Whatever happens in the next few months, we are unequivocally at the end of an era. This month American voters stepped up, turned out in record numbers and changed the course of history. Now is a good time to take stock of what we've learned and how we can use those lessons going forward.
In the past four years, we have learned an incredible amount about democracy and leadership.
We learned about personality cults, malignant narcissism and charismatic leaders. We learned about emoluments, quid pro quos, self-dealing and impeachment. We learned an awful lot about keeping tax returns secret.
We learned about nepotism, loyalty oaths, security clearances and the Presidential Daily Brief. We learned about our nation's allies and standing in the world — and about treaties and peace accords, political and military alliances, and international health and justice organizations.
We learned the difference between administration officials who are Senate-confirmed and only "acting." We learned about the rule of law and how it can get subverted. We rediscovered the obscure Third Amendment and what it could mean for the military quelling protest in the capital.
We learned to differentiate representative democracy from fascism and authoritarianism. We learned that "politicians who emerge from democratic practices can then work to undo democratic institutions," as Yale historian Timothy Snyder wrote way back in 2017. We learned about failed states, oligarchies and banana republics.
We learned about the role of government in public health and public faith. We learned about truth, lies and propaganda. We learned about mutual aid.
We learned that a small group of dedicated bad actors can do a tremendous amount of damage if they have access to the levers of power.
And we learned all this at a dizzying pace, like a college student cramming all night for a test in the morning, because every morning posed a new test.
But we learned about far more than our democracy and the ways it is threatened. We also learned we are not helpless.
We learned how to act in the face of threat — about how to get to work in defense of democracy. We learned how to call and write our senators and House members. We learned how to march, how to stand in, how to sit in and how to hold vigil. We learned how to document and circulate and broadcast. We learned how to lobby, how to agitate and how to protest.
We learned how to write and speak and educate and train ourselves and the next generation of leaders to be active participants in democracy, not bystanders or detached observers. We learned how to build coalitions, and hopefully we learned how to sustain them.
We learned how to run for office, how to recruit a diverse field of candidates, how to register new voters and how to protect the integrity of voting processes. We learned how to canvas, motivate voter turnout, get to the polls and get permission to vote by mail. We learned how to staff polling places and tally ballots and "cure" mistakes on our absentee ballot envelopes.
We learned how to advance legislation, how to register our support, how to express our opposition and how to demand accountability.
But for all the other concepts and ideas that we learned about our democracy, our greatest lesson was this: How to act in defense of our rights — to take responsibility for our freedoms and, just as importantly, to take responsibility for preserving the freedoms of the people around us. To seek truth and justice, especially on behalf of people who are targeted, harassed and persecuted.
We have tried, often imperfectly, to live up to these responsibilities for the past four years. And they do not change for us in the coming era, whatever that era ends up looking like. Responsibility is always the price of democracy. And responsibility demands our active engagement.
For all the learning we've done, we would do well to also re-learn the lesson often ascribed (questionably) to Jefferson: "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." Or a more recent version: "Democracy is not a spectator sport."
And as we learn and relearn those axioms, we need to remember not just what we've learned about how democracy functions, though those lessons are important. But we must also, and especially, remember what we've learned about acting on our own behalf.
Whether our people are the ones holding office or not, we cannot afford to check out. The cost of liberty is vigilance. We must continue to act in defense of our democracy, to lobby and advocate and sometimes agitate. To vote and interact with our representatives and build and sustain coalitions.
The lessons we've learned in the past four years have come at a tremendous cost. We should ensure we never have to pay that cost, and surely not an even higher one, ever again. We do that by practicing the lessons we've spent so much time learning in the past four years.
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Skinnell is an associate professor of rhetoric at San José State University, the editor of "Faking the News: What Can Rhetoric Teach Us about Donald J. Trump" (Societas) , and a fellow with The OpEd Project. a nonprofit that promotes more diversity among thought leaders
President Trump continues to be the subject of a string of ever-more shocking headlines. Just in the last few weeks, we learned how he reportedly disrespected the military and its leaders, how he admitted to misleading Americans about the coronavirus, and how his top officials allegedly altered intelligence reports about Russian disinformation and white supremacist terrorism to make them seem less threatening. (And that was all before the extraordinary reports about his taxes.)
