Can We the People govern ourselves?

We take for granted that the democratic or republican forms of government are inevitable and natural, that they are the best way to govern, and certainly far ahead of whatever comes in second.

If so, then, how do you explain:

Illinois? Chicago? The federal government? All challenge the everyday assumption that We the People can effectively govern ourselves. Illinois is tottering on the edge of fiscal disaster. Chicago could be heading for bankruptcy. And, well, you know how our federal government is working.

Internationally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was hatched in the Soviet Union’s KGB secret police, runs an autocratic operation that correctly assumes that it can bully the Western democracies. The most vile, vicious religious fanatics murder anyone who would disagree with their beliefs be damned.

Domestically, ideologues at both ends of the political spectrum and their cockamamie schemes and dreams — from the disastrous Affordable Care Act to the notion that shutting down government will get us to nirvana — threaten to bankrupt the country and create national gridlock exceeded only by the Civil War.

Yet, we take democracy as a given, that it can survive no matter how corrupt or featherbrained political leaders become. Somehow, it all will work itself out.

We’re suffering from a national amnesia. We’ve forgotten how our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents actually faced the demise on a global scale of the very idea of self-government.

During the height of World War II, cruel and evil tyrannies commanded nearly all of continental Europe and most of Asia. From the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, from the Arctic Ocean, sweeping down across the Mediterranean Sea and into Africa, millions of citizens fell under the onslaught of assorted dictators of the right—e.g. Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Francisco Franco — and of the left — Joseph Stalin. The military dictatorship of Japan was rampaging through Korea, China, the Philippines, Malaysia and threatening the Asian subcontinent and Australia. Not to mention America.

Lest we forget, many of these brutal regimes were the result of failed democracies. Hitler and Mussolini cashed in on the discontent and suffering from a worldwide recession. Making the trains “run on time” became more urgent than civil liberties. Stability and conformity trumped human rights. Hatred became a way of life.

The Western democracies, namely Britain and America, stood alone and imperiled. The idea had taken hold that democracies contained the seeds of their own destruction because their leaders catered to the rabble. Better to turn everything over to a ruling elite that would lead in the “greater interest.” As if to prove the theory correct, the Western democracies had to ally themselves with Stalin’s savage communist regime to defeat the right-wing dictatorships.

Originally, it took the American Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 to demonstrate the workability of self-government to a skeptical world that considered it to be an experiment at best and, more certainly, a loopy, impossible dream.

The workability of self-government was proved, or so it seemed, a quarter century ago when it won the Cold War, peacefully but at great cost. Maybe that helped create the mythology that self-government was automatically self-renewing.

But now, who can be so sure that self-government works? How can it when so many citizens are apathetic, misinformed or ignorant? What other reason can there be for so many failures on local, state, national and global scales? How can we call it self-government when only about half of eligible voters turn out for even the most important elections? Or when recent primary turnout in Chicago hit the low double digits. Or when the turnout of eligible voters among African-Americans in Ferguson, Mo., who are vastly underrepresented in local government, is even lower?

Voting has never been easier. Tuesday, the day after Labor Day, is the traditional beginning of the campaign season. Elections will be held in a couple of months, time enough for the ill-informed to get educated, the apathetic to find some motivation and the self-serving and greedy to heal themselves. I fear they won’t.

This column also appeared in the Chicago Tribune.

See details of my award-winning historical novel, Madness: The War of 1812, at
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