The New Arsenal of Democracy

Before the United States joined combat in World War Two, we supplied Britain with weapons and ammunition to fight Nazi Germany. Our role during that time was to be, in the words of Franklin Roosevelt, the “arsenal of democracy.”

Protecting democracy with force has been a common theme in American history since the Revolution. Even our most unjust and imperial wars have been waged under the banner of democracy — keeping the world safe for it, or spreading it to new places. 

Democracy continues, despite its flaws and despite our missteps. Vigorous debates and heated elections continue. Activism around new ideas and in defense of justice continue — sometimes leading to change, but the passion of the people always tempered by a representative government and a system of checks and balances. 

There remains a serious threat to democracy in 2018. But it’s not an external threat. It’s not going to be solved by increased military spending. The threat is internal. It’s sitting in the White House.

Maybe I’m just a triggered snowflake overreacting to the Trump presidency, but here’s what I see.

Trump quite clearly knows nothing, and cares nothing, about democracy. He famously does not read. He doesn’t read books. He doesn’t even read his intelligence briefings.

He casually mentions things like taking away people’s property without due process. He is constantly praising dictators. His crowds chant for him to “lock up” his political opponent Hillary Clinton — and I’m not talking about the rough and tumble folks at his old political rallies. Sophisticated Republicans at the Conservative Political Action Conference chanted “lock her up”  last week, a year and a half after the 2016 election.

He has been hemorrhaging key staff since day one, because no one can withstand the whims of his chaos.

He’s got his (completely unqualified) children in vague positions of government power, even as they still operate private businesses. No one really knows how much his business interests conflate with his decisions as president.

All of this is worrisome. But why is it a threat to democracy?

Because too many Republicans have participated in reality-warping around this president, translating his ridiculous, incomprehensible language and behavior into palatable talking points for their constituents. Liberals are pissed off, so he must be doing something right.

If the FBI is investigating Trump, the FBI must be infiltrated by liberal bias — no matter that Robert Mueller is a Republican.

Trump has ignored the Russian cyber-attack on American democracy. Republicans have mostly ignored Trump’s ignoring of Russian threats.

Trump’s rhetoric has always bent toward authoritarianism. As chief executive, his disregard for democratic norms and his nakedly self-centered attitude can do serious damage, especially when not held in check by the Congress.

The GOP has become the party of Trump. That’s a serious problem, and I’m not the only one who feels that way.

This week, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a piece called “The Chaos After Trump“, which argued that three factors are weakening our system of government: erosion of democratic norms; loss of confidence in our democratic system; and debasement of political conversations via social media.

Trump is the ringleader of these three destructive forces. Brooks finishes his column by saying, “Nothing is inevitable in life, but liberal democracy clearly ain’t going to automatically fix itself.”

So what can be done to remedy the situation?

The best short-term defense of democracy is voting for representatives who aren’t Trump lackeys. Even though I’m currently a registered Republican (I’ve been meaning to switch my registration to ‘Independent’ and write a blog titled Why I Used to Be a Republican), I tend to side with the argument of Jonathan Rauch and Benjamin Wittes, who wrote recently that voters need to boycott Republicans in 2018.

The most definitive way to reject Trumpism is to reject the party he rode in on. Make conservatives re-group under a different banner.

The best long-term defense of democracy is to “arm and support” the population with a versatile civic education. We need to instill a deep respect for our founding documents, the norms and functions of democracy, and the values that underpin democracy in spite of its flaws

In the early Republic, education of future statesmen fell to the “Republican Mothers”, women who were educated for the primary purpose of training their male children in the traditions of democracy. We’ve evolved in terms of gender equality, but I’m afraid we have devolved in training the youth for future leadership.

Modern social studies curriculum is heavy on the sins of democracy, but light on its virtues. In my view as a social studies teacher, the long-held fears of the political left — an indoctrination of blind patriotism — has been inverted. The modern emphasis is not about the genius of the Constitution, or the balance of powers, or the functions and levers of citizens making an impact on policy. The emphasis is on the darkness: corruption, subjugation, imperialism. Yes, those things are part of our history, and continue today. But the balance has been tipped to a detrimental level. We’re more likely to produce an attitude of jadedness and helplessness than optimism and energetic civic participation.

Part of the problem is a lack of democracy or self-initiative in our schools. Teachers have little input into how education functions. They are at the mercy of administrators, who are pressured by demands of standardized tests, which are put into place by politicians who are largely disconnected from the realities of the classroom.

Our students have even less input, are shuffled through this top-down system by age group, year-by-year, and measured against each other — whoever best follows orders receives the highest rewards.

In the past month, we’re seeing both students and teachers walking out of schools. Students are protesting over safety issues, teachers are protesting low pay and terrible working conditions.

Upon reflection on the student activism in my two previous blog posts, my conclusion was that we need more freedom in schools to allow students to practice decision-making and taking self-initiative. Let the students practice democracy in their schools. 

But there’s also this: Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida is part of a school district that actively funds a variety of programs preparing students to participate in democracy. Their curriculum includes journalism and media, debate and extemporaneous speaking, drama and theatre, and civics. 

Armed with these skills and motivated by tragedy, the Parkland students are fearlessly advocating for change in the face of a deeply entrenched political stalemate.

This example allows me to imagine a new, positive direction in America.

Our priorities can be measured by levels of urgency, innovation, and funding. These factors have been severely lacking in American education, in contrast to the military responses we’ve seen in the past.

At the height of WWII, defense spending reached a peak of 41% of GDP. Our industrial economy worked overtime in the production of tanks, planes, bullets and bombs. After discovering atomic energy, the Manhattan Project commenced, rapidly spending billions to develop technology to destroy a city with a single bomb.

Urgency.

Our future well-being will not be won by military force, but with innovation and investment in education.

Author: Billy

Teacher and blogger.

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