2024-06-18 6:15 PM

A Penny For Your Thoughts

News of Greater Falls Church

Is democracy failing us, or are we failing democracy? The answers probably are as varied as the people considering the question, but recent events reveal that, most likely, we are failing democracy, not the other way around. Democracy is not a sport. Democracy is not just for the elite and the well-educated.

Democracy is not a winner take all. Democracy is not survival of the fittest. It also is not necessarily a popularity contest.

Democracy can be messy. More than 200 years of the American experiment has proven it. There is something innate in human nature to want one’s own way, but the concept of fairness also is innate, at least in most of us. Perhaps that’s why the actions to expel three elected members of the Tennessee House of Representatives last week was such a blow to one’s democratic gut. Yes, the three members had protested, rather noisily on the floor of the House, in support of gun control after a horrific attack that killed three children and three teachers at a Nashville elementary school. Republican members of the House responded immediately, not to the shootings but to the protest, by introducing expulsion resolutions against two young Black male delegates and an older female White delegate. No consideration of other options – censure, reprimand, admonishment, letter of reproval, loss of seniority or loss of certain privileges. No, the House simply proceeded to the stiffest penalty – expulsion of a member elected by his/her constituents.

Ultimately, both young Black representatives were expelled by the required two-thirds vote; the White female representative was not expelled; a single vote “saved” her, but the vote total of 65 to 30 scarcely was a victory. Rather, it was a statement that dissension, or even a difference of opinion, will not be tolerated, and that common ground is not something being sought in Tennessee’s deliberative body. It must be a pretty dismal workplace for some elected officials these days.

In a democracy, the power and authority of governance are conferred upon elected officials when they take the oath of office. However, that is “some” power and “some” authority, not complete and absolute. Or so it should be. Power and authority are potent tools that should be exercised sparingly, and always with an eye to fairness and understanding. It never ceases to amaze me when constituents want to confer more authority on me to accomplish their ends, legal or not. I don’t have that authority, and if I did, they probably would realize quickly that I shouldn’t have it. It’s too easy to misuse.

When you are elected to public office, you represent all of your constituents, not just some of them, or just those who voted for you. That means the infinite varieties of hopes, dreams, thoughts, desires, and needs of hundreds or thousands of people. Many, if not most, times, those will be multiple interests competing for limited resources. That’s when the real work of democracy is tested – how to prioritize and provide the best outcomes for those who need help the most, and how to help others understand why their priorities were not addressed as they hoped. In a society that truly believes in democratic principles, we listen to all points of view, ensuring there is room for discussion and differences of opinion (not every difference of opinion is a difference of principle) and then, when a decision is made, usually by the elected official or body, everyone understands how and why the decision was made. Mind you, many might not agree, but fairness and a light hand on the reins of power and authority can pay dividends to the community, and the decision-making process. I’m not so sure about the trust factor, which appears to be in very short supply these days. If we truly want democracy to succeed, for all of us, we need to revel in and respect the American experiment. After all, we are a democracy.

Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at mason@fairfaxcounty.gov.

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