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We Must Be There in the Critical Moments to Make Sure Democracy Doesn’t Die

Both sides of the aisle should agree that American democracy has suffered from our neglect. Democracy will not survive if it is taken for granted.

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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Almost daily, I face the arduous task of getting through the bedtime ritual without losing my patience with my young children. Some evenings, I give in to their demands. This typically involves sitting in the dark room of my youngest while he drifts off to sleep.

However, thanks to the iPhone and news apps, the quiet room and my illuminated screen afford time to catch up on the news of the day while simultaneously easing the anxieties of my nearly sleeping son.

That was the setting when an article grabbed my attention with the title “The Week Democracy Died.” The article chronicles the aftermath of the Brexit vote; the Bastille Day terrorist attack in Nice; the attempted coup in Turkey; and Donald Trump’s first public appearance with his running mate, Gov. Mike Pence.

And it raises some good points on how these seemingly disconnected events illustrate trends confronting liberal democratic political systems that are forcing them to fight for their survival. The article offers much to consider, and but my reaction to the headline was of disbelief.

Surely, democracy isn’t dead.

Good headlines are like toddlers in that the most dramatic tactics often get our attention. The following day, I found the end of the article suggesting that our political values have become old habit. Although ideals of democracy are all around us, they “have surrounded us in a diffuse way for so long, we have begun to forget their meaning and grandeur.”

As John Stuart Mill warned in “On Liberty,” we stop thinking about democracy because we take it for granted.

On this point, I believe supporters of democracy on both the right and left will agree. American democracy has suffered from our neglect. Democracy will not survive if it is taken for granted.

Although this election year has likely tested the most loyal among us, I hope we resist the urge to distance ourselves from politics. Turning our backs may give us a reprieve from the barrage of unruly election clamor, but there is faith in the value and promise of the process, warts and all.

Instead of withdrawing or holding our noses in disgust, we must see the moments that test our patience as a call for intervention.

In the final months of this year’s election, signs of democracy at work surround us: media coverage; petition drives; get-out-the-vote efforts; lectures; canvassers; casual and online comments of hope, encouragement, concern and dismay. In these venues, democracy is alive because the people are taking part.

I hope that words are met with democratic action and that citizens renew their commitment to be present at the ballot box, and actively seek opportunities to become more informed and to interact. Encouraging this kind of participation is a central goal of the academic institute that I lead.

We should resist the urge to sit out, walk out, or declare American democracy dead. 

Instead, we should vote and encourage others to do the same. We should seek out and listen to a certain point-of-view and allow it to affirm or challenge our own. We should teach our children by the example of our own action and involvement. We should ask the hard questions and undertake the difficult work needed to restore democracy’s promise. 

In some ways, my job as a citizen of democracy in uncertain times is not unlike my job as a parent at bedtime. Democracy is calling out to its citizens and leaders to be present and to calm its fears. 

It’s easy to lose our patience when it demands so much from us, but we help by being there in the critical moments.

Susan Nold is the director of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life in the Moody College of Communication at The University of Texas at Austin.

A version of this op-ed appeared in the East Bay Times, Sherman-Dennison Herald Democrat, Houston Chronicle, Austin American Statesman, Fort Worth Star Telegram and the Waco Tribune Herald.

To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.

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Texas Perspectives is a wire-style service produced by The University of Texas at Austin that is intended to provide media outlets with meaningful and thoughtful opinion columns (op-eds) on a variety of topics and current events. Authors are faculty members and staffers at UT Austin who work with University Communications to craft columns that adhere to journalistic best practices and Associated Press style guidelines. The University of Texas at Austin offers these opinion articles for publication at no charge. Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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