Democracy is hard. In the words of Michael Douglas, who plays President Andrew Shepherd in the 1995 movie The American President,
“America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You’ve gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say, ‘You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.'”
Wow. That’s exactly how I’ve been feeling lately, especially in the three years since Donald Trump was elected president. And I’m sure I have a lot of company—on both sides of our highly polarized political divide.
As we know, democracy is based on the idea that no single person or group has a monopoly on truth in public life but that this power belongs to everyone. By design, then, in a democracy we can expect to hear competing voices between different people and their ideas.
Moreover, in a well-functioning democracy, everyone would voice their opinion—and do so in a constructive manner, seeking common ground and solutions, keeping in mind that some things they might say may be unethical or even sanctionable by law, for example discriminatory, extortionary, or libelous.
Nonetheless, our privilege to speak our minds comes with the responsibility to allow others to speak theirs—even when it makes our blood boil, as Michael Douglas puts it.
Democracy is a utopia that we’re unlikely to ever implement to everyone’s satisfaction. It remains, however, the most equitable and balanced approach to governance, and therefore one that I believe we should continue to work on. We need to keep on talking about the issues that divide us, genuinely listen to others—especially those whose views disagree with ours—and work for reforms that will improve our democracy.
Outi Papamarcos is an engineer, a sociolinguist, and a grandmother. She believes that democracy, with all its flaws, is better than any form of totalitarian government.