Lessons for Our Democracy from the Not-so-distant Past

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. Photo courtesy of Tom Ehrich/RNS

As latter-day partisans fling terms like “dictator” and “Nazi,” I decided to read William Shirer’s classic book about the real thing.

In “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” the historian describes Adolf Hitler as a sad little man — a layabout and chronic failure — who discovered his larger-than-life quest, convinced himself he was above all normal constraints and found the combination of scapegoating (blaming Jews and Slavs for Germany’s woes) and delusion (grandiose master-race theory) that would justify trampling on lesser lives.

Mocked as clownish at first and imprisoned for a foolhardy putsch, Hitler kept honing his message, created a strong organizational structure, unleashed a cadre of brown-shirted bullies to attack dissenting voices and waited patiently for collapsing national fortunes to make his vision of national purpose appealing.

The Supreme Court's Assault on Democracy

y3s0rn0 and Stephanie Frey/

y3s0rn0 and Stephanie Frey/

It started when the United States Supreme Court determined that corporations were people and, as such, had similar rights and protections as us oxygen-breathing types. And now, in another recent decision, the court has decided that people (individual human beings or corporations) have the right to donate to an unlimited number of political candidates — therefore removing the aggregate cap on total donation amounts — as such gifts should be protected as an exercising of free speech, as defined in the constitution.

So much for representative democracy.

It’s my understanding that the founders of our nation and the framers of our constitution held the notion of representative democracy fairly sacred.

A Parched Patch of Prejudice

The U.S. Constitution with an American flag. Photo courtesy of Mark Hayes via Shutterstock

Conservative Christians are claiming that their religious freedom requires free rein for legalized discrimination.

That’s a clever argument. It seems to claim the moral high ground, to align itself with basic constitutional principles, and to put bigots in the victim role.

The argument is utter nonsense, of course. Freedom of belief has nothing to do with compelling other people to bow to that belief. If anything, freedom of belief should lead to a broad umbrella of diversity, not a parched patch of prejudice.

The First Amendment to the Constitution, after all, sought to guarantee freedom — of religion, speech, the press, assembly, and petitioning the government — not to grant freedom to some and not others, depending on the whims of the powerful or pious.

'A Man Who Has Done His Duty'


The author was in Mandela Square on the night Nelson Mandela died. Jaxons/Shutterstock

When he was asked how he would like to be remembered, former president Nelson Mandela was very clear: “I would like it to be said that, ‘Here lies a man who has done his duty on earth.’ That is all.”

It so happened that I had dinner on Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton, Johannesburg, on the night that he died. At the time I was unaware of his death — like most of South Africa I woke up with the news the next morning. The huge statue in the square and the nearby shop selling memorabilia would probably be the furthest removed from how Madiba himself would like to be remembered, but I suppose he realized that this was inevitable for someone who had become a global icon of freedom and justice.

In the famous Rivonia trial where he received a life sentence for his role in fighting the apartheid system, he said the following of democracy: “It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” 

Democracy is a Marketplace of (Sometimes Obnoxious) Ideas

Demonstration against racism and police brutality held in Philadelphia, Pa. on Feb. 15, 1986. RNS file photo by Bruce Williams

Time was when a determined minority vowed to change the nation’s collective mind about racial integration and the Vietnam War.

I was in that minority. We considered our cause just. We called our tactics “civil disobedience,” “grass-roots organizing,” “protest,” “civil rights,” “saving America.”

It’s a bit disingenuous now for us to lambaste a conservative minority for wanting the same leverage and for using the same tactics. “Civil disobedience” can’t be relabeled “obstructionism” just because the other side is using it.

Why I Love My Country

Margaret M Stewart /

Constitution with American flag and Statue of Liberty, Margaret M Stewart /

What do I love about America? I love the land, one of the most spectacularly beautiful countries in the world (and I’ve visited many of them). I love walking our long stretches of beaches, hiking our majestic mountains, seeing the desert skies, walking beside the rivers, sailing along the coasts, and visiting hundreds of lakes in my home state of Michigan, where I camped as a kid. I even love some of our big cities! “O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, for purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plains.” I love our many diverse cultures, including their music, their food, their art, their sports, and their particular stories and histories.

I especially love our best national values: freedom, opportunity, community, justice, human rights, and equality under the law for all of our citizens of every race, creed, culture, and gender, not just for the rich and powerful. In particular, I love our tradition and history of democracy, its steady expansion here, and how it has inspired the same all over the world. We take legitimate pride in seeing how our founding documents have been the models for many new nations.

A Caution in Pursuing the Common Good

Social speech bubble,  Cienpies Design /

Social speech bubble, Cienpies Design /

Whenever I hear the term Common Good I think of Thomas Paine’s infamous pamphlet Common Sense,which challenged the British government and the royal monarchy, but did not challenge the institution of slavery. As an African-American woman I enter the Common Good conversation cautiously because I know that in our society we have a habit of taking what is good for Western hegemony and making it the standard for everyone else.

As we pursue the Common Good, let us remember what was once considered common and good during earlier points in American history: chattel slavery, indigenous genocide, and institutionalized sexism. To truly come to a Common Good, we need to honor a diversity of voices and challenge our assumptions about what is common and what is good. Our default is to take what is good for our culture, gender, or community and make it the common standard for all. I have experienced being invited into organizations that were aiming to do good in the world, but an expectation existed that I would be silent about my unique concerns as an African woman. I know that denying my reality can never be good for my spiritual, physical, or social well being.

Is Democratic Optimism Grounded in Reality?

Think positive illustration: Anson0618 /

Think positive illustration: Anson0618 /

I’m a fan of TIME Magazine. It offers concise, intelligent summaries and opinions on the news that help keep me up with current events. They had an interesting article in the last few weeks about the factors that seem to affect a political party’s election results in the upcoming cycle. From their findings, it’s the party perceived to be most optimistic about the nation’s future that tends to come out on top. A fascinating bit of psychology, if not necessarily scientifically rigorous in its conclusions.

And then, in the most recent issue, there’s a pages-long piece by Bill Clinton called “The Case for Optimism,” which outlined five reasons to look ahead with hope toward our collective future. Coincidence? Maybe. But the timing of the two pieces, particularly only weeks out from a presidential election, seems more than a little bit opportunistic.

Call me cynical, but never let it be said that I’m above holding the Democrats’ feet to the fire when they pander. Yes, both parties do it, but it seems to me it’s most effective when it’s a little less in-your-face about it. President Obama rode a tide of optimism into the White House four years ago, only to watch his support erode after the reality didn’t live up to the speeches in many cases. But we wanted to hear it, and it worked. So it’s no surprise they’re giving it another go-round.

But are there grounds for such high hopes?