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Tending the garden of democracy

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Over President’s Day weekend, New Mexico artist Paula Zima joined the SLO Monument Committee and local citizens in Mitchell Park to unveil a sculpture of our 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt, to serve as the draft for a larger monument to be built, commemorating a speech given here by T.R. in 1903.

There could be no better place for the monument than Mitchell Park, where just weeks before, thousands of residents gathered for the Women’s March, a march that reflected a new awakening, a rebirth of the American Spirit that T.R. would have admired and recognized as his own. For not only was Mr. Roosevelt the first presidential candidate to advocate for women’s rights in the workplace and at the ballot box, he articulated better than any before him a “new nationalism” based not on the old bonds of racial or religious identity but on the moral virtues of democracy itself: political equality and popular sovereignty.

We must reaffirm and nourish that identity. An Associated Press-NORC (National Opinion Research Center) poll of 1,004 adults conducted Feb. 16 to 20 shows that 71 percent (plus/minus 3.9 percent) of Americans agree “the United States is losing its national identity—the beliefs and values that the country represents.” Large majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and independents are in agreement here: that we have lost a sense of who we are as a people.

Just what does it mean to say that democracy is our national identity? In Roosevelt’s day it meant advancing political equality by breaking up monopolistic corporations, creating a federal securities commission, and advocating for workplace safety, national health care, and basic social services. Roosevelt also understood that popular sovereignty required public ownership of our lands, waters, and other public goods, to be managed through popular electoral control. But most of all, it meant nourishing the individual moral obligations of democratic values.

Today, we push back against the dismantling of environmental and economic protections that allowed America to become a great world power and a prosperous democracy in the wake of Roosevelt’s reforms. But reaffirming our identity requires more.

Democracy is more than a set of collective institutions and regulations. Our decision-making institutions grow out of a deeper, moral commitment to and identification with values that transcend the sexual, religious, and racial identities bound up in ethno-nationalist movements that are a continual threat to democracies across the globe.

Yes, it means that we must fight to protect the vote against any attempts to dilute its value, whether through restrictions on registration, ease of voting, ballot access, corrupt election administration, campaign finance, gerrymandering, or other mechanisms that bias representation. But our moral commitment to democracy also requires that we stand up for the basic dignity of all human beings. The morality of democracy calls us to defend the dignity of women against sexual predation and political subjugation; to defend religious freedom against conformity to any religious dogma; to reject racial targeting and discrimination in any national or local policy; and as Roosevelt so clearly recognized, we must protect our collective prosperity from exploitation of any kind, whether it is corporate dominance or the degradation of our natural resources.

We must eradicate ethno-nationalism in all its forms, from the growing white supremacist movements and threats that are sprouting up locally, to the more subtle and insidious national policies targeting racial and religious minorities under the false pretense that those identities reflect an effective means of assessing threats. Such tactics are not just ineffective from a policy perspective (national origin and religion do not help us predict terror threats; immigrants are actually less likely than citizens to commit crime). Their real effect is to water the seeds of anxiety, resentment, and hatred, seeds planted in the 2016 election, which are now defiling the garden of democracy.

We can’t expect democracy to survive if we fail to reaffirm and grow our national identity as a democracy every generation: As T.R. long ago recognized in his “Address at San Luis Obispo,” we are all in it for the long haul: “We have passed the stage as a nation when we can afford to tolerate the man whose aim it is merely to skin the soil and go on; to skin the country, to take off the timber, to exhaust it, and go on … . Our aim must be to hand over to our children not an impoverished but an improved heritage. That is the part of wisdom for our people. We wish to hand over our country to our children in better shape, not in worse shape, than we ourselves got it. … Ultimately, though soil and climate will count for much, what will count for most is the average character in the individual citizen, the individual man or woman; that is what counts in the long run in making a nation.” 

Michael Latner is a political science professor and Master of Public Policy Program director at Cal Poly. Send comments through the editor at clanham@newtimesslo.com.

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