That was the response of Benjamin Franklin to a woman who asked him whether the newly formed United States of America was to be a republic or a monarchy. As he was leaving the last day of deliberation at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 Franklin was concerned about the future of the new nation. Like many of us today, others present at the Convention were also doubtful. In a letter to John Taylor, John Adams wrote “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There was never a democracy that did not commit suicide.”
Democracies fail because a majority soon learns that it may legally deprive others of property or liberties. Those “others” subject to such abuse may be anyone outside the majority who may be of a different race, religion, ethnic background, wealth status or political affiliation. Leaders who use popular prejudices, sloganeering and misleading claims to stir up resentment against the minority and gain power over the majority (demagoguery) become skilled at appealing to the darker emotions of fear, jealousy, xenophobia, avarice, race-baiting and hate. Demagogues offer no real plans to correct the problems they complain of, but instead they are proficient at attacking opponents in order to justify the actions taken against the minority. Eventually, such oppression of the minorities and the conflicts that result overwhelm the democracy and cause its collapse.
And yet, here we are 230 years later. How did the great American experiment survive, at least up to today?
The American Republic has survived because of citizen participation in government. When we, the citizens of the United States participate directly in government we ensure its survival. Citizen participation is also the only hope for something greater than mere survival.
So how does a regular person with a job and family and all the responsibilities of everyday life participate in government?
- Be an informed citizen. News outlets, owned by massive media corporations fed advertizing dollars, spin and manipulate the information they provide to you. Get information from many, different sources (especially non-U.S. sources) and make up your own mind about issues. Remember: television and internet talking heads are just that: talk.
- Vote. In every election, not just Presidential events. Congressional elections directly affect who makes the thousands of daily policy decisions that affect every part of the government and affect issues like taxes, health care and the environment. Local elections directly affect the way your community and neighborhood function.
- Volunteer on local governmental committees. Every small municipality is desperate for volunteers to serve on different boards and committees. These directly impact your local quality of life.
- Run for local office. Especially today it has never been clearer that while we have politicians in abundance, dedicated public servants are always in short supply.
As I began with Franklin, so shall I end. Speak out on issues that are important to you and to our Nation. Silence equals assent. As Franklin said, “It is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority.”