YARBROUGH COLUMN: Can our Democracy outlast us?

Published 11:30 am Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

This is kind of a bummer way to start your day but it is worth reflection: “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”

Who said that? Karl Marx? Ayatollah Khomeini? Vladimir Putin? Wrong, wrong and wrong. It was John Adams, second president of the United States. He also added, “Individuals have conquered themselves. Nations and large bodies of men, never.” Could he have been talking about us?

I posit that the biggest threat to our future comes not from China or Russia or North Korea. It comes from within. It comes from people who somehow find nothing wrong with a bunch of goons wreaking havoc on the United States Capitol because they didn’t like the results of a presidential election. They call themselves “patriots.” They are no more patriotic than grape nut cereal contains grapes.

It comes from people obsessed with a past that is over and done with and who are not content to look at the progress that we have made since then. Call them the Woke generation. They forget they live in a country that freely allows them to disrespect it. Try that in Russia.

It comes from people who feel the need to hyphenate their origin as though they aren’t really committed Americans, they are hyphenated Americans. (As an aside: I have a white acquaintance that grew up in South Africa. Does she qualify as an African-American?)

It comes from universities that make it as difficult as possible for conservative viewpoints to be expressed while they make it easy for liberal expressions.

It comes from biased media that pander to a particular political philosophy and then claim to be fair and balanced. (Watch Fox’s Tucker Carlson and any talking head on MSNBC report the same story.)  They make it hard for any media to be trusted to report a story accurately. Where are Chet Huntley and David Brinkley when we need them?

I am a tiny tadpole in the large media stream but I value my integrity too much to say there can only be one side to an issue. As a reader correctly discerned last week, I am neither to the left nor right on the political spectrum but smack in the middle. Smart reader.

Before you become totally bummed out, let me give you some important perspective. It seems we have always been like this, going back to our beginnings as a nation.

If you have read any history at all, you know that our Founding Fathers were petty, spiteful and a sometimes dishonorable lot who created a nation every bit as prone to violence as is today’s. The more I read of our early days, the more amazed I am we have made it this far.

For example, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson hated Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and the feeling was mutual. John Adams didn’t like Jefferson or Hamilton. I am amused when I hear all the talk about “fake news” today. Both Jefferson and Hamilton funded newspapers for the expressed purpose of slanting public opinion in their favor.

Pres. John Adams pushed the passage of the Sedition Act of 1798 which criminalized making statements that were critical of the federal government. And lest we forget, Vice President Aaron Burr killed Hamilton in a duel, which makes former Vice President Dick Cheney shooting a hunting buddy in the tush not so big a deal.

Somehow we have managed to make our democracy function for a little more than two centuries but as John Adams himself noted, we are not a sure thing. The biggest difference between then and now is that misinformation and political demagoguery are disseminated with an immediacy not available in days of yore. Can you imagine Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton on Twitter?

If you take John Adams and his views on democracy literally, the day may be coming when we will self-destruct. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be. Let us pledge ourselves not to waste, exhaust and murder our precious freedoms through complacency, apathy or narrow-minded self-interest. Philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” May it not be on our watch.

And as bad as things may seem to be, just remember what Winston Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried.”  I agree. And I hope John Adams would, too.