North County Outlook - Community newspaper serving Marysville, Arlington, Tulalip, Smokey Point, Lakewood

Making democracy work


I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.

– Anne Frank

It’s not always easy keeping our faith in human nature these days. Horrific headlines seem to roll over us one after another without even a precious second or two to catch our breath in between.

And yet, this is what we have been called to do. Democracy is founded on a belief in the capacities of regular human beings like you and me, and this belief is the foundation of our American way of life. We do not have the luxury of throwing up our hands in frustration and giving up on our fellow human beings, even though we may be tempted to do that at times.

In 1939, just a few years before young Anne Frank lost her life in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, John Dewey wrote that “Democracy is a way of life controlled by a working faith in the possibilities of human nature … a belief which brings with it the need for providing conditions which will enable these capacities to reach fulfillment.”

Dewey was America’s premier evangelist for the democratic faith, but he was careful to note that this faith must be accompanied by the “conditions which will enable these capacities to reach fulfillment.” In other words, our moral and intelligent action is not a given, but must be brought forth by conditions that both allow and nurture it.

So, what are these conditions that foster the better angels of our nature, and how can we work to make sure they are in place here in our local community and around the world? Here are a few that I believe are essential:

1. Security — Insecurity breeds desperation, and we have seen time and time again that desperate people do desperate things. Are there ways that we can temper the desperation of our most vulnerable citizens by providing a minimal level of security they can depend on?

2. Freedom — Humans thrive in a climate of freedom and strongly resist being controlled by others. Are there ways that we can increase the experience of freedom and trust in our homes, our schools, our workplaces, and our public policies?

3. Voice — A basic tenet of democracy is that people should have a voice in the decisions that affect them. Are there ways we can ensure that citizens have a real place at the table in our communities, a place where all voices are listened to and taken seriously?

4. Opportunity — People need opportunities to share their unique gifts and talents. Are there better ways to help citizens experience the belonging and respect that comes with making a meaningful contribution?

If Anne Frank had survived just a few more weeks to be freed by Allied forces, she would be 87 years old today. Would she have been able to maintain her faith in human nature over the years? She would have witnessed the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the paranoia and persecution that accompanied the Cold War, and the brutal assassination of some of our world’s greatest visionaries. But she would have also seen the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and former enemies coming together to build the International Space Station.

Whatever the hypothetical staying power of Frank’s optimism, there is no denying that human potential is a mixed bag. As for what we do with this reality, John Dewey liked to quote the old saying that “the cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy.” By working together to put the appropriate conditions in place — conditions like security, freedom, voice, and opportunity — we can tip the scales in favor of making democracy work.

Jim Strickland is a teacher and parent in the Marysville School District. He can be reached at


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