The hard work of democracy

Susan and I landed at London’s Heathrow airport the morning after the Brexit referendum. Back in the US, Democrats were conducting a sit-in on the House floor in an effort to shame their GOP colleagues into allowing a vote on a measure to reduce gun violence. On both sides of the Atlantic, the political elites seem paralyzed and out of touch with key sectors of the electorate. Large numbers of Americans and Brits feel they are not being heard. There is anger and frustration with elected leaders who are self-serving, unresponsive to real needs and (in the case of the US) controlled by lobbyists and moneyed interests.      

Yet, paradoxically, on both sides of the Atlantic, constituents often vote against their own self-interest. In Sunderland in northeast England, the “Leave” campaign won 61% percent of the vote despite the fact that the region is a large recipient of European money and is home to Britain’s largest car factory from where Nissan exports duty-free to the continent. In the US, since the days of Reagan, the GOP has succeeded in winning the support of many white blue collar workers even while Republican policies have helped to widen the rich-poor gap.  

Healthy democracies depend on a well-informed public. Electorates in the US and the UK have been very poorly served by media obsessed with ratings and sensationalism. Responsible media might have exposed Trump as a fraud much earlier. But recent events demonstrate that humans are often influenced more by emotion that by rational argument. We may ignore data but we will resonate with stories; indeed our brains are wired for story. Stories are what make us human. They give meaning to life. They form our identity. 

Stories of course can distort how we remember history. After the American Civil War, the humiliated Southern states developed myths depicting a heroic past and erected monuments to the Lost Cause. It is a universal trait among people with an uncertain future. As Eqbal Ahmad, the Pakistani political scientist and journalist observed, they “affect distorted engagements with the past. They eschew lived history, shut out its lessons, shun critical inquiry into the past…but at the same time invent an imagined past – shining and glorious, upon which are superimposed the prejudices and hatreds of our own times.”   

Listening to post-referendum radio interviews with UK voters, I was struck by the many references to sacrifices in two World Wars and to pride in Britain’s past by those who support leaving the EU. America reflects a similar pattern where older working class whites seem to long for a return to the good old days. Those good old days, of course, were better for some Americans than for others. In the 1950s, a white middle class (many of whom started from humble beginnings) grew rapidly and built unprecedented wealth as a result of the GI bill which enabled them to become homeowners, but blacks were largely excluded by discriminatory bank lending policies. Federally financed highways allowed whites to escape to the suburbs, while minorities were trapped in the inner cities. School segregation continued for decades even after the 1954 Supreme Court decision. 

Current demographic trends show that Americans in increasing numbers are choosing to live in areas populated by people who share their political and cultural views. And we rely on media sources that reinforce our biases and prejudices. In both America and Europe, cultural and generational divides are becoming more evident.   

What can be done to address the growing threats to responsible democracy in Europe and the US? Joyce McMillan wrote in The Scotsman newspaper a few days before the referendum result, “Only a move towards a modern form of social democracy can find the answers we need.”  While few of us may be in positions to affect policy directly, there are steps that any of us can take. Here are a few for starters: 

We must all get involved in the exercising of democracy. At the most basic level this means voting at the local, state or county and national level. While 75% of 18 to 24 year-old Britons favored staying in the EU, only 36% actually bothered to vote. Democracy is hard work and requires more than debates on social media. As Bernie Sanders discovered, “momentum” is not enough.    

We can consciously choose to put ourselves in places where we hear the stories of people of varied life experiences and views. We don’t all have to agree but we can all learn something from people who think differently. Instead of contributing to the fragmentation of society we can choose lifestyles that tend to build community. Try actually talking to our neighbors and spend less time on Facebook or Twitter.    

On both sides of the Atlantic we must acknowledge the hopes and the fears that are the natural response to rapidly changing social, economic, cultural and demographic realities. Globalization brings benefits while also demanding painful adjustments, but together we can build a shared vision for the future in which the contribution of everyone is welcomed and valued.