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The ideal time to revive American democratic values

Editorial by Hector E. Garcia

“… that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”  

President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address excerpt

Presidential candidates, from different perspectives, have focused on the nation’s greatness.

There are roots of greatness and there are trappings of greatness. The roots are the sources of discoveries, institutions, systems and practices that gain the admiration of other nations and establish landmarks in history.

Among the trappings of greatness are winning in business, games, sports and other competitive endeavors. Without the roots, the trappings will eventually wither and die. A sure way for the roots of American greatness to “perish from the earth” is for us to believe that winning is its source and that being number one is imperative regardless of its consequences to the opinions and welfare of others, to ethics and civil behavior, to the essential integrity of our thoughts and our actions as well as to the nation’s own history…

American democracy unleashed the creativity and “can do” attitude of individual Americans just as democracy in Ancient Greece elicited these distinctive capabilities from many of its people. It was not the “winning-is-the-only-thing” mantra, which has become so fashionable and which some today incorrectly assume is the source of the achievements of the United States.

Our nation faces awesome challenges; yet, I believe they pale before those successfully overcome by the Greatest Generation of Americans. Their actions and those of many before them followed a formula that ensures greatness. They leveraged the fear, the threats and the pain they experienced to rise to new heights, much as the Wright brothers harnessed the wind to make human flying possible. Should we now give up that tested formula because of wizard-of-Oz leadership and foot-ball soundbites?

Courageous and informed thinking along with corresponding action can again address successfully the systemic dilemma, which is causing the erosion of the building-blocks of our society. Yes, the nation has lost ground when compared to other countries in economic mobility, in the size and quality of life of its middle class, in education, in health, crime and justice. Yes, top-down government decisions with disastrous effects have been made over the past decades.

But, it is not more authoritarian decision-making and a strongman’s manipulation that can solve the dilemma. It is the revival of the exceptional sources of greatness of the nation which will empower us to do so successfully; among these, the most needed is the force of “We the People.”

The people cannot be subjects of emotional manipulation over political decisions as we have been over products and services we buy while expecting to remain co-creators of our future. We are not predestined to greatness; we must think, say and do what is necessary to be great and exemplify it to the world. We will not be successful in addressing national peril by accepting the role of compliant consumers who are swayed at will on how to vote and “go shopping.”

Gradually, media investigative reporting has eroded, American citizens, as Robert Putman wrote, started “bowling alone,” and the marketing gurus trained aspiring leaders to “stay on message.” We have been abandoning the quest to understand root causes in solving problems. It is easier to stand on reductionist and “shallow” concepts. This, in turn, leads to either-or polarization and blocks compromise since no side can see the others’ perspective. Collaboration and synergy would be more prevalent if the media would present more in-depth, big-picture scenarios and innovative ideas. The Founders made clear that it is imperative for citizens to be educated on the matters on which we vote.

Democracy, our honored formula to bring out the best in each of us, will generate the solutions we need. Formulas for greatness that bring out the worst in us… that kindle our fear, anger and scapegoating will instead bring failure and despair. Unfortunately, some will follow the latter because they have been misinformed or not informed at all.

What formula for greatness will we the People of the United States choose for our children this November? How will we and the media better perform our vital roles in a government of the people, by the people and for the people?

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Hector E. Garcia is a Mexican immigrant and U.S. citizen.