The act of voting is the most important contribution every single eligible voter can make to insure the health of our democracy. Yet year after year, a discouraging number of eligible voters choose not to pull the levers of power. In advance of the midterm elections, Facing History CEO Roger Brooks stops to consider the impact of non-voters, and worse, uninformed voters in an OpEd published on CNN.com:
August marks the one year anniversary of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Last summer’s events saw demonstrators gathering under symbols- Confederate flags, swastikas, and the Iron Cross, to name a few- that connote hatred, exclusion, and are associated with the persecution of African Americans, Jews, Muslims, and many more marginalized communities. Marchers chanted slogans: “Jews will not replace us,” “White lives matter,” and “Blood and soil.” While the event was steeped in symbolic violence, it concluded in physical violence and the death of an anti-racism activist. To many onlookers across the country and the world, this episode was shocking, frightening, but all too familiar.
During an unusually sunny week in early July, 22 leaders of educational organizations gathered in Northern Ireland for Facing History and Ourselves’ Global Summit on Democracy and Education. We hailed from ten countries spanning most corners of the globe. Some came from places with deep democratic traditions, like Australia and the Netherlands, while others represented newer democracies like South Africa and the Czech Republic, or societies emerging from periods of violent conflict, like Colombia and Northern Ireland itself.
On Tuesday, June 26, the US Supreme Court announced its decision to uphold President Trump's travel ban. His 2017 executive order banned travel from eight countries, six with majority-Muslim populations and is often referred to as the “Muslim Travel Ban.” This contemporary moment illustrates the importance of court systems in fostering climates of inclusion or exclusion within a country.
Democracy today is undergoing some major challenges. In fact, in 2017 it faced its most serious crisis in decades with the 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom, according to Freedom House.
And it’s reflected in our young people.
For 73 years, the Polish Government has bristled at the use of the term, “Polish death camps.” This reticence has prompted a new law, signed yesterday by President Andrzej Duda, that outlaws the phrase and penalizes anyone who suggests the country was complicit in Nazi crimes committed under occupation during World War II. While Duda defends the move as a way to safeguard the country against slander, using law and punishment to manipulate historical narratives raises troubling questions about how we remember the past.
The past year has warranted a lot of reflection for all of us. It’s left us all asking ourselves, “Where do we go from here?” and “How do we get there?” While we’re still grappling with these questions, there’s one answer I know is clear: The most important element to helping our young people uphold the values of democracy is a strong civic education.
On December 15, 1791, the first 10 amendments to the United States Constitution—known as the Bill of Rights—were ratified. Designed to spell out limits to the federal government’s power and to protect the individual liberties of Americans, these amendments include many of the hallmarks of the country’s democratic ideals: freedom of speech, the press, and religion; and the protection against being punished by the government without due process of law.
I was flying home from London last week and was sitting in an exit row. It’s funny how you can see those seats as access to more room to stretch out when really they are an emergency exit. In any case, the flight attendant came by and I was ready for her spiel: read the card, say that you agree to help, etc. Instead, she looked me in the eye and said, “You are going to need to do this. We are not going to get to you in time. We will be in the back opening those doors and helping people. People will be on you quickly and need your help.” Then she paused and said, “Most people think that we really are going to run up here and help, but we really can’t. We won’t get here in time. It’s your responsibility.”
In August white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia erupted in violence during a rally, including an instance of terrorism that killed one and injured 19 others when a vehicle was purposely driven into a crowd. Even as other world events continue to demand our attention, it is important not to lose sight of the rifts and tension that Charlottesville shined a blinding spotlight on. If we look to history, President George Washington’s letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island reminds us of the need to reclaim the nation’s vigilance against bigotry.