Today is not the day democracy dies.
For many, this statement might seem overly optimistic, or maybe even an act of delusion. As Donald John Trump prepares to take the oath of office, with the full support of a Republican-majority congress, having not secured a majority of the popular vote, and having campaigned on proclamations of anger, narcissism, and exclusion, it is not hard to see Friday’s festivities as a grotesque funeral for Lady Liberty. That said, I am here to tell you: today is not the end.
Before I begin my argument, I must first make it clear why so many, especially so many in my generation, feel that the inauguration of Donald John Trump, on January 20, 2017, represents the death throes of the American republic. Eight years ago, as we celebrated the victory of Barack Obama, his inauguration stood out as a symbol of our burgeoning adulthood. For many of us, it was the first time our voices were not only heard, but listened to. For others, they came to age in the following days or months of the first person of color being elected to the presidency. Given that our country was founded on the principle that “all men are created equal,” the victory of President Obama seemed to realize, finally, America’s promise. In experiencing this adolescence, both our own and the presidency’s, all things seemed possible in early days of his administration.
As Obama’s presidency aged with us, we experienced disappointment and many of our hopes, whether personal or political, were dashed. As we continued to struggle to realize our dreams and take our place among our seniors in adulthood, many of those we looked up to seemed to become hostile to us and the future we aspired to. And as we began to tire after years of endeavor, we witnessed the ascent of a man and a political platform that not only opposed us and our values, but seemingly sought to demolish the foundations we had been building for the world we wanted to live in.
For these reasons, today is richly symbolic, even without the fears of what Donald John Trump and his supporters will do to the life, liberty, and happiness of our nation. Knowing this, how can I assert that this event does not symbolize the death of democracy? To explain myself, I must first ask a question.
What is democracy?
Is democracy the laws of the land? If we had many of the same laws, but we did not have elections or a participatory process, could we say we were a democracy? Is democracy the titles of those in positions of authority? What of the countless “presidents” of nations where there is no liberty or equality? Is democracy merely formal action of voting or the pageantry and ceremony of our institutions? With so many tyrants in other nations holding “elections” and celebrating their “victories,” can we really say that?
If democracy is not merely a pile of formalities, rules, and events, then what is it that makes a society a democracy? Although it may sound overly sentimental, I would argue simply: democracy is us.
Democracy is performed day in and day out, as we hold school board meetings and when we come together to discuss the issues of the day. Democracy is found in the people volunteering at a neighborhood cleanup or a homeless shelter. Democracy is born anew each time we engage in the simple daily acts of respect for each other’s equality and agency.
For this reason, I think that if democracy is to die, it will die the day we surrender our power and no longer raise our voices in protest. If democracy is to die, it will die when we stop caring or respecting each other as individuals. If democracy is to die, it is in our hearts that we will dig its grave, long before decay sets into the institutions of our society.
With this in mind, what are we to conclude? Has democracy already passed, and all that is left is for the façade of our republic to crumble? Or is democracy alive, though maybe not in the best of health or good spirits. I cannot say which is true. But I can tell you what I believe:
Today is not the day democracy dies. Democracy will live as long as we keep trying to make it happen. Today is the day democracy lives.