My kids and I had the talk -- about democracy
Talk to your kids about democracy, before it’s too late.
EXT. STREET — AFTERNOON
Dedicated bike lane along busy thoroughfare replete with heavy machinery, ripped up streets, and empty shopfronts.
A father — bronzed, robust, early forties — ferries his two children to the dentist in a front-loading cargo bike. The late summer sun shines bright and a cool breeze — foretelling fall — chills their glistening skin.
The father’s feral three-year-old son swivels his head back and forth on the lookout for construction vehicles. Each discovery elicits wild screams of elation and ecstasy.
His daughter — sassy, sardonic, six — has tired of the truck safari. She seeks more enlightened conversation.
Dad, what’s the difference between a mayor and a president?
Very interesting question.
The simple answer is a mayor is in charge of a city, and a president is in charge of a country. Remember, cities reside in states, and states reside in countries.
Also remember, nothing is simple.
For example, in the United States, where we live, our government is organized as a democracy — allegedly. Do you know what a democracy is?
Back-hoe, Dad! Back-HOE! BACK-HOE!
Yeah, dude, I see it! A blue one — nice. Anyway, democracy, do you know what that means?
It’s a type of government system where all the people in the society get to vote for who’s in charge.
So, for Chicago, all the people who live inside the city get to vote for who becomes mayor — allegedly. Once elected, the mayor becomes responsible for leading the entire city. But every few years there’s a new election, where the people vote again, and decide if the current mayor should stay in power or a new mayor should take over.
The same thing happens at the state level. Do you remember which state we live in?
Yep. The person in charge of each state is called a governor, and they’re also chosen in an election by all the people who live in the state — allegedly. Our governor is in charge of every city, municipality, and corn field across Illinois, including Chicago. That means if the governor makes a new rule, everyone — including the mayor — has to follow it.
The governor has what’s called jur-is-dic-tion, which is a fancy word for saying who’s in charge. So, broadly speaking, the governor has more power than the mayor. But again, that’s not so simple either.
Because even though our governor’s in charge of Illinois, our mayor’s still in charge of Chicago. If the mayor makes a Chicago-specific rule, even the governor has to follow it while they’re inside the city.
This is part of the reason the whole country lost its mind over wearing facemasks during the early stages of the (never-ending) pandemic. The president would say one thing, the governors would say another, and the mayors another still. Thus, figuring out who had legal jurisdiction became really messy and complicated.
Finally, the same idea applies at the national level. The person in charge of the federal government, which covers the entire country, is called the president. Everyone in the country gets to vote for president every four years — allegedly.
So does that mean the president’s in charge of everyone? Do they have jur-ris…
(Contemplating how deep down this rabbit hole to go)
Jurisdiction. Not exactly…
Okay, let’s back up. In the simplest terms, there’s three levels of government in the U.S. system: municipal, state, and federal. And at each of those levels there’s three branches of government: executive, legislative, and judicial.
Let’s stick with the federal level. In the executive branch we know about the president.
The legislative branch is where the people in Congress make laws — allegedly. Congress has two parts: the House of Representatives and the Senate. The House is supposed to represent a cross-section of all the people in the entire nation — allegedly.
This should happen because the number of representatives from each state is supposed to correspond to the population of that state. But this process is really messed up for all sorts of reasons, primarily due to an insidious process called gerrymandering.
That sounds like salamander!
It sure does.
But salamanders are amphibians, which are really cool.
Gerrymandering, which involves drawing unfair voting districts so certain people’s votes — usually those of disenfranchised minorities — won’t count as much as others — usually those of suburban or rural whites — is subverting our democracy, which is decidedly not cool.
SUH-MENT MIXAH! SUH-MENT MIXAH!
The Senate is comprised of one hundred members. Each state — regardless of how many people live there — elects two Senators to Congress. This construct was purposefully built into the constitution and is supposed to prevent states with small populations, like Wyoming, from getting railroaded by states with large populations, like California.
And this is exactly why gerrymandering is so catastrophic. Because when partisan politicians make the House — and the Senate too — less representative through unfair districting, they’re exacerbating a system that’s intentionally designed to allocate disproportionate power to minority voting blocs.
This problem is intensified by nefarious voter suppression policies like purging voter rolls, or creating serpentine rules for obtaining I.D. cards, or limiting the amount of voting stations during an election, or tacitly (or not-so-tacitly) threatening violence toward particular voter groups, which — surprise! — all tend to affect racial minorities.
All told, these issues make an unbalanced system even more unbalanced. And that makes our country far less democratic and equitable than it should be, which is saying a lot.
