Last night, with my 22-month-old daughter in my arms and another due-in-one-month baby girl in the belly, I exercised my franchise. As always, I felt a surge of pride stepping into that voting booth. My husband and I carefully explained to our daughter what it meant that we were voting. Mommy and Daddy are embracing our civic duty, participating in our community, working to shape the future – a right and a responsibility, etc. She mostly ignored us and set about affixing the “I voted!” stickers to different parts of our heads and faces, but we trust she’ll get it one day. Still and all, I struggle to remain engaged with this democracy and maintain a sense that my children will know even greater progress than I have experienced in my life.
Living in a democratic society of course means so many extraordinary things, particularly relative to other forms of government. And really, it must be stated: There is no suitable alternative. We are free to voice criticism of our leaders, construct our own social norms and take our concerns to the polls. We are empowered to advocate as individuals or organize in groups. Each of us is technically afforded equal rights under this system and no single ideology or religious doctrine has the authority to dominate.
And yet, being free to be you and me means that even the people whose values I abhor are at my side, wielding the same influence, as I cast a ballot. This is certainly rather a hard pill to swallow, fundamental as it may be. Democracy means living in a country where citizens who believe that guns are more important than people can prevent legislation that would protect us from the unceasing devastation caused by weapons. It means I have neighbors who consider mental health or substance abuse problems matters of will and accept the consequences of homelessness and suicide/homicide as intractable societal afflictions.
Democracy means that an old friend can post utterly inaccurate ravings about the Affordable Care Act on Facebook and join with so many in our society who don’t believe the underserved should have equal access to healthcare. It means that people who seek to thwart women’s rights, gay rights, immigrant rights – any and all civil rights -- have a legitimate place at the table. And the older I get, my capacity for tolerating intolerance seems to wane.
I think assiduously about how I will teach my daughters the concept of “difference.” I have so many canned phrases at the ready about respecting other races, cultures and modes of living. We will establish a central focus in our home on the development of empathy for others and standing up for those who require championing. But I also realize that this means learning to accommodate social and political mores that controvert those in our family. How we educate our children to integrate the tenets of people who might even infuriate us seems a priority among truly progressive principles.
I suppose the message has to be: The very elements of democracy that allow for wingnuts are the elements that will save us. By nature and by design, the extremes in a democratic society balance each other out. When I get frustrated that my often radically liberal notions aren’t simply perpetrated on the rest of the country by fiat, my measured husband will remind me that I certainly wouldn’t want the other guy doing the same. Right now, most of “my people” are in power and I am occasionally desperate for them to just assert agendas and push them through. But all this analysis and debate (provided it is productive) is critically important. Democracy demands a level of maturity to take the long view - a virtually Herculean effort, at times.
So, what will I tell my daughters about people on the other side of the social, political, religious or any other relevant spectrum? I will tell them to engage with them, listen to them and talk to them. I will tell them to consider the context in which they have developed their ideas. And then I will tell them to be sure they are better educated and much, much louder.