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Are we taking democracy for granted? If so, is democracy itself in peril? Is our nation being transformed in such a way that the democratic ideals and principles on which it was founded are slipping away? Whatever one’s perspective in the daily happenings of our nation’s capital, a question many of us once couldn’t have imagined contemplating in the United States of America — are we honoring and strengthening our democracy — now is a regular point of neighborly conversation, press inquiry and academic study.

I recently had the opportunity to join my colleague and friend, Waco Councilwoman Andrea Barefield, as her guest at the prestigious Texas Lyceum quarterly meeting, focusing on this very question: Are We Taking Democracy for Granted? (It was also my first time to attend an Aggie football game, which was a blast and is a whole other story!)

As described on its website, the Texas Lyceum is a non-partisan statewide leadership group focused on identifying our state’s next generation of leaders. (We should all celebrate having another of Waco’s own involved as Councilwoman Barefield was nominated and selected last year, joining such ranks as U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and former Ambassador Lyndon Olson.) With all those leaders gathered, the Lyceum sets out to provide a forum for civil discourse on important policy discussions facing our state, seeking to move past divisive party politics to identify constructive public- and private-sector solutions good for all Texans.

And at this meeting, we set out to examine how we define democracy; better understand who participates and who does not; and explore ways we can foster deeper engagement and participation to improve civil society and discourse. The Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce often encourages civic engagement in the form of encouraging voter registration or support for constitutional amendments such as Propositions 1 or 7 for transportation funding. But for this column, I primarily wear the hat not of chamber VP but of someone who loves our community.

It’s appropriate to start a conversation on democracy by defining it. According to Merriam-Webster, democracy is simply government by the people. This raises an important question: Are we, the people, in fact involved? A quick look at voter turnout records confirms collectively we are not. While Texas tends to lead the nation in economic indicators, when it comes to voter turnout state by state we rank an abysmal 43rd in the nation. If democracy is government by the people, and the people aren’t engaging, can we call it democracy?

While some Texans aren’t engaging deeply in democracy, we still value democracy as the best form of government. The Texas Lyceum each year commissions a survey on policy issues facing our state. This year, one topic was democracy. A full 82% of Texas adults ranked democracy as the best form of government. Why then the cognitive dissonance that says we value and desire democracy, yet don’t actively engage where we can (i.e. the voter booth)?

Texans want changeThe study (full, cross-tabulated results are available on the Lyceum wesbite) also found the majority of Texans feel significant changes to the design and structure of the political system are needed to make it work for current times. In the study and during the conference, we explored a range of reform options that could increase voter engagement and improve the systemic inefficacy of the current system.

Living in a state that has a hundred-plus-year history of one-party rule (different parties over the years, but most often one party), I’ve long thought about how our primary election system, marked by low voter turnout, leads to both parties spinning more and more to the political extremes to appeal to their more energized bases who actually show up at primaries. One of my favorite panels in the conference was hearing from author Katherine Gehl who discussed just this phenomenon and, importantly, possible reforms. She and co-author Michael Porter have a book coming out next spring, “The Politics Industry: How Political Innovation Can Break Partisan Gridlock and Save Our Democracy.” I can’t wait to read it and hope many, many more will. In the meantime, she also has a podcast on Freakonomics entitled “America’s Hidden Duopoly.” It’s worth a listen.

It’s easy to feel discouraged or conclude reforms are unlikely to come, but again I’m reminded of one of the other panels from the conference: “Alternatives to Democracy: A Look at Life Without Democracy,” with speakers from Venezuela, Iran and North Korea. The young man from North Korea — Joseph Kim — shared a remarkable story about his and his family’s efforts to flee North Korea to China and his own journey later to the United States as one of the first refugees to come here under the North Korean Human Rights Act signed by President George W. Bush. Joseph’s father died of starvation; his mother died in a work camp after being sent there as punishment for trying to flee — a journey she made taking his sister to China to be sold to a Chinese businessman because the family thought even that would be better than life under the dictatorial regime of North Korea.

Joseph was a homeless orphan for three years during the country’s great famine and daily saw starved corpses of other children on the street, knowing he could be next. It was a heart-wrenching story of what life really looks like without democracy. There were few dry eyes in the room. Yet despite all that, Joseph displayed an inexhaustible hope. He is studying Chinese so that when he is reunited with his sister and meets the nieces and nephews he imagines he must now have, he will be able to tell them how much he loves them.

If he can go through all that, and still long for and believe in and work toward the possibility of being reunited with his sister, in the admittedly confounding possibility of a free and democratic North Korea, can we not also dig deep and hope and believe and work toward making democratic reforms possible, encouraging more participation in what we know is the best form of government? That we have the freedom to even do so is a gift we should not squander, as was made clear hearing those three stories of life without democracy.

I recalled throughout the weekend my time in student government as a young student at Guilford College in North Carolina. A Quaker school, all decisions had to be made through consensus. The guiding principle: Each person would set aside his or her personal interest. Instead we would as one body discern what was best for all. There were times such meetings would last well into the night and wee hours of the morning as we would stay there wrestling with an issue till we could reach a decision everyone felt was best for our little community.

It was not an easy process. But it absolutely shaped the way I understand good governance, what I now try to foster in the work of the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce. It can give us all hope that it is possible. While today’s rhetoric in Austin or Washington can be divisive, I believe lots of shared middle ground exists out there. With work and effort, leaders on both sides can find that ground, break the gridlock and stand together for what’s best for all.

‘Willing to participate’Throughout the weekend, I thought too of the words of late Texan Barbara Jordan, first African American elected to the Texas Senate after Reconstruction and the first Southern African-American woman elected to the United States House of Representatives: “A government is invigorated when each of us is willing to participate in shaping the future of this nation.”

While the ultimate conclusion of the conference was that, yes, we are collectively taking democracy for granted, it is also ours to change. This Nov. 5 brings 10 constitutional amendments to the ballot box. It may not be as sexy as a presidential election, but it is important. And voting regularly is a good habit for an enduring democracy. And the last day to register to vote is Monday. Make sure you are registered to vote, read up on the amendments, go vote, and then vote again in the March primaries. Get involved in knowing the candidates and studying the issues. If you’re a chamber member, get involved with our policy committees to help us identify the issues most impacting our community and the business community at large. Help us produce good policy solutions. Be a part of invigorating government, building a stronger democracy and shaping the future of this nation.

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Jessica Attas is vice president of public policy for the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce.

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