Democracy—If We Can Keep It

in Editorials | October 27, 2023

          Last November, the 142nd Board of The Lawrence published, “On Bringing Civics to the Classroom,” advocating to integrate civic education into the Lawrenceville academic curriculum. “As the United States grapples with an ever-polarized political scene,” the Editorial read, “one topic has been an underlying theme for many candidates, youth voting and civic engagement, as…nearly all Americans, regardless of ideology, agree with its necessity.” In light of Democracy Day's sudden cancellation this year, gauging what we lost with Democracy Day's demise seems difficult. The Lawrenceville bubble, as it often does, distances us, the Lawrenceville community, from what our role in American democracy is. Perhaps this evocative, romantic language of bipartisanship and unity served to legitimize the past Editorial’s argument; however, does such an optimistic, harmonious narrative surrounding the state of our democracy really show the necessity for civic engagement then, or even now? Did this editorial even remotely reflect our political landscape? 
Hardly not. That same November the Editorial was published, voters across the country went to the polls for 2022 Midterm Elections, where Republican candidates across the ballot pushed the lie that the 2020 Election was “stolen” and openly ran to “fix” the nation’s election system. That October, a New York Times poll found that seven out of 10 Americans saw American Democracy in peril, yet only seven percent saw it as a top priority. That summer, a string of conservative Supreme Court rulings and corruption allegations sparked nationwide protests as approval ratings for the Supreme Court reached record lows. That spring, televised investigations by the United States House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack presented shocking evidence of a multi-pronged plot, from the fake electoral schemes to the Capitol siege, to keep Former President Donald Trump in power after the 2020 election. Keep in mind that a disinformation crisis, political polarization, a wave of local book bans, and new voter-suppression efforts all loomed overhead. Perhaps Americans never felt the moment our democratic norms began to fade or when America’s backslide into authoritarian sensibilities began, but with each day we all developed a dreadful familiarity for the unprecedented, the feeling that our democracy always seemed to hang in the balance and that America inched further and further into the darkness. 

          For decades, the traditional message communicating the structure of the American political system,—We the People, Checks and Balances: those Schoolhouse Rock-type messages—has already imbued a pessimistic perception of American government and our role within it; “American Democracy” conjures up a static, slow-moving political machine that exists externally from us, the people, in the far-off land of D.C. The American government’s characteristic deadlocks and dysfunction concerning issues like the House Speakership or gun violence are more visceral than ever. Perhaps this frightening apathy for democracy took shape within the liminal space between unprecedented political crisis and political dysfunction.With the already alienating, superficial understanding of our democratic process, our numbness to this political chaos has only situated us further from the democratic structures; we’ve seen our political norms crumble before us, and we feel powerless to act. 

          Only in moving beyond this superficial perception of the American government, can perhaps our political instability be mended. For this nation’s most profound thinkers and shapers, democratic ideals shaped the larger mode of societal function.  “Before 1870,” as Pete Singer told Lawrenceville in a school meeting last year, “the word “weekend” didn't even exist, and then some folks got together with their coworkers and went on strike for an eight hour work day and 40-hour workweek, and eventually some Jewish workers…wanted Saturday to be the Sabbath and they joined up with those workers. By the 1940’s the 40-hour workweek was signed into law, and we have the weekend because someone decided to co-create our shared world.” In essence, the continued function of the American political machine was driven by civic-minded people, who felt that they ought to take up their civic duties, engage with the marketplace of ideas, and democratically decide our society’s functioning. In his Letter From Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. precipitates the vital function a democratic ethic plays in creating a more just society. Nonviolent direct action, as he conceived it, “seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.” Of course, democracy can exist in a superficial sense, but injustices thrive when those living in democratic societies are devoid of the civic role to shape society. Only when the people are empowered, to grapple with and deliberate on those injustices with the responsibility of altering or ridding them, can unjust measures be defeated. 

          In this moment of political pessimism, we’ve accepted that democracy solely exists as the structure of a republican government, and have forgotten the democratic norm that the people can, and must, drive function and rules of society. Here, at this political impasse, do we see the necessity of civic engagement and our preservation of societal civic values in maintaining our democracy.  In the absence of this societal mode, our democracy has grown weaker. In a society in which civic engagement is emphasized and civic ideals are treasured for the integral role they play, we are taught the integral role civics play in shaping a just, functioning society, and our imperative, as the people, to take on that responsibility and fully realize our role in that society. 

          Instead of directing us to blithely  fit within a tired political environment, we were challenged to see how we could enrich it. Our conception of the democratic ethic gave room for an intellectually-diverse array of students and championed to take on our civic responsibilities and contribute to the smooth democratic functioning of society. Yet last Thursday, the Student Council abruptly announced that Democracy Day 2024 was canceled. Just as these confounding issues facing our society grow ever more entrenched in our political system, Lawrentians will be preoccupied with the typical demand of school work, and the vital work of civic engagement will fade into the background. Just as American democracy hangs by a thread, Lawrenceville has chosen to reverse course and turn a blind eye. 

          Our democratic institutions are only as strong as our determination to protect them. As youth, we Lawrenceville students are plagued with the misperception that the American government is some system that works and functions in some space beyond us, which only entrenches us further in our hopeless pessimism, and could extend our democratic decline for years to come. The longer we tend to let the outside world be disregarded for the hustle-and-bustle of Lawrenceville life, the more likely we will pass this civic deficiency to the next generation, and the quicker our democracy will decline.