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Democracy is an act of moral imagination

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Shortly before he died, Congressmember and human rights activist John Lewis wrote a farewell to his fellow citizens, declaring: “Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.”

Mr. Lewis’s insight about democracy, profound as it is, raises some basic questions: what exactly does it mean to consider democracy as an “act”? What is the nature of this act? What are the implications of viewing democracy in this way?

One possible approach to such questions is to consider democracy as an act of moral imagination. Though the term “moral imagination” has elicited many meanings over the ages, I offer it here in two senses: as the ability to see in another individual a shared humanity, no matter what the differences in status or background might be – and as a capacity to recognize the interconnections, however subtle, that bind us all.

These meanings take on substance when you look closely at any number of current issues, but recent events affecting the fate of over 600,000 DACA recipients carry particular force when you think of democracy and the moral imagination. Perhaps you’ve read about some of these DACA recipients, or have seen them interviewed on TV or in social media: young people brought to this country as children, and shielded by a decade-old program that has given them temporary protection from deportation while allowing them to work, apply for drivers’ licenses, obtain scholarships for college, and secure other benefits. Though their status has remained precarious, they have accomplished a great deal by way of educational and professional attainments, and by virtue of their many and significant contributions to their communities. Unequivocally, their home is America.

Yet despite their achievements, a profound hostility to DACA, and thereby to DACA recipients, has persisted for years, manifesting in attempts to declare it illegal, or to shut it down by fiat, as President Trump attempted to do in 2017. One lawsuit, initiated that same year by the Texas attorney general and joined by several other states, has wound its way through federal courts, and in a ruling earlier this month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld a lower court’s decision that the program is illegal. In writing their decision, the Fifth Circuit’s three-judge panel acknowledged “that DACA has had profound significance to recipients and many others in the 10 years since its adoption.” Yet the judges still went ahead, largely on technical grounds, to back up the lower court’s decision and declare the program illegal.

Does this behavior represent a constriction, an impoverishment, of the moral imagination? Do these judges (and the other parties hostile to DACA), see, but not really see, the faces of the young beneficiaries of the program? Do they fail to take in the humanity of young people who differ from themselves only by virtue of the lack of a piece of paper: an American birth certificate, a green card, a naturalization certificate? Do they view human rights as a zero-sum game: full rights for you somehow entailing a diminishment of rights for me?

Or is a more fundamental blindness at stake – the inability to apprehend creative possibilities for an entire democracy? Do powerful individuals like these fail to see what even American corporations and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce can easily recognize: the vital importance of these young people to the vibrancy of the American economy, to the flourishing of the society at large? The Chamber issued a statement calling for congressional action on behalf of DACA recipients, and corporations like Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft joined with the Justice Department in defending DACA against the Texas suit.

For the time being, as this case continues to wend through the courts (it will go back to the lower court for further consideration), current beneficiaries can renew their status, but no new applications will be approved. And unless Congress authorizes a path to citizenship for DACA recipients and other young people brought here as children, the program will likely be ended, probably by the Supreme Court sometime in the future. Thus the main battle is shifting to Congress – and to the contest for public understanding and support.

What John Lewis did by describing democracy as an act was to expand the discussion of democracy from issues concerning governmental institutions and political norms to questions of individual ethical choice. Democracy, he helped us understand, is choosing to see truthfully and humanely. It is choosing to act responsibly on the basis of that vision. And sometimes acting in this way will take great courage: to endure the blows of state troopers, as Lewis did in a 1965 march for voting rights; or, years later, to risk deportation and speak out as undocumented (or temporarily documented) individuals in order to claim full rights as human beings – and as fellow Americans.

Andrew Moss, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is an emeritus professor (English, Nonviolence Studies) at the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.



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