The noise is democracy

All that clanging requires diligent maintenance and occasional restoration. The Canadian Embassy and the U. S. Capitol, seen from the Newseum Washingon DC, July 2015

All that clanging requires diligent maintenance and occasional restoration.
The Canadian Embassy and the U. S. Capitol, seen from the Newseum
Washingon DC, July 2015

“Our political institutions work remarkably well. They are designed to clang against each other. The noise is democracy at work.” — Michael Novak

When I first read that quote by Novak, I couldn’t help wondering when he said it, and whether he still feels that way.  Everywhere I turn, I hear people complaining about the government. There’s a diversity of opinion about where the blame lies, but there is clear consensus about one thing: a lot needs fixing.  If only we could agree on what, and how, and when.

Ah, but that’s really the argument that Novak is making, isn’t it?  If there is a great deal of vocal disagreement, maybe that’s an indication that democracy is working.  That we feel not only the urge but the freedom to complain; that we examine our leaders again and again in the court of public opinion; that we elect all sorts of representatives who themselves have a hard time reaching agreement — maybe these are healthy signs of government that truly aspires to be “of, by and for” an increasingly diverse people?

I’m not saying it’s right to show disrespect toward our leaders, or toward anyone else whose opinions offend us.  I abhor hateful name-calling and gratuitous insults.  But constructive criticism, incisive commentary and hilarious satire are all necessary components of a society ruled by a Constitution and a Bill of Rights.

If I could, I would find a way to banish all trolls from the internet; they pollute thoughtful discussions with vicious and often illogical attacks, acting ugly seemingly for the sake of ugliness.  It makes me tend to shy away from the comment sections following any news story, particularly if the topic is controversial.  It also makes me angry that we allow the lowest common denominator to hijack reasonable argument.  Polite disagreement may sound like an oxymoron, but I believe it’s possible.

Meanwhile, with election talk already beginning to dominate the airwaves, let’s brace ourselves and get ready to see this nonstop and often irritating chatter as an inevitable by-product of the incalculable blessing of living in a free country.  I invite you to join me in resolving two things: one, I will not let all the complaining and whining and hand-wringing cause me to lose sight of how many reasons we have to feel thankful; and two, I will not become part of the problem by venting my (often reasonable) frustrations in inflammatory speech or over-reactive anger at anyone who happens to disagree with me.

Let the clanging begin!


  1. Good morning, Julia! I might be going out on a limb with this analogy, but “clanging” that culminates in a musical piece (for example in a bell choir) requires selection of the sound (tone) and consideration of the timing (tempo). We may encourage more change by thoughtfully considering our words and timing as we clang.
    Thank you for this blog. I’ll try to search for a theme behind the clamor today so that I may contribute usefully to the construction of the song.

    • So true, so true. Timing and tone are really everything in a situation where emotions run high and people feel they have much at stake. And even in music, there are always those moments where “silence is golden.” I like your analogy — thanks for “chiming in.” (Sorry, I couldn’t resist the bad pun.)

  2. blseibel

    I guess there has to be clanging to get anything done or else it would be a different type of government where there is no real say and differing opinions are not allowed.

    I too agree on the internet trolls who are nothing but hateful and pot stirrers. I am glad we have an election coming up next year but may have to unfollow my more zealous friends or risk getting seriously irritated with them.

    I do resolve not to let the complainers steal my thankful and to not vent my frustrations in over reactive anger at those who are wrong… Oops I mean disagree with me 🙂

    • Your comment reminds me of the old saying “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” How terrifying to contemplate living where thought control is the order of the day. I sometimes worry that we are getting uncomfortably close to that, given the rampant policing of people’s offhand remarks, or even things they admit they said decades ago.

      When Jeff was diagnosed, I had to quit following politics almost completely. The vitriol and filth and cruelty online are truly horrible. I don’t mind reading thoughtful commentary, which increasingly seems confined to books and print newspapers, where readers’ comments are moderated. One nice thing about having a blog focused on happiness is that it doesn’t tend to draw those cranky, nasty types. 🙂 You put a big smile on my face with this part of your comment: “…those who are wrong…Oops I mean disagree with me 🙂 .” I love it!

  3. Interesting topic. One I try hard to stay away from. When all the nastiness starts, I turn off the television. When someone argues about the situation, I ask what we should do to make it better or is there somewhere better to be? That’s when the conversation slows way down. The only thing I can control is my own thoughts and behaviors. I cannot make others behave in an honorable way. We will always have contrasting methods of doing things and our job is to decide which side of the line we want to be on. Good luck with all the noise. 🙂

    • Marlene, that’s one reason I never watch TV. Between the commercials, the snarky comments (even in sitcoms) and the constant barrage of people talking over each other, I can’t take it. Your questions are good for almost any situation: “What can we do to make it better, or is there somewhere better to be?” If the answer to the first one is “nothing” then the answer to the second one is likely to be “anywhere but here!” 😀

  4. bobmielke

    One of my basic litmus tests to online comment starts with whether the commenter would say the same thing to my face. They might get away with it once but it would take hours for the swelling to go down enough for them to see again. 🙂

    • Hee-hee, I’ll remember that if I am ever tempted to say anything snarky to you. Seriously, many years ago I told myself I wanted to try never to say anything behind someone’s back that I wouldn’t say to their face. Long years of experience taught me that sometimes we need to say things privately, things that are necessary but might be hurtful. But still I try to think: if I were in their position, would I want someone to say, or think, or infer this about me? While we need to be careful what we say to people directly, we probably need to be twice as careful what we say about them, however good we think our intentions are. As the slogan in the disability community goes, “Nothing about me without me.”

