Events of past months have stirred me to a patriotism I never thought I’d feel for my nation. From childhood my allegiance has been universal. I fell in love with the one-world concept when, in Camp Fire Girls, during summer camp we sang these words to the tune “Finlandia:”
My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
And sunlight beams on clover leaf and pine.
But other lands have sunlight too, and clover
And skies are sometimes blue as mine.
Oh hear my prayer, thou God of all the nations,
A prayer for peace for lands afar and mine.”
When I was a young mother I dreamed of raising a United Nations flag in front of our house. Other homes flew the Stars and Stripes, but I identified with a larger geography. In those years I didn’t have particular criticisms of my country; I was merely attached to something bigger—to the whole of which this nation is a part. My nation-level political positions were beginning to be formed as far back as high school, however, and even earlier if I track inner resistance to racial injustice. I didn’t live in a setting or with people who encouraged political thinking, though, and political activism seemed out of reach for me even during the Vietnam War in the 60’s when I lived next to a college campus.
I began advocating with government officials on behalf of environmental concerns in 1987, and after seeing how one-party rule has been utilized since 2011 in North Carolina, my advocacy has broadened. I’ve become strongly attached to traditional American democratic principles. With events at the federal level since early 2008—with Trump now in office and Republicans controlling the US Congress and Supreme Court and being determined to undermine our democracy—I’ve come to revere the sacred secret ballot and the one-voice/one-vote ideal which politicians in the United States once had to declare they supported. The extent to which Citizens United, gerrymandering, and voter suppression laws have come to override rights I had been taught were constitutionally guaranteed has driven me to read the Constitution for myself. I’m feeling proud of that lofty founding document, despite its race, gender, and class omissions and wrong assumptions. It was a fine beginning, and only needs to be brought into the present to support current widely-shared cultural assumptions that are being disregarded by elected representatives.
The 2016 presidential election made me painfully aware of how important it is to guarantee and exercise the right to vote, because I see now, if government proceeds in the direction of structures that ignore the will of a majority of voters, that government of the people could indeed perish. But what made the 2016 election particularly painful is that it showed a large number of people no longer asking their government to represent them at all, and another large number asking it to violate the principles on which it was founded.
The present upwelling of political activism arises from the large number of people who share my concerns. The most-publicized actions are labeled as Trump resistance, but many try to be bi-partisan in their objectives and participation. One pointedly bipartisan effort is the March on Harrisburg that began on May 13, 2017, in Philadelphia. It asks Pennsylvania lawmakers to enact three reforms: automatic voter registration, gerrymandering reform, and a gift ban for legislators. A core group is marching the 100-mile distance between the cities and holding awareness-raising events along the way to highlight “The State of Our Republic: The Fight for Democracy in Pennsylvania and the United States.” Explained Rachel Murphy, chair of the march’s art committee, “Whether conservative or liberal, Americans prize their heritage of ‘one person one vote.’ Politics in Pennsylvania violates this core principle. And these common-sense reforms would go a long way toward restoring citizens’ voice in our democracy. They should not be controversial.”
The emphasis on the fundamentals of democratic government fits a concern that was expressed by several writers after the election: would a Trump administration backed by large Republican majorities in Congress become repressive, dictatorial, or even totalitarian in character? I read Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism in order to better understand how endangered our democracy might be. I was relieved to see that in some ways we are far from resembling the vulnerable societies Arendt described as she looked at the 1920’s and 1930’s in Germany and Russia. Italy, she pointed out, was a dictatorship, but not a totalitarian system.
In one important respect, however, the people of the United States—and indeed of most industrialized nations—are at risk of losing the features that are most protective of political freedom: a sense of belonging to a whole and of having the capacity to act within it. Arendt wrote:
Totalitarian government, like all tyrannies, certainly could not exist without destroying the public realm of life, that is, without destroying, by isolating men, their political capacities. But totalitarian domination as a form of government is new in that it is not content with this isolation and destroys private life as well. It bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man.
