How to Rebuild American Democracy

To the Editor:

As an educator, and host of a nonprofit TV show on culture and ideas, the recent crisis in democracy (Atlantic magazine: “Is Democracy Dying?” Oct. 2018) has prompted my reflections here. In the long sweep of history, democracies have been few and far between. Some form of autocratic rule, by a royal sovereign or dictator, has generally held sway instead of government by “we the people.”

Then, in 1776, a civic miracle occurred. America became the leading torchbearer for the cause of expanding democratic freedom in the world. Though never perfect, America has struggled toward a more perfect union; toward what Lyndon Johnson called the Great Society, and Martin Luther King called the Beloved Community.

Indeed, in the 20th century the United States was instrumental in defeating the totalitarian threats posed by the Axis powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan, and providing the moral and strategic leadership to bring down Soviet Russia in a 45-year Cold War while avoiding nuclear catastrophe.

Nurtured by the liberal policies of FDR, the second half of the 20th century was, as economist Paul Krugman reminds us, a golden age for American democracy. The fortunes of blue collar and middle-class folks improved dramatically during this time, as unions flourished, while the super rich were content with mansions not quite so large; and, ok, fewer yachts.

By the time the ’60s rolled around, the voices of those once banished to the margins of society, of women, minorities, gays, and the poor, were at last being heard. A burgeoning peace movement, which included such luminaries as Allen Ginsberg, Jane Fonda, Tom Hayden, Pete Seeger, John Lennon, and Yoko Ono (“Imagine all the people, living life in peace…”), made it seem like war itself would soon be over.

So what happened? How did we devolve from an age of radiant hope to one of rampant wealth inequality, retreat by the working and middle classes, and a politics not of reasonable compromise but of rancor, poisonous discourse, and demonization of the other? I believe education is the key. And I mean education in the broader sense, not just what happens in classrooms, but how we learn from culture (i.e. movies, theater, the various arts), and the media.

We need a new “back to basics” education movement that puts human empathy, Socratic dialogue, and critical thinking at the core to reverse the recent trend toward a narrow, technocratic, “education for jobs” approach. Bold steps toward this new paradigm include the work of Richard Dreyfuss to revive the teaching of civics, and the recent wise decision by Jeff Bezos to support Montessori schools: long a bastion of progressive, outside-the-box pedagogy.

Citizens who have been deprived of imagination, of the ability to think, dialogue, care about community, and feel empathy for others do not make good voters. These problems long preceded Trump, and need to be addressed immediately. Reactions to this essay are welcome at