2016 Election Tests Democracy, Me, and You
In my neighborhood there was one lone Trump/Pence sign. I stared at it every day while walking my dog, feeling alienated from the homeowner. I voted for Hillary Clinton and am confident that she would have been an exemplary president—I was stunned and sickened by her loss to her opponent’s utterly indecent, hate-fueled, and surely deplorable campaign. But Donald Trump is President-elect. He will be president of this democracy, my president. Now what, for both you and for me? I followed the presidential campaign with a good friend who is 210 years old. British philosopher John Stuart Mill proved a comforting companion and prescient forecaster of the results. In On Liberty, written in 1859, Mill pointed to the United States as the test-case for democracy. He was a fan of our country because he claimed that personal freedom was the key to human happiness, but he warned that a democracy can be the worst form of government if its citizens lack education and therefore lack tolerance as well. He feared the “tyranny of the majority” in which the interests of those defeated in elections could be ignored, their voices silenced, their needs unheard. He passionately argued against the “legislation of morality”—turning personal beliefs into laws. For Mill laws exist to protect you from physical harm from me and everyone else, not to mold my character or yours to fit the status quo. Let freedom reign. He championed a “cultivated mind,” one that has a boundless interest in the world—in nature, history, originality, science, music, eccentricity, a poem, and the differences and similarities among people. Mill was devoted to his wife, philosopher Harriet Taylor, and wrote against The Subjection of Women in 1869. (1869!)
We’re smart enough to correct our mistakes, Mill insisted, always a believer in the best in human nature and our capacity for change. Yes, his thoughts on democracy were for me like a light left on in the window during the trauma of the campaign season. Everyone knows the story of this campaign all too well, too long, too hard, too alarming—there’s no benefit in rehashing it here. The question is how to respond to the election results. Maybe it’s because I hung out with Mill for these long months, but my response, as this hard day wears on, grows increasingly and quite surprisingly more positive.
I’m gradually but determinedly going to put the campaign behind me, hopefully with at least a tincture of the grace and love of country shown by Secretary Clinton and President Obama in their speeches this morning. If she, the winner of the popular vote, asks us to do as she is and “accept the result and look to the future,” then I’m with her. If she believes on this of all mornings that “fighting for what’s right is always worth it,” then game on for me, too. I know she’s right—and that I can work harder for those marginalized by poverty, bigotry, and injustice. If her love of country and commitment to its improvement remain steadfast, who am I to give up and dream of Canadian sunsets? She's also correct that her loss is painful and will be for a long time. But the two realities, being deep down heartsick while staying active and positive, can co-exist. (You can watch her noble concession speech here, one for the ages.)
I hope that the responsibility of the Presidency brings out the better human instincts in Donald Trump and his supporters. Who and how we are as a country is on full display. All candidates’ records show discrepancy between their campaign promises and their presidential actions. May the divide for him be oh so wide and show new wisdom and humility. His speech last night hinted at this possibility. Clinton, Obama, and Mill know that democracy relies on citizen participation or it will die. There are countless ways to involve oneself in the daily life of this teetering democracy. How we respond, whether our candidate won or lost, is up to the individual. We can’t change yesterday. We can step back and just breathe today. And get started again tomorrow taking baby steps toward liberty and justice for all.
This afternoon when I see my neighbor Raymond, the proud Trump supporter, I’m going to ask him to share with me why he was his choice for president. I may ask a question because I do love questions, but likely will simply listen. I can think of sound reasons not to vote for Clinton. But I can’t think of one reason to vote for Trump. So my continuing education in the practice of democracy starts anew this afternoon.