Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

If we don’t want to lose our freedoms and democracy in America, we’re going to have to fight to protect it.

Almost a year after the attempted violent takeover at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 by right-wing zealots, it’s surprising how few organized efforts there are to reassert the philosophical foundations of our form of government. It’s sad, but there doesn’t seem to be that much work being done in our marketplace of ideas to smash fascist forces that want a more authoritarian government that clashes with traditional American democratic ideals.

Yes, there’s daily drama in Congress as it attempts to police bad behavior on Capitol Hill, including that of divisive elected officials in love with microphones and former President Donald Trump’s anti-democratic messaging. The U.S. House’s January 6 Commission has issued subpoenas and talks a good game, but there’s not much actual building of democracy — just a continuing response to what happened.

Then there are the few groups that are active about promoting and protecting American democracy. Moderate former Republican politicos started the Lincoln Project to rail against Trump’s dangers. MoveOn.org has a long history of working to reinvigorate politics, including a current effort to expel sitting members of Congress who were complicit in what happened on Jan. 6. And then there’s the Black Lives Matter movement that erupted to protest un-American treatment of minorities and reform of democracy and its institutions.  

While these efforts make headlines, they’re blips of the collective radar of most Americans, who seem to sit by idly as if democracy were a spectator sport. If we are to ensure the next decade is less polarizing with people working together, we might take some lessons from South Africa as it transitioned in the 1990s from apartheid and minority white control to more inclusive democracy.  

John L.S. Simpkins, a constitutional law scholar from Lexington who serves as president of the MDC think tank in North Carolina, was in South Africa for two years during its transition. A former Obama Administration official, he’s helped small African republics work to strengthen their democratic institutions and build equity. We recently asked what lessons could be learned from what he saw in South Africa while working there after graduating from Harvard 30 years ago:

“One of the key lessons was the critical role of a vibrant civil society,” Simpkins said.  “During the waning years of apartheid, civil society organizations — legal aid centers, investigative journalists and community organizers — effectively operated as a ‘shadow government,’ exposing government misdeeds, responding to community concerns and developing the next generation of leaders.

“The erosion of the civil society sector in the United States deprives the nation of an important bulwark against anti-democratic forces.”

Now in America, we need to do more work to build democracy. Some suggestions:

Common goal on common good. Liberal, moderate and conservative think tanks, nonprofits, foundations, academics, doers and religious organizations need to unite to build the common good and promote democratic institutions. These groups need to invest in pro-democratic messaging to build on our freedoms.  We need to turn down the rhetoric and build solutions to real problems. Let’s show what democracy can do and re-engage everyday citizens.

Civics education. Too many Americans don’t understand our democracy and what it can do.  Schools need to offer more real civics education so Americans understand their proud heritage of freedom — and can make it work better.

Better watchdogs. The Twitterization of messaging — short, simple and dumbed-down — doesn’t help to promote understanding. There needs to be better communication from pro-democratic forces of the dangers of rising fascism and authoritarianism in America from enemies who are domestic (white nationalist groups) and foreign (Russian internet trolls). We also need to train Americans better on how to understand manipulative messages and how to counteract them.

There’s a lot of work to do, but it’s in our interest to work together to root out the rot that has been undermining our democracy. Get off the sidelines and fight for America now.

Andy Brack is publisher of the Charleston City Paper. Have a comment? Send to:  feedback@charlestoncitypaper.com.