Op-ed: What it means to live in a democracy

A box inside to drop off the absentee ballot.
A box inside to drop off the absentee ballot.

I was born in the United States on June 29, 1935. It was an America founded on the belief that every person is free to pursue life, liberty and happiness.

I grew up with a fervent belief that my country rewarded those who tried hard. In many ways, this belief was reinforced as I worked my way up the ladder of achievement.

Many years later, I found myself in the city of Saigon in Vietnam. There was a war going on and I was in the role of a psychiatrist supporting the troops. I felt the humanity of these young men who were risking their  lives. On the other hand, I saw their commanders pushing these men to  commit terrible crimes against the citizens of Vietnam. This was a war America had to win. Yet, it failed in so many ways.

As the years went by, America’s citizenry became just another group to be manipulated. Decade by decade, a small group of men and women became increasingly wealthy and powerful. As a result, in my opinion, the United States of America evolved into a plutocracy. It’s people found themselves without a voice, unable to express their concerns.

Our Constitution defines the right of each citizen to be heard by those in power. Yet for almost 250 years, Black men and women were barely recognized by the governing majority. Today, despite widespread oppression, Black America has been reaching for some level of acceptance and power. With unbelievable strength, intelligence and humanity, Black America is calling out to address centuries of injustice.

Some people believe that a wise king governs best. Others say democracy is best, if you can keep it. A plutocracy distorts the equal spread of power and influence in the country. All decisions affecting  prosperity, liberty, freedom and mobility are systematically distorted to favor the few.

Currently, there is a great struggle for the soul of America which will decide whether we can recapture our democracy from the powerful elite.

I believe that the structure of government is only one facet of a democracy. Every country, no matter how strong or wealthy, eventually faces internal conflicts and external threats. How each country handles  these issues and its ability to provide reasonable living for its citizens is crucial.

A constitutional democracy is only as good as its citizens and its ability to avoid becoming a plutocracy. For a true democracy to succeed, we must constantly be vigilant and willing to care for and sacrifice for those who are less successful and more in need.

It is a hard thing to keep in mind, but wonderful when each of us sees everyone as a neighbor rather than  a threat.

William F. Kenny is a member of Seniors Taking Action, a group of activists who believe that political engagement is essential if democracy is to flourish.

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