Finally, the third part of the government is called the judicial branch, and it’s for the courts and judges. Remember, judges determine whether the laws written by the legislative branch and approved by the executive branch are fair and legal — allegedly.
Okay. Dad? I have a question.
Who’s in charge of the government then?
Well, in a democracy, no single person or entity is in charge. That’s the point.
The president is the most powerful individual in the federal government, but they can’t make the laws — that’s for Congress. They can’t appropriate (or misappropriate) funds either — that also falls to Congress.
Plus, if the president tries to do something illegal — like decide people of certain races, ethnicities or religions aren’t allowed to visit or live in the country — a judge or even the Supreme Court will rule against those policies and force them to stop — allegedly.
This system is called checks and balances. It ensures no one person or part of the government amasses too much power. And it’s super important for a democracy to function well.
[A BMW — it’s always a BMW — blows through a stop sign and whizzes in front of the child-carrying bike]
(Channeling the rage of Achilles)
[Expletives and death threats]
That neighbor is NOT driving safe.
Am-byoo-lens! WEE-OOOO! WEE-OOOO!
Alright, let’s think about democracy from another perspective. Do you remember that show we watched about World War Two? Called Rise of the Nazis?
Oh yeah! That was the one where those two really mean guys were deciding if their countries should battle each other.
Right. Back then, neither of those societies were democracies. The Nazis were fascists, and the Soviets were communists, but both systems were de facto dictatorships run by a single person. Dictator comes from dictate, which means to tell people what do to.
The central problem with dictatorships — or monarchies, or autocracies, or empires, or any governmental system where one person has total authority — is that if the person turns out to be a jerk, they have the power to wreak havoc on everyone.
For example, China and Russia are modern-day dictatorships.
Russia nonchalantly started World War Three in February. These atrocities stem from and are perpetuated by the whims of one unstable, immoral person — though they’re always aided by sycophants who are all too happy to follow orders.
Dad, what’s jeh-no-side?
We’ll talk about that when you’re seven.
Anyway, some people — dumb people — argue that dictatorships are more effective than democracies because dictators can act faster than the lumbering, arduous, and at times painfully inefficient democratic process.
One could even argue tackling really big problems — like addressing climate change, or reducing gun violence, or simplifying the tax code, or implementing a comprehensive immigration policy — would be a lot easier if one person could just decide.
And wouldn’t it be great if a really smart and nice person — like Michelle Obama or Tom Hanks — was the benevolent dictator in charge of the entire country?
Is that a rhetorical question?
See, there’s a very famous expression that says, “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” You know what that means?
If you give somebody total control, or total power, eventually — even if they’re super nice to begin with — that person will abuse their power and turn evil.
Oh, like Anakin!
Darf vadah says, “Bee-ware tha dauk side!” Doo-doo-doo, do do-do, do do-do.
Anakin started off on the light side of the force, then slowly turned to the dark side as he accumulated more and more power. Once he realized he could impose his will through violence he stopped caring if he hurt people. His actions were always justified because, in his mind, he was making the galaxy safer and more orderly.
If I were a dictator, I’d totally do the same thing.
What do you mean?
I mean if I had absolute power a lot of people would have a lot of problems.
Well, first of all, in our neighborhood, everyone who refuses to pick up after their dog would go straight to a gulag. Also, everyone who drives around like an asshole would be sent to a gulag. And people who litter — gulag. And the college kids next door — the ones who play their music way too loud after midnight — gulag. Also, George Lucas. And J.J. Abrams. And—
Ugh — I get it already! Basically you’d send every single person that annoys you to a gulag.
Pretty much. You’d do the same thing.
No I wouldn’t!
Oh, really? Miss “I just want everything to be exactly how I want otherwise I’ll have a total meltdown” would miraculously discover her inner Zen when handed absolute power?
The minute your brother knocked over your castle or misplaced your dolls he’d wind up in a gulag. Mommy and I wouldn’t be far behind.
Tell me I’m wrong.
I wouldn’t send Mommy. Only you.
I rest my case. So, what’s the moral of this story?
If my dad was a dictator he’d be, like, way worse than Darth Vader!
More importantly, democracy has many flaws. At times, it downright sucks.
But, as proud eugenicist and famed colonialist Winston Churchill once apocryphally said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
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From the archive: To celebrate the epic return of the NFL season — and the interminable Tom Brady era — I encourage you to read this piece. It’s ostensibly about sports, but the twist comes halfway through. Trust me, it’s worth a look.
Next Friday: Juggling a few different ideas. I’ll surprise you.
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