When I think about the November 8th midterm elections, I ask myself where are we going in a highly polarized U.S. society. A healthy democracy is a social system in which citizens are constructively linked with fellow citizens, with each person bearing social as well as personal responsibilities. A healthy democracy gives the homeless shelter, gives the sick care, gives the vulnerable protection, and gives the terrified refuge. It is anchored in honesty and truthfulness. It asks how we treat ourselves and how we treat others. It asks us to seriously consider our place and our responsibilities in a fragile world.
Looking toward next Tuesday, I am thinking of course about political leadership. When political leadership gets disconnected from the truth, democracies collapse into either chaos or authoritarian regimes. Those dangers are very real today. What is truth? What are the contemporary socio-political delusions that people adhere to? What are their contemporary socio-religious delusions?
In authoritarian regimes, social order is maintained not by adherence to shared public values but by fidelity to the dictates and wishes of the authoritarian leader. Authoritarian leaders like chaotic situations in which people, living in fear, can be kept obedient and dependent on the leader.
In a healthy democracy there are certain primary values, like, for example, that murder is immoral, that theft is immoral, that dishonesty is immoral, that harming innocent people is immoral, and that lying is immoral. When these immoral actions, however, are turned into social virtues or social normalities, society is in trouble. And the survival of the human spirit is threatened.
By the “human spirit” I mean those positive aspects of humanity that people show towards one another: empathy, respect, generosity, compassion, and identifying with the other. Contrary to the “human spirit” are extremely self-centered attitudes and behavior: “my race,” “ my perspective,” “my politics,”” my kind of people.” They lead to conflict, not cooperation. To fear, not hope. To aggression, not mutual respect. And to suspicion, not trust.
The United States is a country that is seriously struggling with issues of race, economic inequality, gender, immigration and, yes, crime. But constructive change is possible. The story is not over. Another exciting chapter can begin.
People set and adjust their values through interaction with family and friends, and with social, religious, and political groups with whom they identify. After the midterm elections, regardless of the election results, we will need to safeguard our lives and our society based on shared common-good values.
Houses fall apart if they are not maintained. Democracies as well. I remember the words of the French philosopher and writer Voltaire (1694 – 1778), who was an advocate of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and separation of church and state: “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.”
May we all observe, judge, and vote.
PS As a U.S. citizen living abroad, my absentee vote has been sent.