“The ills of democracy can only be saved with more democracy.”
~ Harry G. Barnes, Jr. ~
Few would doubt that the United States is deeply polarized. From the halls of Congress to local school boards, people have entrenched themselves in their social and political beliefs, and openness for dialogue appears to have become a thing of the past. Media outlets have spun these times as unprecedented, and have declared democracy to be on the brink of collapse. Folks by and large agree with the media’s perspective, but a majority apparently don’t care. According to a recent NY Times/Siena poll,
“71% of all voters said democracy was at risk — but just 7% identified that as the most important problem facing the country.”
A more thorough review of history, however, reveals that there is precedent for times such as these (think 1861 or 1968), Democracy, in spite of these contexts, prevailed, as we found our way forward on a path of hope. Nonetheless, that path is littered with debris that impedes progress, even these many years later. It is these times that I ask myself, “What would Harry do?”
By Harry, I mean Harry G. Barnes, Jr. (1926–2012) — former U.S. ambassador to Chile, India, and Romania, and Director of the U.S. Foreign Service. Despite his storied and distinguished career, most people have never heard of Harry. Google him, and you’ll only find three blurry photos and a couple of articles.
In his day, Harry was far from blurry. He was a fierce champion for democracy. When he first presented his credentials as U.S. Ambassador to Chile in 1985, Harry sowed the seeds of democracy (while also throwing a bit of diplomatic shade) by telling General Augusto Pinochet and the Chilean people, that “the ills of democracy can only be cured with more democracy.”
Over the next five years, Harry worked tirelessly to advance democratic principles in Chile, often at risk of his own life. In 1990, General Pinochet was ousted in favor of a democratically elected president. Many people credit Harry Barnes for playing a key role in this transition.
I met Harry in 1994, when he served as an advisor during my Kellogg fellowship. Although Harry had retired from diplomatic service, he never stopped serving democracy. In 1999, while at a retreat in the Santa Cruz mountains, Harry and I had late night discussions about hope, humanity, parenting, democracy, and the new millennium. I asked Harry why he chose diplomacy as a career and he told me that diplomacy is derived from the Greek “diplo” meaning “folded in two.” While that term historically referred to documents that authorized couriers of old to represent the king, Harry viewed the word differently.
He took out a piece of paper and drew two stick figures on opposite sides, explaining that they could represent individuals, communities, or nations who are so at odds with each other that they cannot find common ground. Then Harry folded the paper in half, so the two stick figures met. “That’s why I chose diplomacy as a career,” Harry told me. He wanted to be the fold.
“When you are in a position of power, that’s when your wounds start to impact others.” ~ Maestro Jerry Tello ~
We are two weeks away from the mid-term elections and the attack ads are in full force across the country. These messages — mostly conflated and sensationalized — drive people further away from rational thinking, and from each other. In my home state, we witnessed the sad saga of the Los Angeles City Council, where three Latinx members — Nury Martinez, Gil Cedillo, and Kevin de León, were caught on tape making derogatory comments about Black, Jewish, Armenian, Indigenous, and LBGTQ people. Of course, their comments were caught on tape. To date, Martinez has since resigned, while Cedillo and de León have not. Democracy took an especially big hit, as the city — which is 50% Latinx — has lost hope in its elected leaders.
“I thought they were the good ones,” a Latinx friend recently told me. “At least I know where the MAGA people stand, but when our own people denigrate others, how can I trust the system?”
My friend and I then engaged in a conversation about “the system” — Democracy — and all of its ills. The context of Martinez, Cedillo, de León’s derogatory remarks was around redistricting. Before the LA scandal hit, I naively thought that these backroom discussions were the purview of white Republican operatives. Now I know that politicians of all colors on both sides of the aisle are playing this game. Their claims of saving democracy are less about the power (krata) of the people (demos) than they are about retaining power.
I could choose to ride down a path toward complacency and hopelessness. So many young people don’t vote. When they lift their heads to witness the behavior of elected officials, it’s not hard to see their point. In these moments, I think of Harry, and the fold.
“When diplomacy fails, try diplomacy.” ~ Harry G. Barnes, Jr. ~
Approaching polarized situations in a diplomatic way is not an easy path, given our collective propensity toward breaking and othering. In a featured article in Science magazine, Political Sectarianism in America, the authors cited three key components that contribute to the polarization that we are experiencing today:
- Othering — labeling people as so different from us that they are almost incomprehensible.
- Aversion — they are not just different, but they are dislikable.
- Moralization — they are morally bankrupt.
One solution the scientists offer is to get individuals to talk to people from the opposite party. In other words, try diplomacy.
In my search for stories of diplomacy in the midst of this year’s election cycle, I found an example from a surprising corner: none other than former VP-candidate and lightning rod, Sarah Palin. Ms. Palin ran to replace the Congressional seat, left vacant upon the death of Rep. Don Young. She lost the election to Mary Peltola, the first Alaskan Native to serve in the House of Representatives. Ms. Palin and Ms. Peltola became friends while serving in the Alaska Statehouse, bonding as mothers of young children. Although they were political rivals, they remained civil. On the day of the election, Ms. Palin advised Ms. Peltola to dress warmly for her final round of canvassing.
“I think respect is just a fundamental part of getting things done and working through problems,” Ms Pelota said. Despite the differences, the posturing, the power plays, and the drama, I wonder what might have happened if Councilpersons Martinez, Cedillo, and de León took the time to develop relationships with their colleagues as Ms. Palin and Ms. Peltola did?
How can each of us become, as Harry says, the fold? What concrete and timely steps can we take to save democracy?
For my part, I am going to continue championing diplomacy by facilitating circles that focus on appreciation, integration, and healing. I will champion diplomacy by helping people turn to wonder and find solutions where no one is harmed. I will champion diplomacy by supporting people and communities to be bridge builders and not bridge breakers. And I will do all that I can to get people — especially young people — to exercise their right and vote.
I hope you take some advice from Harry by joining us in the fold and once again placing diplomacy at the center. As in times past, that may be the very thing that saves democracy once again.
Questions for Reflection and Consideration
- Think about a current situation or relationship in your life that is polarizing. How can you “be the fold?”
- Given the state of polarization and othering in our world, what can we do — at an individual and community level — to bring back a sense of civility and diplomacy?