I feel the need to apologize. Considering the current turmoil in our government, many a soul has joined our nation’s current catastrophic political discourse. The plight of our nation is weighing heavily upon us. I desired to write something to distract us from our circumstances, but was compelled by this month’s theme of “power” to offer my own insight into the situation. In light of this, I hope that you may open your mind to listen to my message, another voice striving to be heard in the din of our political conversation.
Our current president, in the short week and a half he has been in office, has been accused of tyranny thousands of times. To be fair, he has deserved the many of the accusations. As I have a wife who works with refugee resettlement, I am most familiar with his executive order on immigration, but this alone has shown the instincts of a tyrant. The validity of this order is not the main topic of this entry, but even if the order was completely acceptable, the application has not been, as government agents have denied legal residents entry to this country. Green card and valid visa holders, people who have jobs, families, and lives in this country, have had all of these things stripped away by the stroke of a pen.
While the past week and a half has given us a taste of the dangers of a misguided government, I am concerned about another type of power, a power that has received nothing but accolades in the current political climate. The power of the people is foundational in the American conception of proper government, but this power, no matter how crucial, is not without its perils. As we turn our eyes towards Washington with growing concern, let us remember that our response to the current threat can be just as dangerous as the threat itself.
One of the many videos circulating the internet was a scene at the JFK Airport, where 11 visa and green card holders were being detained for the misfortune of being from a country that has been determined by the current administration as “terror prone.” A protest had formed outside, with various chants circulating among the group. Out of all the slogans they chanted, there was one that troubled me. Several times, they repeated “What does democracy look like? This is what democracy looks like!” While I am sympathetic to their cause and think that this protest was warranted, I don’t think that popular protests define what democracy looks like.
That type of power, the power of the screaming crowd, worries me. Outright tyranny is much easier to identify than a tyrannous majority. In the end, while our current president concerns me, his blatant disregard for anything that approaches compromise (or even common sense) will hurt him. We need to limit the damage he will do and has already done in the White House, and people are hyper-vigilant to curtail his attempts to treat the USA like his own company. I think this vigilance, as long as it is accompanied by a willingness to act, will help keep the power of Washington in check.
Most people agree that we need to minimize the effect our president’s actions have on this country. Protests are one way to do this, but that’s not the primary method of democracy. Our nation’s architects recognized that a free country is always in danger from the passions of the people. As James Madison warns in The Federalist Papers, “So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities… the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.” Some of the world’s greatest tragedies have been perpetuated by ordinary people caught up in the passion of the majority. A protest is an outlet for pent up feeling, and that feeling eventually needs to be channeled into reasoned discourse and debate. Democracy is a dialogue, and in a protest there is only one voice speaking.
In the effort to combat the tyranny that people worry about with our president, the importance of the dialogue of democracy has vanished. There are times we need to join together with and with one voice and speak out against injustice, but eventually, that voice needs to become two. Sometimes, the necessity for one voice in particular situations makes people think we must have one voice in every situation. I worry how many news articles, social media posts, and blog entries have taken on the ‘one voice’ tone, the tone that there is no other valid side to be reasoned with, but only a cause to be championed. I’m worried that we’ll get so used to standing up for justice that we’ll forget when we need to stand down from our opinions. We need to remember that while the second voice may not be right, we need it there to hold the first voice accountable, especially the more confident the first voice is.
It is now easier than ever to drown out the second voice. The internet has made it simple to find likeminded people to reinforce our own opinions and block out voices that disagree with us. We become so used to the absence of real dialogue we think that public discourse should reinforce what we already think, rather than change it, and that the will of the people means unanimity.
In this time that some are calling a watershed moment in our nation’s history, I think a great deal about one of the defining moments of our country. At the end of the Constitutional Convention, the members realized that America now had the difficult decision of ratifying this new document. Benjamin Franklin, a great wit as well as a brilliant man, admitted that even though he didn’t agree with everything in the Constitution, he recognized that “Most men… think themselves in possession of all truth… though… few express it so naturally as a certain French Lady, who, in a little dispute with her sister, said, ‘But I meet with nobody but myself that is always in the right.'” He told the Convention that though their Constitution wasn’t perfect, he was going to sign it, and he asked others to do the same. He knew he was asking a lot, but he hoped that “every member… would with me on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility, and, to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this Instrument.”
We have recently had some object lessons of the danger of one man with a lot of power and a strong sense of personal infallibility. We have also started to see how the people can respond to that danger, and how the voice of the many can keep authority in check. My only request is that, as we prepare for unified action, let us not forget that a people convinced of their own infallibility can be just as dangerous as a tyrant. Our founders recognized this, as they also recognized that they had a free country not in spite of those who disagreed with them, but because of them, with cooperation and brotherhood in the midst of varied voices and opinion.