In this day and age of polarization, gridlock, and bigotry, we can, nonetheless, revitalize our democracy with the most basic choices.
Preserving our country from boorish and malevolent forces might feel like an Herculean task requiring enormous effort and massive cooperation. But, in truth, our small choices matter. Over the span of our lifetimes, they could make the difference between an authoritarian state and a robust democracy.
After all, we move mountains by starting with a pebble. Reformed alcoholics swear by the mantra of taking it a day at a time. Marathoners cross the finish line not by counting down 26.2 miles but by putting their left foot in front of their right.
Some of the great democratic changes in recent memory originated with simple choices. The sit-ins of the early 1960s that were a vital part of the civil rights movement, for instance, were initiated by four college freshmen at North Carolina A & T who connected with each other courtesy of conversation over smuggled beer in the dorm. The rest was history when one asked his fellow bootleggers deep into the night whether they were “chicken or not?”
That is, progress in the United States is not all that different from tapas in the world of gastronomy. It is a micro dish centered around personal connection and reciprocity.
If we think of our democracy as “of the people, by the people, for the people” then to neglect colleagues, neighbors, and strangers is to miss the forest for the trees.
As in marriage, the presence of mutual responsibility and trust is central to a healthy democracy. The absence renders it unlikely. People divorced from community and commitment are those most likely to commit violence and practice fanaticism.
It was a privilege to be interviewed by a brilliant young filmmaker, Dexter Mueller, for his short documentary for a C-SPAN competition. As you can see, he makes this fundamental point about the essence of civic duty — our responsibilities as a democratic citizen — and what it could involve today.
I hope you enjoy this documentary and think about changing the world by, perhaps, inviting a new classmate to a house party, joining an organization, or having coffee with somebody you don’t know quite well.
Or, yes, even washing the dishes tonight.