As much as all the headlines tell us about Trump, they also tell us two important things about democracy. First, American democracy may be under attack but it is not yet destroyed. While the president's authoritarian aspirations are "abundant and unmistakable," he has yet to fulfill them, which is clear from the administration's efforts to downplay, deny, and disregard the headlines. Trump still has to appeal to voters; he can't just enforce support.
Second, the headlines provide a critical reminder about our civic sphere: As a political system, democracy is fundamentally built on disagreement, conflict and argument.
This may seem like an odd claim at a time when good democracy is much more frequently tied to the process of rising above our differences. Indeed, many Americans claim to want civility in their politics. In 2016, more than 80 percent of Americans "expressed disgust" over the acrimonious presidential campaign. In 2019, 83 percent of Americans "called divisiveness and gridlock 'a big problem.'" So it is clear many people view disagreement, conflict and argument as obstacles to democracy.
Counterintuitive though it may seem, they are key to democracy. Democracy assumes that people have different interests and perspectives, all of which can be legitimate.
When the Constitution was written in the 1780s, for example, the founders organized conventions to discuss what should be in the document. That is, there were formal meetings to facilitate disagreement, conflict and argument.
In many cases, attendees had legitimate disagreements about what should be the new federal government's roles and responsibilities. Delegates from the large and populous states, for example, arrived with expectations often different from their colleagues from the small and more parsley populated states. Northern and Southern, rural and urban, coastal and interior, poor and wealthy, and so on — people representing these perspectives, and their many possible combinations, had to be given a chance to weigh in. Without compromise that addressed everyone's needs to some degree, the Constitution couldn't have been ratified.
In a democracy, if everyone has a voice and everyone's perspectives are legitimate, then disagreement, conflict and argument are inevitable. Ideally disagreements, conflicts, and arguments are polite and respectful, but that ideal has rarely been a reality. As historian Ron Chernow wrote in 2010, "the rabid partisanship exhibited by Hamilton and Jefferson previewed America's future far more accurately than Washington's noble but failed dream of nonpartisan civility."
Civil or not, democracy is designed to let people argue their differences out and come to a compromise that serves the good of the whole. In other words: Disagreement, conflict and argument are a feature of democracy, not a bug.
In fact, people who value democracy should be suspicious of political systems where these three things are absent. Silencing dissent, ensuring order and preventing argument are bright warning signs of authoritarianism.
That brings us back to the present. With authoritarianism on the rise around the world, people who value democracy should be seeking to strengthen our political systems — not by avoiding disagreement, conflict and argument, but by practicing them more effectively.
Of course, good arguments are hard to practice effectively. Ideally everyone in a democracy would get a robust education that includes civics, history and rhetoric to aid them in the task. But that's a long-term solution to a problem we need to start solving immediately.
In the meantime, we can take guidance from scholars who study disagreement, conflict and argument. In "Demagoguery and Democracy," rhetoric scholar Patricia Roberts-Miller advocates for public discourse about policies that favors "inclusion, fairness, responsibility, skepticism and the 'stases.'"
That is, people who want to participate in good arguments should do these five things:
- Include anyone who can meaningfully contribute.
- Apply rules fairly across all perspectives.
- Take responsibility for their claims and evidence.
- Practice skepticism about their own convictions.
- Stay on topic.
This doesn't mean arguments have to be civil, only that they should take place on a level playing field.
Roberts-Miller's guidelines are a tall order for people arguing with strangers on the internet, but they are aspirational. As we teach ourselves to engage in better disagreement, conflict and argument, we can start by evaluating how well our candidates and elected officials uphold these aspirations. If they can't do it effectively, they shouldn't get our votes.
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