When our grandchildren curse us for dismantling democracy in the first quarter of the 21st century, they’ll note we undermined our nation’s strength by failing to maintain the structures that made us strong.
This already has happened on a practical, physical level. Years of buck-passing, blame-gaming and old-fashioned benign neglect have produced crumbling infrastructure. All across America, we face myriad crises as our roads, bridges, rail lines, electrical grids, airports and water systems – to cite but a few examples – crumble beneath us because we have failed to maintain, much less improve, them.
While these failures threaten both our livelihood and our health, deeper failures threaten our democratic government and, ultimately, our existence as a nation. We can blame politicians, but we must start with ourselves.
“People of faith … ought to be advocates for robust media and for open access to government and business leaders, entertainers and all who benefit from the public trust.”
Abysmal voter turnout – particularly in primary elections – placed the choice of federal, state and local leadership in ever-fewer hands. This problem compounded when the United States Supreme Court paved the way for huge infusions of cash into the political system, the so-called “dark money” whose sources are unknown, at least to the vast majority of tax-paying American citizens. The problem multiplied when the courts agreed to look the other way as political parties gerrymandered legislative districts, creating “safe” seats and spawning politicians unresponsive to their constituents.
So, the extreme elements of the political parties often control the selection and security of candidates. The people who are supposed to represent us typically fear only getting beat in the next primary by someone more extreme than they. This is why statespeople capable of forging bipartisan alliances on behalf of the greater good no longer inhabit capitols. And why people you wouldn’t allow to babysit your children run our states and nation.
When our grandchildren curse us, they will point to this month as an illustration of another way we undermined democracy. They’ll note – unless there is a miraculous change of heart among the majority of U.S. senators – the Senate conducted an impeachment trial of a lawbreaking president largely out of view of the American public. As the Chicago Tribune, CNN and other news outlets have reported, Senate leaders are intent on imposing regulations that restrict news media access to cover President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial. Restrictions range from limiting the number of seats available to reporters, to forbidding the presence of laptops and silenced cell phones, to shielding Senators from encountering reporters – and from answering questions they would ask on our behalf.
The net result is Americans’ inability to know clarifying details of one of the most important events in modern history.
This has been a long time coming, of course. Presidents and other politicians have fought with reporters for decades. Often, sadly, U.S. citizens have sided with the pols. We understand some of the reasons. Reporters can be brash and even disrespectful. They become easy foils for clever and deceptive people who don’t want to answer for their own actions. Objectified as “the media,” they can appear to be unregulated adversaries with malevolent motives.
However, the reporters and editors who gather news go about their jobs on behalf of you and me. We call them the Fourth Estate, the fourth branch of government – the one that holds the executive, legislative and judicial branches accountable by shining light on their actions and helping the public determine whether they have been worthy of the common trust.
“Your right to know what is happening in Washington, as well as in the capital of your state, has never been more at risk.”
Many of the most important developments of the past 50 years or so have come about because “the media” did their jobs. The civil rights movement would not have progressed without pictures of police dogs lunging at children and film of fire hoses turned on protestors. Americans would not have changed their minds about Vietnam without images of young men in body bags. Nixon would’ve gotten by with Watergate, and Enron still would have your money. Wrongly convicted men still would be in prison. You can add many other illustrations to this list.
When politicians take pains to prevent you from knowing what they’re doing – and from explaining themselves – you correctly question their motives. Your right to know what is happening in Washington, as well as in the capital of your state, has never been more at risk.
Ironically, open access is in everyone’s interest, including the lawmakers who restrict knowledge of their actions. Take the impeachment trial as an illustration: If the Senate were to conduct a completely open trial, with witnesses and with full coverage, Americans could evaluate the outcome on its own merits. But when a truncated trial concludes, the nation will be as divided as before, with each person leaning into preconceptions void of knowledge, lacking both understanding and context.
People of faith – among all citizens – ought to be advocates for robust media and for open access to government and business leaders, entertainers and all who benefit from the public trust. (Likewise, we should model that same value in our vigorous support of a free religious press that keeps us informed and helps hold our faith leaders and religious institutions accountable to their constituents.) The Scriptures speak of the power and virtue of light. Christians follow a Savior who said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
Tragically – as illustrated in the Senate’s intentions to restrict news media access in the impeachment trial – forces for silence, obscurity and ignorance seem to prevail. When democracy is undone, our grandchildren will curse those forces. And they’ll curse us for allowing them to have their way.
EDITOR’S NOTE: With this commentary, Marv Knox joins BNG’s team of regular opinion contributors who write bi-weekly or monthly. Read his bio.