Voices

Democracy Redux
Tom Dorrance, upper school history teacher


This morning Upper School Division Head Liza Raynal and Tom Dorrance, upper school history teacher, led an all-division meeting to respond to yesterday’s events. They both presented reflections on what happened and affirmations of what we value as an institution, most notably democracy. Below is the transcript of Tom’s speech. 

In October, I shared with you all some thoughts that I had about American democracy, discussing the fragile nature of a system that can at times veer between extremes of frustrating deadlock and unruly chaos. When I said that line about fragility, I was not, however, trying to be prophetic. Instead, I was trying to challenge what I felt can be an unexamined acceptance of democracy as a default setting—our normal, always there, constant like gravity. 

Perhaps I was naive to think of democracy as an unexamined constant in our political culture. Our current moment is not actually unique in the way we see frustrations with democracy bubbling up all around us. Democracy is frustrating. It requires rules and respect for the rules, which feels anathema in this land of rugged individualism. On both the right and the left we casually use bureaucracy as a pejorative, yearn for great leaders operating in an unfettered market, or get caught in the romance of revolution without paying attention to the substance of revolt. I know I’ve fallen into both of these poses at different times in my life. As we see so vividly now, democracy requires both fighting against unjust laws and accepting the rule of law especially when we do not agree with the outcome: sometimes it can be easy to tell the difference between the need to fight and the need to accept the rule of law, sometimes it can be really hard.  

I’ve been hearing that line about the fragility of democracy repeated a lot in the last 24 hours. The point I was making in the original talk was that structurally, our system of democracy is set up to be fragile: It only works when we accept the views of those we disagree with as legitimate and demand that our own views be accepted as legitimate as well. The system is also designed to move slowly, a feature particularly frustrating in times of crisis when cries for decisive action are at their most fevered state. There have been times in our history when crises have brought us together, but often only after traveling through trials of partisanship. One might think of the bitter fights between isolationists and interventionists over the United States’ involvement in World War II before the attack on Pearl Harbor made the decision to enter World War II appear automatic. 

Beyond the structural fragility inherent to our political system, there is another source of fragility that I mentioned in the first talk that is also as old as our system of government. This source of fragility is based in the tense relationship between citizenship and democracy. As I stated in the first talk, this country was not founded as a democracy. 

“The architects of our political system,” I explained, “felt that the experiment in self-government, forming a government of the people, was . . . too precious to be left to the passions of full democracy. Their vision of the republic was one that was always teetering on the edge of corruption and collapse. Many—not all, but many—of the more powerful members of the founding cohort distrusted wage earners, sailors, the landless poor, to say nothing of women, indigenous peoples, and enslaved peoples of African descent.” 

Self rule was, at the time, intended to be a select club, one based on merit not birth—which we should recognize is a significant departure from the “old world,” but merit of course still tends to be a highly subjective term. Democratic governance is, of course, far easier when everyone looks the same, has the same beliefs and values, the same education, and the same interests.  

So here is what seems to be one of the most stubborn challenges in the history of American democracy, the belief that being white, wealthy, Protestant, and male gives you ownership over our system of governance, and it is an ownership that tends to be jealously guarded and is only shared more often through pressure from those on the outside rather than through the good will of those on the inside. I described this conflict in the original talk as the stubborn and often subversive insistence of people demanding their humanity be recognized. 

I was uncomfortable and disgusted with the reality I was confronted with yesterday. I wish I was surprised, and I feel angry that this was a predictable conclusion that has seemed to be looming like a knife dangling over our heads these past four years. Even with the predictability of this violence, I am glad that it still felt uncomfortable. I relish and am grateful for the discomfort. I hope you all had a similar reaction, not because I want you to feel badly, but because that discomfort is a recognition that this is wrong, that rioters can’t change elections just because they don’t agree with the results. It is discomforting to see the discrepancies in the police response to Black Lives Matter protests and the capitol riot. It is discomforting to see this insistence on an ownership over our system of government that is based in white ethno-nationalism displayed in so nakedly, that the people participating in the riots, and perhaps even more, the people enabling and encouraging these actions prioritize their sense of ownership over their commitment to democratic principles. 

American history is inspiring and frustrating. If you squint and look at the historical record with one eye, there is a long story of triumph: of people standing up and refusing to accept or be complicit to injustice; of people willing to risk their lives and livelihood to force this country to live up to its principles and to make a more just world for future generations. If you squint and look at the historical record with a different eye, you see the bodies of those who have made that sacrifice—most unwillingly rather than willingly. You see the persistent need to maintain that struggle and the constant efforts to push back and resist the claims toward humanity and mutual respect that we sadly must continue to reaffirm. 

I thought a lot about what I wanted to accomplish with this talk, how to conclude, what my main takeaways are. In the last talk, it was about embracing the tension inherent to democracy even though that requires patience and a recognition that we as individuals only reach our fullest potential in a community of diverse perspectives. I talked about democracy as being based in a faith in each other as humans. 

I am, as a stubborn optimist, drawn toward ending on a note of hope. But what is faith, what is hope? I think these terms, when we look at the historical record of our nation are calls to action rather than passive beliefs that things will get better. I think we should be uncomfortable with yesterday’s events and not try to run from this discomfort. I think we should be angry that rioting in our capital building has overshadowed the beauty and remarkable success of the grassroots movement to increase voter participation and put democracy in action in Georgia. And I think we need to recognize that what American history shows us is that while this struggle will change, progress will happen, the lines of inclusion will move, the struggle itself will not vanish. That just as a thirst for freedom is encoded in our DNA so is its denial. Democracy is precious, that preciousness leads some to want to guard it and keep it for themselves and inspires others to continue to move the needle and make our national community a more free and inclusive place. 
 



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