One Easy Policy Resolution for a Better Democracy

One Easy Policy Resolution for a Better Democracy
Photo by simon peel / Unsplash

The grocery store was cheek to jowl. Lines of people with full carts, passing the time on their phones. I unloaded yogurt and hummus, red grapes, miles of cat food, overpriced cat litter (dogs, they say, have owners; cats have staff). My mind was already home, making lunch. The cashier began scanning.

Here, the bagger said, handing something to the cashier. I looked up from the card reader. A $1 coupon, the bagger said, for your cat litter. It was glued to the container.

Unexpected sweetness can be so disarming, can't it? The clench I didn't know I was holding eased up. Kindness has a way of making us feel a little safer.

Right, I thought, as I thanked the bagger, I want to live in a world where we do this kind of stuff for each other.

It's not a stretch to say that that bagger, more than politicians on their daises, is one of democracy's caretakers. Democratic erosion has roots thick and deep in distrust - of institutions, yes, but also of each other. Watch your back, it's dog-eat-dog, more for you only means less for me. You gotta be ruthless, kid, ruthless!

Out of that grows politicians who believe people aren't trustworthy, who believe people will milk the system for all it's worth. These legislators want to gut social services or mandate sky-high barriers to accessing them. And too many decent folks who need a hand are unable to navigate the jungle of paperwork to get it. Government innovator Jennifer Pahlka said it well: "Paperwork favors the powerful."

And out of that distrust grows cynicism. Few things emaciate democracy like cynicism. "Why bother voting/engaging/caring?" cynicism says. "Nothing's gonna change. People are in it for themselves; that's just the way the world works." The status quo never had a better standard bearer than cynicism.

But that caring bagger is a ding against all this distrust. The world works the way we collectively make it work. On a recent flight, I saw a woman move to unite a family separated by her seat. A man behind me at the supermarket jogged over to help a woman pushing a long chain of carts who'd dropped her sunglasses. A neighbor used to bring in our recycling and trash bins. Every now and again, I buy the coffee of the person behind me in line.

As the wonderful poet/essayist Ross Gay wrote, "This caretaking is our default mode and it's always a lie that convinces us to act or believe otherwise. Always." It is this caretaking that reminds us we can believe in each other, belong to each other.

All too often, a friend will say how guilty she feels that she can't march or join a protest. Those are wonderful, very visible ways to move the needle. But we are held together by millions of unsung acts of care. "Do you little bit of good where you are," said South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, "it's those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world."

A healthy democracy needs us to do more than vote in November and pay our taxes in April. It asks us to have a daily practice of democracy - which is to say, a daily practice of looking out for our fellow travelers. Who, in turn, will help look out for us.

There is a paragraph from Niall Williams' novel This is Happiness where the narrator describes seeing his grandfather, who has very little to his name, leaving a little money on a walking path. When the narrator asks his grandfather about it, the older man says that whomever finds it will think it's their lucky day. Then he winks and says, "And it will be."

What a terrific thing that we - in the arc of any ordinary day - can be good luck for each other. And our democracy.

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