“This Is What Democracy Looks Like”
Raise your hand if you have been to a march in support of some social justice issue. I thought as much! You know what it’s like to be caught up in the excitement, in the midst of a sea of people carrying signs, wearing t-shirts emblazoned with catchy graphics, perhaps fists in the air. A voice amplified by a bullhorn is at the front of the pack, leading the charge and the chants. And they say something like, “Show me what democracy looks like!” and the crowd dutifully responds, “This is what democracy looks like!” Let’s try it!
Show me what democracy looks like!
Response: This is what democracy looks like!
So, my question to you this morning is “Is this what democracy looks like?” What about this setting speaks to us of democracy? I poured over the responses I received from you about what democracy means to you. If I had one of those word generator apps to highlight the most commonly cited word, I don’t, but my orange highlighter reveals it would likely be “freedom.” A democracy is a place that honors freedom, I read. Free speech, freedom of the press, freedom to travel, freedom to vote, to choose a career or educational path, freedom to simply move about.
Democracy shows up in a protest march as our ability to gather without constraint as long as we are not impeding someone else’s freedom in the process. We can express what is on our hearts and minds openly, publicly, keeping to peaceful means of doing so. I heard from one respondent that democracy generally favors peace over aggression. A protest march could be perceived as aggressive, but when we can gather peacefully with passion about what we believe or promote we feed the potential for continued peaceful exchanges of ideas. I also read about the participatory nature of democracy, demanding our engagement and our responsibility to keep informed. When people take to the streets in peaceful protest they do so because they have uncovered truths that they believe will make a difference once shared; they have something to say which they are convinced is critical for the good of the whole; that others will be affected and changed by what they have raised up.
Our dear friends, the Moffett’s, are well-traveled and have experienced first-hand nations where democracy does not exist. In the early sixties they were followed and bugged and forced to listen to all manner of propaganda while in Russia. Everything was controlled – all movement, speech, publications. There was no freedom. On a more recent trip they asked their guides about opinions around Communism and democracy and received mixed responses. There were fewer guarantees around livelihood and financial security once they were granted freedom, which brought with it perhaps less substantial living arrangements and more hard work, even as freedom of choice about that work came into being. In a monarchy or theocracy like they found in Saudi Arabia at the turn of the century there is no real voting process, even though it is touted as a right; gender oppression is the norm; and you need to be sponsored to even be there, let alone the ability to move about freely. Earlier this month, Heather Cox Richardson cited the 34th anniversary of the first democratic elections in Poland, juxtaposed against the same number of years since the Chinese government crackdown on demonstrations in Tiananmen Square; 22 weeks of Israeli protests against potential right-wing government overhauls, and military leadership in Sudan seized from democratic rule.
Let us not take for granted what we have here. For all its faults, we do not generally experience this kind of blatant disregard for human rights, at least not those of us who live with privilege. Democracy is not experienced in the same way for all of us in our country. We are a work in progress in that regard. So, we take up our signs and bullhorns periodically and - WE VOTE. I have often said that it may not be the best system, but it is the system we have and so I cannot forego the right I have been given to participate. This is not always so much the case and I find it troubling, more so sometimes than the issues at hand. In 2022 Massachusetts elections, 51.4% of registered voters turned out, less than the 2018 numbers, but not by much. Nationally we came out at a rate of about 45% in the midterm elections. Locally we did better here in Chatham – 65% voter turnout, unlike the 29% this spring where I live in Brewster. But still, this means that about half the people eligible to vote in any given election cycle don’t bother to do so. There is little consistency across the population and yet, all of you who shared your thoughts with me ranked this right, this privilege, as one of the most important features of a democracy. We have a say in how things will go for us. As we heard in our reading this morning, politics – political decision-making – is about what we decide to do together and is at the heart of our everyday existence.
Lappe and Eichen suggest that it is not challenges that keep us from participating, but instead a feeling of uselessness; that we have nothing to contribute. Rethinking core assumptions that are disempowering can make a difference. They suggest that we need to believe in the essential nature of democracy in order to ensure the common good, that it is possible and that we all have a role to play. To really thrive as a democracy, we need to live into our potential – and meet three real needs of humanity: connection, meaning, and a sense of agency, the essence of human dignity. Democracy requires transparency, that power be dispersed equitably and an understanding that we are mutually accountable and share in the responsibility for our society’s success. i
We live in a time when it seems that we have self-imposed our own disenfranchisement. One of you shared your heartbreak over the ability of the wealthy and thus powerful to seemingly be the only ones who can run a campaign and be involved in the election process; that they don’t necessarily have the good of the working class, the majority, foremost on their minds. It can feel hopeless, and this sense of despair feeds the feeling of uselessness. In response we give up our precious right to use our voice. Add to that the disempowerment that comes from legislation limiting the availability of voting and redistricting to shift advantage, and you have two parts of the recipe for failure put forth in Daring Democracy.
Political polarization plays a role in keeping us apart from those with whom we may differ. I say may because it could be that we have similar values and goals, but just don’t agree on how to get there. We can’t know for sure unless we engage with those folks – connect and share from our deepest dreams for our world. We feel threatened by difference instead of curious about diverse ideas and potential solutions. Frank’s solo this morning speaks to the notion that when we have an opportunity to exchange on a deeper level we are ultimately changed for good. When we take the time to truly know someone there is a shift in energy. It is in this space of creative interchange that we are each brought closer to our best selves. When we share from our hearts and minds and offer a willingness to listen, we are each heard into being. It is in an atmosphere of democracy where each voice is valued, each contribution seen as meaningful, that we begin to feel empowered once again and move toward the participation necessary for balanced outcomes. Perhaps this is what democracy looks like.
Next week I will attend our Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly, our annual meeting on the national level. And I get excited about the prospect of seeing democracy in action, even as imperfect as it is there too, because we try to really listen to one another. The art of “gentlemanly debate” has not gone by the wayside, unlike what we are faced with as a country where posturing and name calling have become the preferred method of exchange. And here in Chatham, after our service today, we will engage in this process also. We will gather peacefully, listen to one another as we take up matters of importance to our future together, and cast our votes. We participate because we care and because we know it is a privilege that not everyone, everywhere, has. And we do so with a sense of ease because we know that we will be heard, we are open to creative solutions, and we are grounded in relationships built on love. Could it be that this is what democracy looks like?
Our fifth principle says that we covenant to affirm and promote, “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” We value it. We practice it in our churches and in our personal lives. We make an example of it by our living, by our engagement with one another and with issues that affect all of our lives. We will only get there through diligence and participation, side by side in community and collaboration. When we abandon the struggle, we lose so much. Sticking together, sticking with it is the only way forward, believing in the potential ‘for good.’ One world where freedom could be the most frequently cited concept showing up on the word generator app.
This is what democracy looks like.
May it be so and blessed be.
Rev. Tracy Johnson
UUMH Chatham, June 18, 2023
i From Daring Democracy: Igniting Power, Meaning, and Connection for the America We Want by Frances Moore Lappe and Adam Eichen; Beacon Press, 2017.