On the final day of the American Constitutional Convention of 1787, as folks gathered in colonial Philadelphia to await news of what exactly our founders had crafted, Elizabeth Willing Powel, a well known salonaire of that era and a close confidant of George
Washington, inquired of Ben Franklin, “What have we created, Dr. Franklin, a republic or a monarchy?”
His famous reply: “A republic…if you can keep it.”
Little could Franklin have known that he also would be speaking to most countries around the globe 235 years later, for the world now anxiously nurtures increasingly fragile democratic experiments in the face of expanding authoritarianism.
“We think too much. We feel too little. More than machines. We need humanity.”
Would that every politician — as she or he attempts to parse truth from falsehood, to put principle over personal gain — absorb Charlie Chaplin’s powerful exhortation to defend democracy, in The Great Dictator (1941).
“Get up there with that lady on top of the Capital dome, that lady that stands for liberty! Take a look at this country through her.”
Remember Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? Witness again the relentless determination and passion with which he fought – right up to the last syllable of his voice – for freedom and democracy.
To highlight one of the current threats to American democracy, here is a recent interview of Sue Gordon, for decades the #2 at the CIA. She clarifies why thoughtless attention to classified documents threatens national security.
Historian Heather Cox Richardson’s September 7 column shows clearly how a Republican minority is severely undermining the integrity of what is still the world’s most respected democracy.
As for the rest of the planet, here’s a superb speech investigating how the world is currently handling threats to democracy. The eloquent prime minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, gave this commencement address at Harvard University this past June.
To explore some subtle perceptions about how governments might best hold on to democracy, here’s a duel interview in 2021 of Dr. James Thurber, professor of Government and founder and director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies (CCPS) at American University in Washington, D.C. and American-Polish author and journalist Anne Applebaum.
Here, as well, is how Ms. Applebaum describes current threats to democracy, in a half-hour interview with a leading New York financial firm.
In this anthropocene era, Democracy, like tap water, must be appreciated wholeheartedly, every day. We need to work tirelessly to preserve each blessing.
One of the more accessible measures of appreciating democracy is to know it’s recent history. Here’s a reminder of how the cataclysmic earthquake of 1755 in Lisbon changed the way the world lived, introducing the modern era and the re-birth of democratic governments.
Even in the highly complex and fiercely contended politics of India, there can be common cause and grace, as indicated in this recent article “Onam, the true celebration of humanity” by Shashi Tharoor.
Here’s a short tale of how democracy works best (courtesy of a Tom Friedman column in the NYTimes in 1985):
“The greatest builder of Jerusalem since Herod.”
When Teddy Kollak, the gruff mayor of Jerusalem for 29 years, was interviewed by the smart journalists about how the hell he was elected five times to do the impossible task of running a functioning city government among the Christians and Jews and Armenians and Palestinians all living so tightly together in such a complex and explosive city, he would answer in his deep and scratchy voice, “Don’t ask me about politics. Ask me about garbage,” he had it exactly right.
Consider the tension of 104 different cultural backgrounds in Jerusalem. Of 40 different Christian denominations alone. Of Jews from 140 different cutural backgronds. 570,000 people. Muslims. Arabs. And it is a quiet and pleasant ciy.
So as you guys come and go in your clanking trucks every week, no matter the heat or cold, the dirt or smell, the lifting and hauling, please remember that it’s you trash collectors who hold the world together.
Consider the “clarity of the sky,” with not a single industrial chimney. And the architecture is all stone. Serenity beyond laws.
Despite his prominent status, both in Israel and abroad, Kollek made it a point to define himself as the head of a municipality and not as the mayor of a city. He saw his role mainly as the provider of services for the residents. He used to follow the garbage men at dawn to make sure they were cleaning the city properly.
Teddy treats his constituents with equal doses of irreverence and respect. He does not hesitate to stop cars in the middle of the street and bawl out the passengers for throwing garbage out the window.
Probably Teddy’s authenticity is the only way to explain his continual electoral success. Politically, the man makes no sense. He is a liberal in Israel’s most hawkish city; a secularist who works on Saturday in the country’s most Orthodox religious center. He is a European Jew, an Ashkenazi, in a town where the majority are Jews from the Middle East or North Africa, Sephardic immigrants. He is a loyal Labor Party man in the biggest stronghold of the Likud, the conservative political coalition. Yet he has won every election since 1965, and he has done it while often telling people what they don’t want to hear. ”Teddy is a metapolitical phenomenon,” says the Israeli author Amos Elon. ”He runs counter to every cliche.”
Indeed, Teddy’s success as Mayor of Jerusalem probably owes a lot to the fact that his tough, no-nonsense temperament is wedded to a unique political outlook that is ideally suited to running the city. Teddy’s politics are the politics of limits.