Where Does Democracy Come From?

When the WHAT and the WHO of democracy break our hearts and seem to be twisted beyond recognition and repair, we must ask a new question, WHERE does democracy come from?

I accompanied my grandsons to a community Martin Luther King rally a few years ago.  The five year old carried a sign that said, “This is What Democracy Looks Like.” Our homemade banner said, “The More Friends the Better.”

Last week, a friend told me she felt bereft realizing the aching chasm in the U.S. between the civic ideals of democracy and the daily news filled with voter suppression campaigns, revelations of systemic racism, the suppressed history of the massacres of blacks, fights between vaccine takers and vaccine rejecters, on and on.  She asked, “How did we lose our way? Where are we going?”

On Memorial Day, President Biden said, “democracy is in peril.” As he commemorated America’s war dead he called for our personal empathy. He said, “What we do now, how we honor the memory of the fallen, will determine whether democracy will long endure.”

Fair voting laws and procedures mark an essential WHAT of democracy. Law-makers elected to office by the majority of the people mark an important WHO of democracy. Freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights, fair treatment in housing, education and commerce are cherished IDEALS of democracy.  The WHAT, the WHO and the IDEALS of democracy are in turmoil. Power grabs threaten election practices, racial prejudice poisons justice, fear and greed trample fair treatment. Divisiveness outmaneuvers empathy. Too often, the color of a person’s skin or the amount of economic assets a person has determines to what degree they experience the expectations of democracy.

There is acute breakdown but also opportunity to restore this splintering. When IDEALS are upended with facts and the WHAT and the WHO of democracy break our hearts and seem to be long gone or never ever even there; when the U.S. President feels democracy threatened and calls people to increase empathy, we are pushed to ask a new question, WHERE does democracy come from?

Terry Tempest Williams wrote, “The first home of democracy is the human heart.” Jacob Needleman in his book, The American Soul asked, “Can we become men and women who are inwardly democratic? Can we step back from personal emotions in order to allow the other to think and speak and live? Democracy in this sense refers not only to an outer form of government, but it is a power within oneself.”

Needleman insightfully suggests that, “because America betrays its ideals is no reason to reject the ideals themselves.  We don’t live in correspondence with the great hidden within us, but that is no reason to deny that this hidden life exists and calls to us.”

Inner democracy has to do with our hearts, in that which is hidden within; in that which calls to us, in that which, in a mysterious way, makes us one humanity. We are evolving to embrace a deeper meaning of democracy. It is uniquely personal:  it begins in our heart, it is strengthened (or derailed) by our choices, and it thrives with our contributions.

Inner democracy is a chosen spiritual path, a way of life marked by unending challenges and choices. Traditionally, democracy has been framed by principles and governance structures written in the U.S. Constitution. Now we know it stands for that and more…it provides free open space to search inside ourselves for meaning and to contribute for the good of the whole planet.

The beating down of America’s democratic ideals shakes us to our core.  The shakes can demoralize us or teach us something new. At our core, we may find “collateral strength” – a personal resolve and responsibility to undertake the good and the just, to experience a deeper meaning in our lives, to relate with something that transcends us.

We need to decide what kind of difference we want to make.  It’s not about them, but it’s about me, you and all of us together. What systems of unfairness and injustice pierce your heart? What suffering  makes you cry? What betrayals of democracy make you so mad that you choose to step out of your comfort zone and take action to stop it?  What can we all do differently to see a need, reach out and lend a hand?

Next MLK Day, I want my grandsons to know they are standing up for values they care most about. I want them to be assured that their actions, big or small, make a difference. I want them to feel that their choices really mean something and that their civic actions are needed by others. I want us to head to the street rally, each with a smiling self-portrait that proclaims, “This is Where Democracy Comes From!”