There is a growing sense among the people in our community, on the left and the right, that something has gone horribly wrong with our democracy. People are disgusted, and they should be. Moral disgust is the appropriate response to President Trump’s “fine-tuned machine” of chaotic, naked assertions of power against our long established norms of truth and honesty in public discourse.
It is appropriate that a free people respond with moral outrage to someone who so aggressively tears at the fabric of our civility. President Trump is a virus infecting the operating system of democracy; he is dismantling the basic rules of conversation. At its core, democracy is about talking. It is about coming to common understanding through an exchange of facts.
Democracies resolve collective disputes through conversation, rather than weapons. Conversation presupposes an expectation of honesty, and we are clearly not living in a democracy if there are no consequences for lying. Yes, all politicians lie sometimes, but when caught, there is normally a penalty to pay. Our leaders have to respect the expectation of honesty, the expectation of truth. Until this guy.
So what can we do about it? There are many paths forward to be sure, but our path must put truth and honesty out front. They provide clear guidance about which paths to avoid.
First, ours is not a path of violence. There are justifiable uses of violence, and I will be happy to throw the first punch when skinheads and “alt-righters” are actually coming for us, but the notion that we would violently confront someone who wants to say something offensive is more of a violation of civil norms than whatever a professional troll could come up with. On the Cal Poly campus, white supremacists are now making themselves heard regularly, emboldened no doubt by the attention that national figures have gained. But as long as we are free to criticize bigotry and racism, that is our greatest weapon, not our fists, not our numbers, not our capacity to inflict damage.
The left also has to be honest about what elements of resistance a pro-democracy movement can include. Nobody can doubt that the Women’s March was an amazing display of democratic solidarity across the country, and it will be remembered as a foundation of our growing pro-democracy movement. Thousands of people in San Luis Obispo stood together, not just to advocate for reproductive rights, but also to reaffirm truth and honesty. But a pro-democracy movement, or even a women’s rights movement, cannot exclude “pro-life” activists while being led by someone like co-chair Linda Sarsour, an activist who has refused to denounce the treatment of women in places like Saudi Arabia. A pro-democracy movement has to stand up for truth, and the truth is that while women may choose religiously conservative practices in a place like the United States, the vast majority of women who live under religious regimes lack any meaningful choice in life decisions. We can’t afford hypocrisy.
We must also be honest about prospects for change from above. It is pure fantasy to imagine, as is now being done, that the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, which lays out the procedure to transfer the powers of the executive to the vice president if the president is “unable to discharge the powers and duties” of the office, will ever be invoked. Under what conditions? President Trump giving a psychopathological, rambling press conference, brushing off his own lies and suggesting transformational foreign policy changes on the fly? Already happened. If Trump grabbed a baby at his next pep rally, and ate it, a majority of his right-wing supporters in Congress would see it as a brilliant act of honesty, symbolizing the sacrifice we need to make America great again.
Instead, we must build alliances and set aside specific policy differences, for now, to focus on reaffirming democratic norms. How? Defend facts. Take a stand for civility. Attend a meeting for a group dedicated to civility and freedom. You would be amazed at the number of local groups popping up, and the surge of organizational activity taking place. Be a part of it. Join a local branch of a national civil rights or civil liberties groups like the ACLU or the NAACP. Want to support local civics in our high schools? You can help out with programs being developed by Citizens Congress, a local group dedicated to enhancing civic engagement. Want local candidates to engage with citizens? Show up. Or better yet, run for office, that’s taking democracy seriously. Or get on a board, lead a committee, contribute to the conversation however you can. Get off your ass and put your shoulder to the wheel. Our democracy needs us.
Michael Latner is a political science professor and Master of Public Policy Program director at Cal Poly. Send comments through the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org or write a letter to the editor at email@example.com.