the forest goes up in flames in a conflagration, just as eventually the public’s anger boils over and people take to the streets in protest to demand the changes the decision makers had ignored for too long.
These are the simple dynamics that characterize rule of the people, by the people, for the people. Understanding them means we should be able to change how we govern ourselves, shouldn’t it?
Wouldn’t a series of controlled burns be a more apt — though somewhat unsettling — analogy for how we should manage ourselves? Doesn’t it make more sense to implement a steady stream of improvements to the system that increase access to healthcare, reduce wealth and income inequality, expand voter protections, and shift us to cleaner, more sustainable sources of energy? Wouldn’t that bring more stability and sustainable prosperity to the nation as a whole?
Part of our struggle in this precarious election year is to persuade the many who have understandably lost faith in the promise of democracy to give it another shot. But it will take more than noble words or kneeling once or donating a few dollars to make real systemic change. It means holding ourselves accountable for failing to persistently press our leaders in business and government to enact the changes we need to ensure that we deliver on our commitments to all segments of the population. To paraphrase Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations (that other influential work published in 1776), our democracy cannot flourish if large numbers of our people are poor and miserable — and ignored. We sink or swim together.
The promise of democracy means developing the collective will to make the changes in our own lives, our business practices, and our politics so that those neglected members of our society are able to share equitably in the benefits of an economy that depends on their labor.
Of course, another dynamic affecting our democracy is the one that is always creating new challenges to our pursuit of that promise and that will always force many unwanted choices on our citizens.
Today, artificial intelligence and automation are already eliminating the need for human labor in several industries, and are on a path to put tens of millions of people out of work. Climate change is putting added pressure on resource-limited areas of the country, where legal battles over water rights are not new but can be expected to intensify and perhaps spill beyond the courtroom as imperfect solutions grow more unacceptable. The changing climate will also contribute to increased migration around the world from the hardest hit areas to those wealthier countries that seem best able to adapt to the changing environment. And that in turn will challenge those countries to share resources that are under increasing stress.
These are just some of the unpleasant scenarios that we know await us and that are likely to challenge our commitment to the promise of democracy. As we make our way through the current conflagration of pandemic, economic crisis, and emboldened authoritarianism and white supremacy, let’s press our leaders to keep an eye toward the horizon so that we can best plot a course for us all to swim.