Capturing the Spirit of Democracy

Museum of the American Revolution
Museum of the American Revolution, Philadelphia, PA (source: Wikipedia)

 The Museum of the American Revolution opened in April of this year, funded largely by private donations.  Located in Old City Philadelphia, the museum is just blocks from Independence Hall and across the street from the First Bank of the United States founded by Alexander Hamilton.

The museum documents the history of the American Revolution through numerous exhibits, short films and reenactments, including hundreds of artifacts ranging from pamphlets to clothing to ships and weapons used by both sides.

But what really sets this museum apart is that, through pictures and short videos, it also tells the stories of real people, of farmers, African and Native Americans. And in so doing, it seems to capture the “spirit” of a Revolution where ordinary people rose up to oppose the oppression of a distant monarch and claim the “right” to govern themselves.

Upon entering the museum, an exhibit recounts how George Washington deliberately chose to live in a tent, to demonstrate that he was not above his men, and that he would share the hardships of long and brutal winters that nearly destroyed his army.  At the end of a video presentation, the curtain rises and the actual tent Washington used is revealed.

Another exhibit documents the contributions of Thomas Paine, a Philadelphian who helped spark the Revolution with the pamphlet “Common Sense” and whose later rallied troops on the brink of defeat with a series of pamphlets, “The American Crisis” (see excerpt below), written in part while Paine was encamped with Washington’s army near Trenton.

At one point, there’s a video reenactment of patriots tearing down a statue of King George III in Bowling Green in Lower Manhattan.  Its serves as a timely reminder that we must oppose tyranny in all its forms, and that the symbols of tyranny matter, whether kings or Confederate generals who fought to preserve slavery.

At another point towards the end of the museum’s self-guided tour, the question is posed: “What Kind of Nation did the Revolution Create?”  The answer suggests a tension that continues to this day:

“The Revolution is not over yet … ever since the adoption of the Constitution, Americans have struggled to balance their ideals of Liberty with the practical need for governmental authority.”

Later, as you exit the exhibition halls, there is a wall covered with mirrors.  Standing before the wall, with your image reflected in the glass, a caption asks you to gaze upon “the Future of the American Revolution.”  It gets you thinking.

Today, the spirt of the American Revolution is being challenged as never before.  It can be subtle as when our elected officials manipulate the media to cast tax breaks for the rich as health care or economic reform.  Or it can be more overt, as when those same officials denigrate and arrest minorities.

But subtle or overt, such actions betray the values of our founders fought for.  The Museaum of the American Revolution reminds us we have a duty as citizens to look in that mirror, and to fight to reaffirm the principles of justice and equality for all that are the foundation of our great democracy.

THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated. (Thomas Pain, the American Crisis, December 23, 1776)

The Women’s Marches: Affirming Democratic Principles

In a BBC video (below), conservative commentator and author Andrew Sullivan, quoting Plato, argues that the very principles of freedom and equality inherent in democratic government inevitably descends into chaos which, turn, precipitates the rise of demagogues like Donald Trump.

“As the people thrill to him as a kind of solution, democracy willingly, inevitably repeals itself,” Sullivan says as the video concludes with a parade of smiling emojis, “the obedient mob,” as he derisively calls them.

Well, that’ one point of view.  Here’s another.  The very “elites” that Sullivan seems to hold up as protectors of democratic order against “the obedient mob” are the same ones who have systematically hijacked our government to advance their private interests at the expense of the public good.

Donald Trump is just the latest and most extreme example.

Drawing on history somewhat more recent than Plato, including the American Revolution and the Progressive Movement of the early 20th Century, we’re betting that Sullivan’s “obedient mob” will soon rise up and, exercising the power of the people in a representative democracy, throw the bums out.

The Women’s Marches taking place today across the country  are not, as some would have you believe, some random exercise in chaos by unwashed masses.  Rather, they are the forefront of a movement, an affirmation of democratic principles,  of freedom and equality.

 

The President’s Farewell Underestimates Threats to American Democracy

ObamaMcCormickPlace1

In his farewell speech at McCormick Place in Chicago earlier this week, President Obama delivered a rousing endorsement of the progress made in the last eight years.   And despite potential threats including economic inequality and continued racial tension, the President affirmed his faith in the future of American democracy.

But is Obama’s optimism misplaced?  Is he too complacent about the state of our democracy?  Indeed, one might reasonably ask: Is America still a democracy in the purest sense?  Despite the trappings of representative democracy, do we still have a government “of the people, by the people and for the people”, as Abraham Lincoln so famously put it?

The answer is not encouraging.    There is far too much money in politics thanks in large part to the Supreme Courts’ Citizens United decision.  Constructive dialogue across party lines is almost non-existent, drowned out by a flood of campaign-fueled attack ads and negative advertising.  There are too many lobbyists writing laws and regulations out of the public eye.  The Federal government, and in particular Congress, is largely dysfunctional.  We have a corporate media much too focused on the daily back and forth of he said, she said politics rather than the important issues of the day.  Meanwhile, despite Obama’s protests to the contrary, the U.S. economy is sputtering, with overall growth averaging less than 2% compared to 3% to 4% in earlier decades.

President Obama did about as good as one can do given the massive recession he inherited and the corrosive political climate under which he was operating.

But let’s not get carried away with unbridled optimism, Mr. President.  We still have many, many difficult challenges to overcome, including rebuilding our economy so the benefits accrue to all Americans, not just a privileged elite.    That will go a long way towards reducing income inequality and systemic racism in America.

But perhaps the greatest challenge we face is reclaiming our government from the crony capitalists, of which Donald Trump is just the latest example, and beginning the long, hard process of rebuilding a truly representative democracy – of, by and for the people.