3-Minute Civics: Democracy is an action word

  • Vaclav Havel addresses a crowd of more than 500,000 gathered in a stadium in Prague on Dec. 29, 1989, the day he was elected president of Czechoslovakia. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 10/25/2020 6:40:18 AM

We here in America are not accustomed to thinking about our democracy. It’s been here since before everyone now alive was born, and our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents before us. It’s like birds and sunsets and baseball and mountains and apple orchards – it will always be here, always be part of America. Democracy is part of our character; it’s who we are.

But that’s not the right way to think about it. Because democracy isn’t something a country is. It’s something the people of a country do.

In 1991, I quit my job in the U.S. Senate to move to Prague, Czechoslovakia. I had studied the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in college, and since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain, I’d wanted nothing more than to experience newborn democracy first-hand. The widespread Czech and Slovak peoples’ desire to learn English was my ticket, and in August of that year I boarded an airplane and learned “please” and “thank you” from a phrase book on my way to my new life.

When I arrived in Prague, the Communists had been out of power for almost two years. National leaders, understanding the importance of historical roots, leaned into the democracy Czechoslovakia had briefly been before the Nazis invaded in 1938, followed by the Communist takeover in 1948. The people believed fiercely in their new democracy, even if the generation that had passed since the last such era left many of them a bit unsure how to enact their roles in this reborn society.

One principle that Czechs and Slovaks were certain of, however, was that democracy depended on their efforts. Dissident-turned-political leader-turned-new president Václav Havel addressed this point often. The country’s political transformation was more than mechanical, he noted. “It is also a matter of a great transformation of thinking because people must learn again to be citizens, to rediscover the civic responsibility which the totalitarian regime did not demand from them because it required mere obedience.”

I witnessed this sense of responsibility for democracy and the learning of citizenry nearly every day. Almost every Czech and Slovak with whom I became acquainted shared their stories of their parts in the “Velvet Revolution,” the mass protests that eventually led to the end of decades of communism. I sat in innumerable pubs drinking endless pints of excellent beer with newly democratic citizens who debated each other about electoral candidates, how to recover from the Communists’ environmental ransacking of the country, the upcoming election that might split the country in two, and what to do with the coupons each had been allotted in the national program to return to private ownership property and industry that had been nationalized during the Communist years.

This young, fragile democracy belonged to the people I spoke to and saw around me – all of them. They bore responsibility for it, and they knew it. They cherished it, because they’d so recently lived without it. Approximately 85% of voters turned out in the June 1992 election. Having so recently acquired the easily lost gift of democracy, the people understood its value and its fragility, and they were willing to do the work to keep it.

We don’t share this sense of democracy in America.

To most of us, democracy is as reliable as autumn foliage and mud in the spring. Our democratic institutions change little, and we rely on the basic functioning of the three branches of government and the independent courts and all the rest of the things we learn about in school without ever giving them much thought. We assume these things will always be there. We’re Americans, after all, and these are our birthrights. How could it ever be any other way?

But what we’ve forgotten is that this American democracy is our democracy, and it requires care and nourishment just like the baby democracy I witnessed almost 30 years ago. Just as democracies can grow, they can wither and die if they are underfed, overstressed, and abused. They require their people – We the People – to accept responsibility for their well-being.

Our democracy is threatened, and it is up to all of us to ensure its survival. Participation is required.

So what can you, as an American, do to save it?

First, vote in the election Nov. 3. It is your privilege and your responsibility. This year only, you can vote absentee in New Hampshire if you’re concerned about voting in person due to COVID-19. If you’re not sure how, check with your town clerk’s office or call the N.H. Secretary of State’s Elections Hotline at 1-833-726-0034.

Second, learn about an issue in your town, state, or the country sufficiently to be able to educate others about it.

Third, if you are able, there’s still time to contribute to the candidate(s) of your choice – financially and/or with your volunteer efforts.

Fourth, teach your kids and grandkids about democracy and civic responsibility.

Fifth, be a good model. It’s fine to say you don’t like various policies or politicians; just add what or who you think would be better, and why.

Sixth, here in New Hampshire, when your town, budget, and school district meetings come around, consider attending one or more of them. These meetings are often where decisions that affect people’s lives get made.

Finally, once the election is over, assuming our democracy does survive, remember it requires your continued attention. Pay attention to the news – and not only on your favorite network. Write to your elected officials. Maybe even consider running for office; there are plenty of local positions that need to be filled every year to make our cities and towns function. And always, always vote.

This democracy has lived for 244 years, but it is not immortal. Pretend it is new, and you hold its fate in your hands. Because, to tell the truth, you do.

(Tracy Hahn-Burkett lives in Bow.)




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