We must all be lifeguards for democracy
Frazier, a student at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, runs The Oregon Way, a nonpartisan blog.
One lifeguard stood guard over a Santa Cruz beach full of sunbathers and swimmers. With temps topping the 80s and the Pacific providing a cool, but not freezing, source of relief, the lifeguard had his hands full at once ensuring that basic beach etiquette was being followed and monitoring the surf for swimmers struggling against strong rip currents. Unsurprisingly, he couldn't do both.
A small girl snuck into the waves while her parents were distracted with three other children. In a flash, the girl had been toppled by a machine-washer of a wave and was losing a battle against the water to regain access to air. Thankfully, an outlooker identified the increasingly dire condition of the girl and sprinted into the water. The lifeguard came soon after, but absent the action of this good Samaritan it's unclear whether anyone would have been there in time.
Our democracy, like the beach, requires that we all actively contribute to a healthy public environment, rather than leaning on single individuals and institutions to do the entirety of the hard work of good governance and civil discourse.
At the beach, some people feel that they're off the hook when it comes to looking out for others — that's the lifeguard's job, they say. In our democracy, many people feel that it's on politicians, the media and civic institutions to reinforce democratic norms — that's their duty, they say.
In both cases, there's a faulty assumption at work — that the appointed safeguards have the resources (financial, personnel, temporal) required to protect everyone. That assumption may have held true decades ago, but just as the seas have become rougher, the illiberal waves crashing on the foundation of our democracy have become stronger. The result is that we can no longer rely on these singular entities to do a job that requires collective action.
At the beach, a safer experience for all requires a little more engagement by all. Despite the lifeguard placing a "rip tide warning" flag at the beach entry, repeatedly making calls on his megaphone and rushing into the surf on numerous occasions to help struggling swimmers, most beachgoers seemed quite fine ignoring the rules he tried to set. Part of this is an understandable inclination toward freedom and liberty — you're at the beach, after all, let other people do as they please! That inclination, though, can only go so far. A girl nearly lost her life — a situation that only occurred because of failures by public and private parties alike.
On the public end, the most glaring issue was a lack of lifeguards. On the private end, a number of parties were arguably at fault, including parents too busy with other kids and bystanders too fearful of litigation resulting from a rescue gone wrong.
In our democracy, a healthier democracy likewise is the responsibility of public and private stakeholders alike. For one, elected and public officials should be held to higher, more enforceable standards. A sample reform could be designating those standards and then empowering a bipartisan, independent agency to rigorously enforce those standards. Such a body would have been of immense value in Oregon during the state's last legislative session — at least three elected officials were the subjects of ethical investigations — each investigation took too long and involved too many partisan interests. A standing agency could have resolved each case in a standardized, transparent and efficient manner — resulting in better behavior among officials and more trust among the public.
But we should not hold our breath for elected officials suddenly improving their behavior. Voters and the public in general have to take ownership over our collective civic health. Self-restraint is in order: for example, reserving Facebook for photos of friends and family, rather than as a platform for partisan mud-slinging. But we can and should also do more to intervene on the behalf of others: inviting friends and family to attend city council meetings, encouraging community leaders to run for office, asking others to join a mutual pledge to volunteer more in the community.
Collective action (and restraint) is required for everyone to have a great day at the beach; same goes for everyone to access the liberty and freedoms created by a strong democracy.
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