Newly-inaugurated American President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris began their first full day of work for the American people today. Despite a subdued and heavily securitized inauguration ceremony, Biden’s less than 20-minute speech was that of a statesman: simple, compelling and restorative for America’s ailing soul.
Biden’s rhetoric of civic virtue is no foolish fantasy. It is the antidote to the demons of division, hate and destruction that have rampaged America for the last four years. But even if, as Theresa Vargas writes in her Metro article in The Washington Post (01/21/2021), Biden is a president children in America and around the world can watch and listen to, it’s not enough for parents to just take their fingers off the remote. Now the hard work begins.
The story of Democracy begins at home
Paraphrasing Biden, democracy has prevailed, and Americans now have the responsibility of setting their sights for a nation that we know we can be. But the American story that is written in the pages of the nation’s history starting today depends not on the President, the government or a mirage of angels and demons. There is no writing on the wall.
A liberal democracy and its institutions depends first and foremost, as Francis Fukuyama has written in Trust, on a healthy and dynamic civil society, which includes intermediate institutions, businesses, associations, educational institutions, charity, churches, clubs, unions, and media - for its vitality. However, civil society itself is built on the family and the community. Both are the primary instruments by which individuals are socialized into their culture and given the skills that allow them to live in broader society.
Citizens themselves, as individuals, are “shaped only indirectly through conscious political actions”. They must “otherwise be nourished through an increased awareness and respect for” democratic culture (Fukuyama, Trust). Yet this culture must be learned. And learning democracy starts at home.
It is through the family and the community that individuals are given the values and knowledge, habits and customs, ethics and respect of a democratic society. But the practical skills to actually practice democracy are learned in the classroom.
The classroom must serve as a space where children learn self-governance, civic life and decision-making. It is where they learn the skills for how to engage in everyday democracy, through dialogue with those who hold different views from theirs; how to be tolerant and respectful; how to balance personal liberties with social responsibility; and how to compromise to achieve shared ends.
Putting democratic behaviors and attitudes into practice requires learning by observation and learning by doing. Children and young people must be able to observe adults engaging in democratic behavior and use it.
Because democracy cannot be legislated, it must be learned anew and fresh by each generation. In the words of President Ronald Reagan: “Freedom is a fragile thing and is never more than a generation away from extinction. It is not ours by inheritance; it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation, for it comes only once to a people.”
The uneducation of American democracy
The problem is that American democratic culture has been subverted by the political class and its power plays and turf wars in pursuit of recognition and an ever bigger purse. Catering to business for campaign funds has pivoted the central priority of public education from educating for responsible citizenship to creating a skilled workforce for the economy. Both goals are important, of course, but the overriding mission of education is still to prepare citizens for productive (in the full sense of the word) participation in society not serve the needs of the marketplace.
The mission of public education is to focus on realizing the potential of each student. “It is not the role of K-12 schools to compensate for the failure of business to invest in its own educational needs.”
“The public basic education system is responsible for empowering children to become active participants in the transformation of their societies, focusing learning on the values, attitudes and behaviors that will enable them to learn to live together in a world characterized by diversity and pluralism. Business is responsible for making the connection between learning and working tangible… Federal and state educational leadership is responsible for preventing undue influence of business in the public education system and for ensuring funds are used effectively and efficiently so that education makes a contribution to the well-being of society and the economy.”
The inversion of priorities – from individual potential to business needs – for political reasons has disabled schools. Instead of being able to focus on the business of educating well-rounded citizens motivated to continue learning and improving their basic skills and to contribute to society productively, schools are being lassoed into the political power and purse to answer first to market concerns. This has destroyed rather than strengthened democratic behavior-learning and has progressively faded out the set of ethical habits and reciprocal moral obligations the must be internalized by the members of each community from childhood.
Democracy must be put back into education, in school, in the community and at home.
Democracy cannot be decreed
Organic cohesion of American society can neither be taken for granted nor legislated or bought. Nor can any president issue an Executive Order for character, trust or learning. Healing and restoration is not just about a new president who sees the possibilities that others don’t. It’s about the American people and their leaders having the guts to confront their own failures. It’s about bringing back America’s better angels to right wrongs and overcome complacency and fear.
As Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone reminds us, it is within our power to reverse the breakdown of American society and the decline of democratic behaviors over the last several decades. To do so, Americans need to recover social cohesiveness by reconnecting with one another in small ways.
We need to repair broken bonds, reunite under shared values and regain a willingness to subordinate private interests for the sake of the common good of all. This can only be achieved through strength of national character, trust in each other and in government while making a concerted effort to relearn the democratic practices and attitudes that define the best that America can be.
It is time to repel the invasion of the republic by demagogues and conspiracy mongers intent on protecting their selfish interests at the expense of everyone else’s well-being. They have chipped away at the building blocks of American democracy for too long.
For America to regain balance, Americans must start regenerating democratic education and civic virtue. They are the foundation for rebuilding the cultural roots of America’s national character, for replenishing trust in one another and in our government and for ensuring that education focuses on reinforcing the relationship between social capital and economic performance.
Notwithstanding the stain that Trump has left on the American brand of democracy, with the swearing in of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris Americans have been given the opportunity to stand proud again behind a President who takes the job seriously. Despite the darkness of unacceptable national personal tragedy and the scorching instability created at home and abroad, Biden wants to carry out his term to make positive change in benefit of all Americans.
Despite the destructive and toxic consequentiality of Trump’s four years of assault on the Constitution and misuse of power, Americans have the wherewithal to quench the still smouldering fires that have scorched American democracy. Relearning and renewing the American democratic spirit and brand is the only way to turn the last four years of national carnage into just a historical inflection point in the nation’s history.
It’s not about power but possibilities
In his speech, President Biden combined poetry and prose to declare not just intentions, but also to draw a hard line between the strength and fragility of Democracy. America crossed that line on January 6, 2021 with the former president’s efforts to delegitimize Biden’s electoral victory and the desecration of the nation’s Capitol by his cult of followers.
What is broken must be repaired. To do so, we first have to identify and understand what has been broken. This necessitates re-educating ourselves and others about cooperation and collaboration, leadership and stewardship, decency and respect, openness and equality, empathy and grace, trust and, yes, unity.
On Inauguration Day, President Biden called upon Americans to step up to end the “uncivil war” that has led to a dis-United States. Americans now have the opportunity to reckon with the carnage wrought by that war and bring back truth, rule of law and comity. It is urgent to restore what Biden referred to as “the common objects of our love”: opportunity, security, liberty, dignity, respect, honor, and truth.
To prevail, the American democratic spirit must be revived to its full glory. Americans need to work together to reinstate our national character, mend the links of broken trust and revive education for Democracy understood as, quoting E.J. Dionne Jr. (“Biden’s revival of the democratic spirit” The Washington Post 01/21/2021) “a gift that must be defended, nurtured and treasured”, not a gratuitous endowment or an inherited virtue.
We Americans must relearn what We the People means and entails. We the People must work together virtuously to reset America on the path back to the shining city upon a hill.