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In Yet Another March For Our Lives, Fresh Despair, But Defiant Hope in Democracy

Conor Williams: Activists’ continued insistence on gun violence solutions in the face of past failures points the way to saving our self-governance

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Is the United States still a democracy? The past weeks of congressional hearings exploring the violent Jan. 6 attack on American democratic institutions provide dueling answers and hint at something of a crossroads for the country. 

On the surface, these are encouraging moments; democratically elected public officials investigating the facts of a terrible moment in American history and pushing towards public transparency and accountability. And yet, the excavation of the days leading up to the insurrection serves as a reminder of the weakness of our common faith in democracy (to say nothing of the House committee’s only Republican members being rendered pariahs in their party for participating). 

How to keep fighting now to shore up our democracy and make our country more fair? How to maintain some semblance of social hope? “Democracy has to be born anew every generation,” wrote American philosopher John Dewey in 1916, “and education is its midwife.” Put another way, American democracy is not safe simply because we still have regular elections, nor can it be saved by a committee report, however damning. 

That’s because it’s clearer now than at any other moment in recent memory that democracy isn’t defined solely — or even sufficiently — in terms of a constellation of institutions. Sure, if you don’t have regular elections, widespread access to voting, and power granted to those who get a majority of the votes, you certainly don’t have a democracy. But a country can also have those institutions and procedures without coming even close to resembling a democratic political community

Democracy is more than that. It’s really a way of living — a series of cultural attitudes and patterns of behavior that coalesce into self-governance. We participants in a truly democratic community accept, seize and/or demand the privilege of having a say in determining how we all respond to the problems we collectively face. That’s the key. Sure, the particulars of our public institutions matter, but they are only truly democratic insofar as they adequately, reliably represent the popular will in charting our national course. 

So: Is our country still a democracy? In the days immediately after the massacre of children at school in Uvalde, Texas, I wrote that “the flagging of faith in our democracy does stem from the presence of evidence, but it’s not the historical record that’s to blame. Americans feel as though nothing can be done because we have grown accustomed to nothing being done.”

Indeed, our collective cynicism has been dearly bought through the clumsy national responses to the pandemic, climate change, gun violence and more. If we measure the health of our governing institutions by their ability to respond constructively to the problems we face, it’s clear that they aren’t living up to this project. After this year’s horrific, unspeakable violence in Uvalde, a decade after the Sandy Hook tragedy, Congress is tiptoeing up to its obligations, hoping to make minor tweaks — largely insufficient to have stopped that particular school shooting — and hoping that lobbyists for the gun industry don’t step in to make it uncomfortable for conservative lawmakers. This is the best we can do right now, which is both better than nothing and depressingly predictable. 

And yet, a road to healthier democracy is just there, waiting to be chosen instead of the cynical, despairing path we’re traveling. 

That is, the privilege of self-governance also bestows upon us collective accountability. Our institutions have grown less effective at representing the majority’s views on a range of questions, sure. And yes, our elections are increasingly foregone conclusions because of the twin perils of gerrymandered, non-competitive districts and campaigns slushy with cash from self-interested donors

And yet, because we are a democracy, if our public institutions are failing, we, too, have a role in it. We cannot blame a king who ruled simply because his mother ruled before him. We cannot look to a religious authority to clarify what, precisely, our country should do next. If we’ve tolerated the profoundly corrosive gridlock of determined obstructionists, if we have permitted our elected officials to choose which voters they’ll represent, if we’ve allowed them to hack away at campaign finance limits … well, all of this was done in our name by the people we chose to rule. 

There’s nothing fated about democracy, about whether it will survive or endure beyond one more electoral cycle or public crisis. No, the sustenance of our experiment in self-governance is ultimately up to us. Fortunately, that means that a better, more robust democratic community is always there, a choice for us to make, ready to be born anew. It’s a choice for the taking. It looks something more like last Saturday’s March For Our Lives in Washington, D.C. — the public assembling to alert their elected representatives to collective problems we face as Americans. As I wrote after Uvalde, there are so many reasons for them to expect that nothing can be done. Our institutions have failed them, failed us, so reliably for so many years on gun violence. Indeed, the rot in our political culture made an appearance at the D.C. rally — a man stormed into the gathering, threatening violence

It shouldn’t have to be like this. Traumatized, grieving activists demanding that their elected officials show they care about making communities safer shouldn’t have to face threats of further violence simply for raising their voices. 

But they came anyway, reminding the rest of us that democracy isn’t something you have, or somewhere you live. It’s something that you and your neighbors choose to do. It’s something that only thrives with energetic participation of those being pinched by the problems in our common life. And more of the March For Our Lives activists’ sort of insistence is the path back to something like democratic self-governance. At base, democracy rests upon nothing more and nothing less than our collective agreement that we deserve a voice in our political institutions’ shape and direction. No one and nothing else — not our leaders, not America’s past successes, not arcane laws that no longer serve our community — is going to do it for us.

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