Loneliness, the common ground for terror, the essence of totalitarian government, and for ideology or logicality, the preparation of its executioners and victims, is closely connected with uprootedness and superfluousness which have been the curse of modern masses since the beginning of the industrial revolution and have become acute with the rise of imperialism at the end of the last (19th) century and the break-down of political institutions and social traditions in our own time.
How many articles in late 2016 and early 2017 attributed the Trump victory to the distress of unemployed workers or the fear of being displaced by immigrants? Trump promised relief through overt and subliminal messages, but we know there are no easy solutions.
Arendt highlighted another tendency that has prompted many opinion pieces: the confusion between fact and fiction, news and fake news, that may have contributed to the election results and continues to be a concern.
The effectiveness of this kind of propaganda demonstrates one of the chief characteristics of modern masses. They do not believe in anything visible, in the reality of their own experience; they do not trust their eyes and ears but only their imaginations, which may be caught by anything that is at once universal and consistent in itself. What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part. Repetition, somewhat overrated in importance because of the common belief in the masses’ inferior capacity to grasp and remember, is important only because it convinces them of consistency in time.
Hillary Clinton as the devil incarnate, a murderer, for example, is a belief inconsistent with real experience but not with imagination when tied to a stream of repetitions consistent with the flowing stream of assertions. Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, including Fox News, bears a large responsibility for making unfounded assertions so accessible. Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute from 2002 to 2016, wrote, “The Murdoch name, carried by James and the grandchildren, will live on in global infamy for having used corporate propaganda to disguise the truth from the public until too late.” Sachs was thinking of climate change in that reference, but the charge applies across all political issues.
As a result of the election and my efforts to understand the Trump phenomenon, in my political activism I’ve come to focus on the practicalities of democratic government as much as the enormous problem of climate change. Prior to November 2016 I was trying to persuade legislators and the public to take action on the climate, because failing to address greenhouse gas accumulation in the atmosphere poses the greatest threat to the greatest number of people as well as to the system of life on Earth. Post-election, however, I’m spending at least an equal amount of time to restore or strengthen democratic practices. It seems to me we have the climate issue because we have the governing issue: we have leaders unable to take in facts because we have an electorate that is not in fact engaged in a search for ‘truth.’ In this post-industrial transitional period filled with difficulties all but impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements—“wicked problems,” we will more than ever need ways for people who do embrace reality to intervene on behalf of the entirety. More than ever we need to protect the democratic experiment so that we can build structures and attitudes to help humans to survive as well as possible the era James Howard Kunstler called “the long emergency.” As Joanna Macy said in an interview, “I’m doing this work so that when things fall apart, we will not turn on each other.”
”Make American Great Again” is a phrase that is not adequate to describe this vision. I want to make America more democratic, for only with the chance for people to be represented more fairly in the future than in the past will our country fulfil the promise of greatness that was visible at our beginnings. As the words were used during this past political season, it seems that for too many Americans “great” has come to mean “powerful and prosperous.” To them it means to be forceful, intimidating, rolling in money, an America with wealth and clout . . . like Donald Trump. But a nine-year-old part of me believes, “It isn’t great if it isn’t good, and it isn’t good if it isn’t fair.”
The patriotic values that moved me as a child to a large extent came from songs, documents, and poetry (however gender-biased they may have been):
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
“…crown thy good with brotherhood”
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
To some degree I feel silly voicing what may sound like platitudes, but we have much to revere. At this point in the story of American democracy we still have structures through which we can work toward the needed changes. We do have political power. We help to make policy when we select what we see as the most benign of many policy choices and advocate for these at any level of government, with any degree of success. And when we are actively engaged in that effort as part of a broad and determined coalition, none of us will be isolated or should feel lonely, and I think we can believe our country is not headed for totalitarianism. We are America’s insurance against that outcome. We are protecting the democracy for everyone, including those who aren’t aware, those who don’t care, and those who are too isolated, lonely, trampled down, or bewildered to speak in their own interests.
 Words by Lloyd Stone set to melody “Finlandia” by Jean Sibelius
 Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 1968), 475.
 Ibid., 351.
 From The Declaration of Independence, attributed to Thomas Jefferson
 From song “America the Beautiful” by Katharine Lee Bates
 From poem “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus