John Frohnmayer was the keynote speaker at the Healthy Democracy 10th Anniversary Celebration on April 8, 2019. Enjoy his words of wisdom . . . and celebrate our 10 years and beyond!
Nobody ever said that being a citizen in a democracy was easy. Each of us in this room tonight could give at least half a dozen reasons why our democracy is not healthy. I will mention only three: that Russia interfered with our elections is beyond debate and yet, because the President has steadfastly denied it, many who support him discount it. Elections are the bedrock of our democracy and an attack on elections is as harmful as the attack on the twin towers—much more insidious and long lasting.
The second is the constant attack on law enforcement, specifically the FBI and the Special Prosecutor. The attack on law enforcement is both to avoid blame and to make us fearful. Fear and democracy are incompatible. Distrust of authorities charged with keeping the peace magnifies fear.
Third, the oxymoron, fake news, is an attack on the First Amendment and as such is a direct insult to democracy. The First Amendment’s primary rational is that the market place of ideas will result in the truth. Truth has, because of our siloed sources, become a casualty of the very uncivil war in which we are currently engaged. Moreover, the First Amendment’s absolute protection of speech, press, petition and assembly is how we change and modify our government with out violent revolution. The First Amendment is the critical ingredient of democracy. As it is tarnished, so our democracy is also.
We have slouched into politics as a game, and indeed our only game, rather than as a tool, and a minor one at that, of democracy. Party has become more important than citizenship, more important than the constitution, more important than the common good. Politics is a zero sum game: what I gain is at your expense and visa versa. The zero sum skills of playing the game—getting elected and staying there—are far different from the skills of governing and because politics is the only game– a full time game– governing has essentially ceased in our democracy.
I mentioned that politics is a minor tool of democracy. Political parities are not mentioned in or contemplated by our constitution. What is expected of a working democracy are virtues such as willingness to compromise, citizen participation, common goals, good will, inclusion, compassion and empathy. And dedication to the rule of law.
I have some suggestions; there are eight of them:
1. Democracy is not a spectator sport and the way you get to love your country is to do something for it. Therefore, I propose National Service, for a year, for every person who is here on his or her 18th birthday.
2. Everyone, that is each individual, each corporation, each business entity of any kind shall pay 19% of income to our government. Yes, such a flat tax is regressive, but a progressive tax could attach to income beyond a certain level. We all benefit from our government and we should all pay for it.
3. Everyone should have to, be eager to, sing the national anthem. Since when did our national song become a performance piece where we stand dumbly and listen to the latest dipsy doodles of a performer? Doesn’t matter if you can sing; get those words out as if you mean it.
4. On a prescribed day every year, everyone should be required to take the citizenship exam. Here are some sample questions: name one US Territory; who, under the Constitution, can veto a bill; name one state that borders Mexico; what does freedom of religion mean; who is Commander in Chief of the military; how many senators are there; what is one thing Benjamin Franklin is famous for; what year was the Constitution written?
5. One day per year should be a national no driving day. 6
. Ethics instruction should be mandatory in school curricula.
7. Every five years, all corporations should have to prove that they have paid taxes and otherwise been responsible citizens to continue to do business in the United States. Disqualifying activities would be polluting, unfair labor practices, harmful products and the like.
8. Campaigns for political office would be limited to 10 weeks before the election and while a candidate could spend unlimited amounts, those expenditures could only be during that 10 weeks.
While none of these, if instituted, would fix what ails us, business as usual is not an option if we want to keep our democracy. Just because we can’t make it perfect doesn’t mean we can’t make it better. Artist Eugene Delacroix put it this way: “Artists who seek perfection in everything are those who can attain it in nothing.”
I leave you with the words of the celebrated American poet Sam Hazo:
I wish you what I wish myself:
Hard questions and the nights to answer them.
And grace of disappointment.
And the right to seem the fool for justice.
Cowards might ask for more. Heroes have died for less.