America is a 245-year-old experiment in democratic governance that is in grave danger of vanishing from the globe. Oh, you say, why are you so pessimistic? It never, ever occurred to me that I would see in my lifetime so much ill-will and downright ignorance embraced by millions of Americans. And then, as I began to ponder why so many Americans had reached this point, an “aha” moment struck me. Perhaps the stars had aligned to cast such a dark shadow.
Let’s begin with our fading civic culture, the social glue of trust that is essential for living with one another, add substance to the rule of law, and hold our institutions together. America’s civic culture has been spiraling downward for decades, although most Americans are blissfully unaware. There is no single cataclysmic event that made this happen, but one can point to several events that in toto are responsible.
Consider abolishment of the military draft in 1973 when the United States Armed Forces moved to an all-volunteer military. Ordinary Americans—men then—were no longer deemed necessary to form a fighting force to defend the country or save the world for democracy, as both World Wars I & II demanded. The socialization of young men as citizen soldiers and democracy avatars came to an end.
The next star that came into alignment was on the educational front. As a youngster, the daily school routine started with “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Today, neither schools nor teachers can require youngsters to take the pledge because of many legal challenges over the years. Some parents claim that a mandatory pledge violates First Amendment’s Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the Constitution. Others claim that the pledge discriminates on religious grounds (the “under God” phrase adopted in 1954 to differentiate American values from those advanced by the Soviet Union).
Another educational star that has been largely extinguished is the teaching of democratic citizenship and duty. Where in our high schools or universities does a student learn about the values that are essential to democratic citizenship? The answer to this question is both easy and disarming—nowhere! As a high school student in rural America, I and my fellow students were required to take a class on “citizenship” that began with a discussion of the values embedded in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. In his first State of the Union address, in 1790, George Washington implored Congress to invest in higher education to teach students the subtle and difficult art of good democratic citizenship. Alas, America’s higher educational institutions have failed to heed President Washington’s admonishment.
The last star to align is authoritarianism. Do you value liberty? Free speech? The right to assemble? Transparency? Surely you do, as I do. All are anathema to strong-man rule. Yet, millions of Americans are in the thrall of authoritarianism—governance by edict from on high. Americans either through laziness, plain ignorance, or an inability to grasp the fundamentals of democratic governance find strong-man rule (authoritarianism) a viable alternative. Woe are we!
So, dear friends, is the fragile experiment of democracy in America about to shatter? It is not easy to be optimistic, is it? Americans must summon the energy, courage, and political will to break up the constellation above—no easy but necessary task for patriots. We must not let the fragile but grand experiment in democratic governance fail.
Don Menzel is a past president of the American Society for Public Administration, author and international speaker on ethics reform. Before his recent move to Colorado, Don organized OLLI-USF’s China Special Interest Group. He also served as an OLLI-USF faculty member for over 10 years.