Events over the last two years have illustrated how fragile our form of self-governance is. They remind me of the scene in J.M Barrie’s play “Peter Pan” where Tinkerbell drinks the poisoned “medicine” meant for Peter to save his life. Peter pleads for help. The only way to prevent her death is for the audience to believe in fairies: “If you believe, clap your hands!” Without the audience’s belief, “dear Tink” ceases to exist. Adult audience members know fairies do not really exist. Yet the many who applaud are expressing not a literal belief in fairies, but rather a belief that such selfless acts of friendship should be willed to exist, and should be preserved.
Our chosen form of governance, grounded upon liberal democratic ideals of the Enlightenment, is similar to Tinkerbell. It is not a res that exists in the corporeal world; not something tangible to be identified by our senses. Rather, it is a complex system of beliefs about how to engage in the difficult work of self-governance. As such, it resides solely in the collective consciousness of the people so governed. In order for this belief system to live and flourish, the people must collectively will it to exist.
The core tenet of the system is the belief that all persons are created equal. This is understood as meaning everyone is entitled to both equal treatment under the law and equal opportunity to work, speak, pray, and love as they see fit, as long as doing so does not impinge on another’s ability to engage in similar pursuits. To codify our commitment to these principles, to mediate the boundaries of individual autonomy, and to create practical mechanisms giving this belief system the force of law, the Founders drafted the Constitution, and later supplemented it with the Bill of Rights.
The resulting “more perfect union” is uniquely our own. As such, it is not the only system for governing people. Indeed, there have been and are numerous varieties of governments, both in degree and kind, founded upon different belief systems, which have survived for much longer than our relatively youthful 241 years. And our form of government is admittedly not very efficient. Its design is purposely messy, a Jenga tower of checks and balances to encourage debate and deliberation and to create a united citizenry from an ethnically, racially, economically, and religiously heterogeneous multitude. For our republic to exist and endure, “We the People” must maintain a belief in those foundational principles of equality and use them as touchstones for social and political discourse and action. Our government exists by virtue of a communal, civic act of faith.
Current events, however, suggest many have lost that faith. The coarsening and silencing of public discourse undermines debate and deliberation. Silos of grievance – tribalism, nativism, classism, and racism – crenellate the social and political landscape, laying siege to a shared belief in equality. The “People,” insulated in echo chambers and segmented from the larger community of citizens, succumb to cynicism. They become easily manipulated by politicians and pundits, both foreign and domestic, who use fear and disinformation to instigate a zero-sum scrum between discontented factions. And as our shared belief leaks away, the mechanisms of government jam and stall, overheat, and, eventually, fail.
The continued existence of the United States is not inevitable. Our short history suggests as much. The Civil War was the most extreme threat to its continued existence. Three decades later, the battle between capital and labor threatened, giving rise to the competing attractions of oligarchy, fascism, and anarchy. And the mid-twentieth century struggle between the pre-WW II status quo and an expanded recognition of minority and women’s rights provides yet a further example. On some level, all of these past social and political disruptions corresponded with a failure in our shared belief in equality. While the government survived these disruptions, though at great individual cost and sacrifice, that does mean it will do so again. To borrow from Wall Street, past performance is not a guarantee of future success.
Currently, the most pressing challenge to our shared belief in equality is technological segregation. Gazing into separate HD flatscreens, an end user can equate anonymous comments in an on-line community with a vigorous and thorough public exchange of ideas with persons holding dissimilar sensibilities. Crediting only opinions about other people and the government that confirm an end user’s biases leads to unsourced and uncorroborated information reinforcing distrust and a sense of grievance being indiscriminately distributed. Today, it has become simply too easy to avoid competing views, to forget that others experience and feel things differently. Without an exchange of ideas among people who have lived lives varying from each other, it becomes too hard to do the work that equality requires. And that begins by seeing the world from another’s perspective.
What is needed is a renewal of civic empathy. Unlike the audience attending Peter Pan, we are not hearing a common call to believe in our daily lives. This situation, however, is something each of us has the power to change. We have the agency to move beyond our intellectual and emotional comfort zones and engage with others we might wish to avoid. We should open our minds to new, and perhaps conflicting, viewpoints, working through the discomfort of cognitive dissonance to find a shared truth. We need to become a communion of concerned citizens to effectuate and continue to expand equal opportunity and equality under the law. That is the life’s blood of our form of self-governance and its institutions. Absent a recommitment to our shared belief system, we run a risk of becoming yet another artifact amid the rubble of failed republics.
So clap your hands if you believe in all of us.
Thomas Riordan is a Visiting Associate Clinical Professor of Law at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles. Prior to teaching, he was a partner of O’Melveny & Myers LLP where he practiced for fifteen years.