Election day draws near and it’s democracy that’s on the ballot


As election day draws near, tensions on both sides tighten – along with the polls. For election veterans, this is familiar terrain. In the minds of many – on both sides of the aisle – this election carries more weight than in recent decades.

But this election day is different for a variety of reasons. First, we head into it with a deeper awareness of social media’s role in distortion and misinformation. The Supreme Court’s recent decisions, forgive me for saying this, reign supreme in the hearts and minds of many electors, particularly women. And in mainstream journalism, the potential for civil war is openly discussed.

By any standard, we live, work and vote in an environment with new dynamics and awareness. And then there is the oddity of a not-quite-yet post-pandemic society still grappling with the divisiveness of the last two and a half years.

This is a lot to take on.

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For those of us who spend our lives worrying about the fate of democracy, our nightmares might be closer to reality than we ever wanted.

What comes with that fear is an irresistible urge to say I told you so. Yet, the capacity for rational behavior in the voting booth is directly related to one’s experiences with decision-making, participation, and engagement. For most Americans, this means how they live their lives at home and how they live their lives at work. Too many of us live in quiet desperation with limited capacity for long-term perspectives and little or no sense of engagement.

The first I told you so: we should have addressed growing inequality during the late 1980s – as many bright and well-intended experts recommended. With 40% of Americans unable to come up with $400 in an emergency, too many of us have lost the capacity for long-term thinking. Every day is a struggle. In the meantime, inequality only worsens.

I told you so number two: most of us work for a living and the workplace environment plays a critical role in shaping our sense of equity, participation, and engagement. As interest in unions begins to perk up, overall unionization has declined for decades. Yet, imperfect as they are, unions still represent an opportunity for participation, equity, and engagement. Millions of Americans lost that part of their lives during deindustrialization starting in the 1980s and persisting, in smaller waves, through the early 2000s.

But the social changes associated with declining unions were coupled with a reshaping of businesses where unions rarely played a role. In companies large and small, there was also a process of consolidation and mergers. For the most part, this process redefined the notion of mid-sized businesses. Like major corporations, there was an assumption that the primary goal was to increase the profits of shareholders, investors, and owners. In non-union industries, workers – at-will employees – never had much leverage. They have less now, but the historically low unemployment rates we are experiencing are slightly shifting that balance.

But the shift is too little too late. Any positive trends that grow from current worker advantages are too late to help the current electorate and the immediate issues of governance and severe threats to democracy. Besides, conditions that favor workers are not likely to survive a high-interest rate environment.

Rather than reinforcing ideal conditions for participation and engagement, most workplaces embrace authoritarian leadership models. The lounges, free cafeterias, and playful work environments profiled in high-tech companies are largely unknown to the people who tune our cars, maintain our plumbing and electricity, put new roofing on our homes, collect our refuse, and work in other service sector jobs.

I told you so number three: we are all human beings who need work and other social environments that foster our capabilities. We saw that part of the social contract wither when unions became too focused on wage and benefit increases at the expense of bargaining for more fulfilling and engaging workplaces. Work became so inhumane that some highly paid, unionized auto workers used heroin to cope with the emptiness of their work routines.

More meaningful participation in the workplace and the ability to accomplish our work in ways that don’t kill our spirits is a solid base for active citizenship. Democracy, it would seem, cannot survive without it.

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Importantly, it is not too late to address these issues. In fact, it appears we have no choice. If from the current morass, we can implement policies that reduce inequality, humanize our work environments, and focus on helping citizens fulfill and challenge their innate capabilities, we are likely to see significant improvements in the processes of democracy and engaged citizenship.

Any positive change will require restructuring social media to become focused on sharing our lives, not monetizing them. And we will need to foster emerging and little-used concepts like B-corporations, co-ops, worker ownership, and new management models. And, of course, we will need new incentives to achieve socially cohesive environments that embrace and respect our differences, encourage engagement, provide meaningful work environments, and pursue reasonable societal demands on our diverse human capabilities.

Sounds a bit overwhelming, but now we have had more than a glimpse of the alternatives. They are not pretty.

We have risen to compelling, complex challenges and circumstances at various times in our history. Now, we face some of the most serious problems a democracy can face – challenges to democratic elections, authoritarianism, white nationalism, and the unsettling and worsening results of climate change.

As election day draws near, those accustomed to healthy media consumption, rewarding work, relative affluence, and, for many of us, deeply privileged roots must work harder to understand the frustrations of those questioning the fundamentals of our democracy.

Keith Luebke

Keith Luebke

There is no room in a vibrant democracy for Trumpism, but we must make room for Trump supporters. They have been through a lot in recent decades, and multiple systems have failed many of them. We must first understand their rage and build public policy responses based on listening, involvement, engagement, equity, and respect.

Daily, Americans from all walks of life are engaged in the work of fostering and maintaining democracy. And many among them nursed suspicions of social media and its adverse impacts on public discourse. Still, more are concerned about the unraveling of civility in politics, our workplaces, and other areas of contemporary life. These worriers are in a position to say I told you so. But, hopefully, they won’t. Instead, they should ask for patience, composure, and earnest conversations between people with differing viewpoints – regardless of how the impending elections turn out.

Our neighbors and coworkers must understand that we can heal polarization, value and respect one another, and accomplish great things working together. We have reached a point in our nation’s history where anything less is both dangerous and unacceptable.

Keith Luebke is a retired professor emeritus (Minnesota State University, Mankato) and has several decades of experience directing nonprofit organizations.


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