A few times a year I find myself standing at the security checkpoints of various U.S. airports waiting for a group of strangers to make their way down the concourse. I never have too much trouble recognizing them – their clothes are a little bit different, their exhaustion’s a little more pronounced, the shopping bags they carry are marked with symbols nobody else can read. They come from Russia, Ukraine, or one of the “stans” you read about in the hundred-word blurbs in the international section of your newspaper. I help them learn about American democracy…but more to the point, they end up tutoring me.
When it gets right down to it, “everyday” democracy is – in great part – just a collection of things we feel. I feel entitled – to complain about the potholes to city transportation, to argue with the cop who’s ticketing me, or to walk in the street with a thousand other antiwar protesters without any hint of fear. I feel pretty certain that I can get out of any legal scrape I get myself into. For one thing – I don’t go looking for trouble. But even if I did, there are all sorts of protections that give me the benefit of the doubt. I am a citizen.
I feel powerful, even though alone I’m probably not. Educated, middle class people like me typically get what we want from government – not all at once and not all the time – but enough to make engaging with the system worthwhile. I know it doesn’t work this way for others – people whose lives are marginalized by poverty or discrimination. But for the great majority of citizens, it still does.
I feel equal to others – not in terms of my circumstances, but because my citizenship confers equal standing. That belief makes me more willing to join with others to build the community and country I want to see. As an organizing principle, democracy is the single most selfish system I can think of, and yet it generates unequaled altruism, philanthropy, and compassion.
People who think democracy is as simple as the ballot box either don’t understand democracy or don’t love it very much. Voting is a vigorous exercise of our democratic ideals, but a sorely incomplete description for the collection of sensibilities that have shaped our world ever since we were born into it.
Our foreign guests pioneer their new democracies, wanting concrete plans and templates – a “how-to” manual. So I share with them the writings of great statesmen, political scientists, and community leaders. We have handouts. We talk in intellectual terms. We observe political institutions and public meetings. They study us like students in AP calculus, always anxious about the unsolved equation.
At our farewell dinner, amidst way too many vodka toasts, they will try to measure their progress against ours. It’s not a good race really, with our two-hundred year headstart, and, at any rate, we don’t always come out so favorably. But always I remember their faces, gratified that in those quiet minds and restless hearts live the citizens of democracy.
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