Where democracy thrives

While candidates and parties battle it out high in the political canopy, American democracy endures on the forest floor.

Lynne Sladky/AP
An election worker in Miami prepares a polling station Oct. 24, the first day of early voting there.

Dear world: You’ve been patient.

The US presidential race has consumed far too much of Earth’s oxygen. It went on too long and had too many unenlightening and disheartening moments. Polls show that the vast majority of Americans wanted it to be over long ago. You too? OK. There are only a few hours left. 

Despite the attention it received, the US presidential race was never the only show on the planet. While political tribes clashed, a whole world of other important things took place. Bridges were built, businesses opened, children learned to read. There were setbacks, too. People fled, jobs were lost, substance-abuse persisted.

Add dozens of other circumstances and multiply by 7 billion and that would only be a small part of the incredibly varied life that transpired while Campaign 2016 ruled the airwaves. As always, the good stuff barely registered a headline in most media. If you’ve been reading the Monitor Weekly, though, you’ll recall that in recent weeks our cover stories have told you about former gang members in California building dignified, responsible lives; an arts program in Connecticut boosting academic engagement among inner-city students; and a water-management plan in Washington State where competing interests are working to share a precious resource. Last week, you met an amazing cohort of young computer hackers. Most recently, Colin Woodard focused on cities across the United States where people have transcended politics and differences to revitalize their communities. 

Presidents were not directly a part of any of these projects. This is Tocqueville territory: 19th-century French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville chronicled a free people pursuing happiness individually and in communities. That was and is the forest floor of democracy, an ecosystem that has been thriving for hundreds of years. Well before the Declaration of Independence, Americans were fending for themselves, organizing themselves, negotiating their differences, and understanding how to be gracious when they win or lose at the polls.

I recently chatted with a man who has both the outsider perspective on American democracy that Tocqueville had and the insider perspective acquired over six decades in American academic and intellectual life. Vartan Gregorian arrived in the US in 1956 from Iran and went on to become a renowned historian, university president (Brown), civic leader (the New York Public Library), and philanthropic director (the Carnegie Corporation).

The American experiment, he believes, endures. Problems are exposed – of late, inequality, racism, a stressed middle class. But after all the contention, unrest, controversy, and unhappiness of a political campaign, Americans emerge to find that “the system is resilient,” he says.“Every four years, it is like an earthquake shakes our democracy. We look around the next day and think: What can we build together?” (For more, see his essay in the fall Carnegie Reporter at http://tinyurl.com/h6vjwd5).

We argue. We campaign. We get tired of arguing and campaigning and go back to work. Democracy thrives on the forest floor.

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