Consider this: we once had a president of the United States who was a rigid, dictatorial racist, unable to heal a country riven by political divisiveness. His bullheaded opposition to any steps to promote civil rights and civil liberties exacerbated the polarization that had beset our country. Time and time again, he sided with the forces of bigotry and hate. His presidency was all the more disastrous because he succeeded a president who made healing the country’s deep divisions his priority, a president who was a moral leader for the nation.
The racist president was Andrew Johnson, who escaped impeachment by a single vote. And, as you know, he succeeded Abraham Lincoln. Our country outlasted the Andrew Johnson era, of course, though Jim Crow racism left a permanent wound in our country that festers to this day.
I cite this history because I sometimes hear from students and others that our country has never faced such a crisis as it does now. They see our citizenry, especially young people, disengaged from politics and public-policy debates. They also see bitter partisanship, outrageous claims and sharply differing views of what constitutes truth. Political divisiveness has again crippled our ability as a nation to resolve pressing public-policy issues, just as it did in the era of Johnson.
I remind those students and others that we did have a Civil War. And I remind them of the Vietnam War, which divided our country almost as sharply. In each case, our country not only survived but emerged stronger,because our citizenry renewed its undertaking to making our democracy work. As has been often said, democracy is not a spectator sport. It requires a commitment to the values of democracy, and no value is more significant than that each citizen has an obligation to be an active participant in making democracy work.
In my view, the current hyper-partnership is a result, not a cause, of disengagement. I believe a more involved citizenry can reverse this trend by participating directly in influencing common-sense public policies rather than relinquishing their independent thought to political parties and others. That citizenry will be able respectfully to appreciate differing viewpoints and know that it is possible to attack a policy idea, without attacking the person. They will come to realize that if they can do so, it is not only reasonable, but necessary for our elected leaders to do so as well.
What does that mean for you as a Stanford student?
Your participation means promoting public policies that are important to you, and backing candidates for office that support those policies. It means speaking and writing on questions that matter to you in every forum you can find. Discuss the public-policy and political issues that concern you with others, particularly those with views that differ from your own. We all tend to talk about issues in self-imposed echo chambers. This is the time to break out of your own echo chamber.
Most significant, your participation means voting. Your vote alone will not solve the current crisis. But it will make a difference in whether you are part of the solution.We do not need to vote, some may claim, because one vote cannot make a difference in an election. The facts of the 2016 election make clear that this claim is false. A few thousand votes made the difference in the entire presidential election, and scores of state and local elections were decided by fewer than a dozen votes. In each election year some races are settled by just a single vote. You may be in a state like California or Alabama where the outcome of the 2020 presidential votes seems clear, but in each of those states, like the rest of the country, races for other offices will be extremely close.
Perhaps even more important, we are the beneficiaries of the freedoms that our democracy provides, including speaking our views, publishing our opinions and being members of a religion or no religion. With those freedoms come responsibilities to ensure that the freedoms are protected. John W. Gardner,a great statesman and a student, trustee, and teacher at Stanford, said of our democracy: “Liberty and duty, freedom and responsibility. That’s the deal.” Voting is the most basic of our civic responsibilities, even if you think the result of a particular election is certain.
Are these steps enough to drain the current political climate of the corrosive partisanship that has so infected our democracy, or solve the massive public policy problems facing our nation—economic inequality, a warming planet, and much more? Of course not. Significant policy changes are needed. Those changes each require two interconnected happenings. The first is movements that call for the changes. The second is implementing those changes as matters of public policy.
At its founding, the Declaration of Independence notwithstanding, our country was governed by a small group of wealthy white men. Since the Constitution was crafted, we have been on a long and bumpy journey toward achieving equality and justice. That journey has been propelled by the power of movements—abolition, women’s suffrage, civil rights and more—not in a straight line of progress, but over time moving forward, enhancing our freedoms in the long term.
Recently we’ve witnessed the power of movements in student calls for gun control in the March for Our Lives in Washington and around the country. We watched while millions of students, led by activists my grandchildren’s ages, school adults on the need for action to save our planet from climate change. Those students had heard “enough is enough” from adults before — now they were using those words effectively against adults who failed to act for the health and safety of people everywhere.
I encourage you to be an active part of movements that further policy changes you think are needed, and to support representatives for positions in government who will advocate those changes. Hold onto any levers of change you can, and use them. I mean not just working through traditional party politics, though that is critically important right now, but also pulling the levers of power you have, especially through social media.
Finally, in case you need a reminder, here’s how you can register your views at the ballot box or voting machine. You can register to vote in any state through stanford.turbovote.org. If you’ve already registered, use TurboVote to sign up for text and/or email reminders with election information, dates and deadlines. If you request an absentee ballot, you will receive further directions or completed forms in the mail, along with an addressed, stamped envelope. No two states are alike so if you have questions, go to the first floor of the Haas Center during business hours. The Center even has stamps and envelopes if you need them.
Samuel Huntington was among my favorite undergraduate teachers at Harvard. Thirty years ago he wrote that the gap between political ideals and political reality is a continuing central phenomenon of American politics in ways that are not true of any other major nation. “Critics,” he added, “say that America is a lie because its reality falls so far short of its ideal. They are wrong. America is not a lie; it is a disappointment. But it can be a disappointment only because it is also a hope.”
That hope depends on each of us. Be an active part of making our democracy work. And be sure to register and vote!
— Thomas Ehrlich, Faculty, Graduate School of Education
Contact Thomas Ehrlich at tehrlich ‘at’ stanford.edu.