A relatively recent and compelling study sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Georgetown University’s Baker Center for Leadership & Governance found that only 40 percent of Americans are satisfied with our nation's democracy. In another major study, Scottish political scientist Christopher Claassen found that support for democracy has declined in many nations around the world, particularly in non-Western nations. These are sobering results. Indeed, many of us, I suspect, walk through our days wondering whether civil discourse in the United States is being tested in unprecedented ways given the current political climate. Historian Jon Meacham, in his trenchant book The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels argues that our nation has been here before, and we’ve survived the intense ideological friction. Let’s listen to Padma Venkatraman’s keen insights about this daunting, contemporary challenge, one that often begins in our own backyards.
Padma Venkatraman, an oceanographer by training, is the author of a number of books, focused especially on young readers. Her latest work is The Bridge Home. Venkatraman lives with her family in Narragansett, Rhode Island.
"Do you still believe democracy works?" My eleven-year-old asks.
We're trying to recover from a defeat that feels immensely personal, after campaigning relentlessly for a cause that we're shocked required any campaigning.
In 2016, 70% of our town voted in favor of a bond to fund the purchase of a new building for our public library. Despite this, some members of our town council oppose the move. We've clarified that the current building doesn't comply with accessibility standards, shown that buying the new building makes financial sense, and listed numerous reasons why we value our free library. Still, it appears that a few may undo what six thousand citizens assiduously worked for.
No wonder my daughter questions the very foundation of our government.
It's easy to believe in democracies when the majority mirrors us, or when we get our way because of a rule that permits the imposition of one powerful person's will against the majority's wishes. It's hard when we have setbacks and serious and divisive disputes, be it over a town library, border wall, immigration, international trade, arms, or global climate change.
Yet I know that although I'm shaken and depressed by events locally, nationally, and internationally, I firmly believe in democracy.
When I look back at the past two-and-a-half years, I see not only animosity and vitriol, but also something wonderful and rare in today's politically divided landscape. Republicans, Democrats and Independents joined forces in our town to rally around an institution we love, united by our belief in the abiding value of public libraries and what they stand for: liberty and justice for all.
And, I realize that our ability to come together regardless of ideology for the sake of our community keeps alive my hope in the basis of democracy, human strength, and the power of goodness.
Ultimately, my belief in democracy is rooted in the idea that we each have a seed of compassion within us, a seed that can blossom and grow until it overshadows fear and hate. I haven't stopped hoping that humans will unite peacefully to meet the myriad challenges we now face, in our nation and around the whole world.
So, as I tell my daughter, I do believe that if we, as a people, overcome difference and act unselfishly, greed can give way to generosity, intelligence can conquer shortsightedness and compassion can triumph.