      • bobmielke

        Some people in anonymity feel they can say anything. It’s amazing how timid and cowardly they are face to face.

        • Bob, I think that’s the underlying cause of so much bad behavior on the highway. People feel they are protected by the car. Many who would never push someone aside to get to an elevator first, will do the equivalent by pushing in front of someone in traffic while in a car. I agree that it’s a form of cowardice. (Not that it justifies road rage.)

          • bobmielke

            I’m embarrassed to be a man sometimes because of all the male testosterone I see exhibited by men on the road. When I’m on my scooter or in my Smart Car these men find it mandatory to pass regardless of how fast I’m driving, just because of some primal need to dominate others.

            • I agree, I only wish there weren’t so many women joining in on the aggressive driving. A lot of times I will see a jerk cutting someone off or blaring the horn when a car doesn’t get out of the way fast enough, and when I catch a glimpse of the driver, I realize I expect it to be a male driver and it is actually a woman — or a teenager. At least as far as I can tell. 😀 I do think it must be some primal territorial behavior, such as we see in animals defending their turf. Surely there are not that many purely stupid people out there driving cars!

              • bobmielke

                It’s first shooter video games.

                • 😀 😀 😀 You won’t get any argument from me on that!

  5. Sheila

    Julia, have you noticed that the clanging seems to get louder and louder, almost as though that should make a difference. Bill and I have a look that signals when we’ve heard enough. It makes for a polite exit strategy! I am thinking of you and your family, my friend. 🙏

    • Sheila, I have noticed the tendency, especially often occasionally even in myself, to get louder and louder the more excited I get. This is OK at ball games, but not so much in conversations. I hope you and Bill never have to use “the look” on me! 😀 Seriously, I do think almost anything one can say is easier on the ear if it is said loudly enough to be heard, but softly enough to be pleasant. I just tend to forget that sometimes.

  6. Democracy is the best this world as it is can offer. The problem is it requires compromise. And when one group is elected coupled with a majority of that same party in congress, the hones rests with the willingness of the president to be open to compromise. If not, hang on for a bumpy ride.
    I liken our system of government to a pendulum. It swings to the left and to the right. And I mean as liberal and conservative swings. It will always be drawn to center with an eventual swing to the other side by the gravity created by the will of the people. That is why eight years to date seems the limit for any one party. Because one party’s ideology always alienates a large enough portion of society.
    Once the swing takes place all that has been done to the benefit or detriment of the people is somewhat undone. Specifically that which serves only the portions.
    If it were not for the divisiveness in the country stoked by those in power, compromise would be the rule and not the exception. All then would be heard. And we may very likely become again a country of, by and for the people. We are not that now. Elections today are not determined by a vote of conscience, but rather a vote purchased.
    There is an imbalance between truth and compassion. As Saint Mother Teresa once said: “Truth without compassion is cruelty and compassion without truth is sentimentality.”

    • Alan, I love that quote from St. Mother Teresa. How easily we err on one side or the other. Thus the pendulum swing is, I suppose, a necessary component of a democratic but divided society. I do agree with you that money has tainted the process almost beyond recognition. It’s astonishing how the winner is almost always the one who spends the most money, and you get lobbyists giving big bucks to both sides, to win favor for their already deep pockets no matter who wins. I believe in campaign finance reform, and also in reasonable term limits for congress, but the problem is, the people who have to vote it in often depend on it NOT being voted in. So I don’t look for it anytime soon. To make matters worse, it seems that the people closest to the center are the ones most likely to stay home on election day. It can get depressing if I think about it too much, so I try not to. 😀

      • Money and power is the game. One thing you can take solace in, Julia.
        Christ says the world’s ways are not my ways. So long we see ourselves in the world and not of it, we can sleep at night.

        • Absolutely, Alan! That thought is the inspiration behind my choice of a theme for this blog, which appears in the top right corner of each blog post. I can think of nothing in the world more counter-cultural, in any era, than choosing to believe the words of Jesus when he said “…whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”

  7. HarryS

    There is a world of difference between democracy and the “creeping socialism” we are experiencing which is destined to destroy its own self.
    When we can no longer borrow enough to keep it going, what is to happen?
    Lots of us experience this in our own lives until we learn to live within our means.
    I must use the 4P’s on this.
    Pause, Pray, Ponder and Proceed.

    • Harry, I agree. Prosperity often results from diligence and responsibility, but curiously, it never appears to work the other way around; instead, once prosperity is achieved, it seems only to enable dysfunctional habits. It’s why simply throwing money at problems never solves them, and when the money runs out (as it inevitably will) what then? Since this blog is all about hope, we can only hope that what we are learning in our personal lives, as you mention, will translate to similar lessons for our communities, states, countries and the world. I like your 4P suggestion!

  8. “Polite disagreement may sound like an oxymoron, but I believe it’s possible.”
    I think it should be a compulsory subject in all schools.

    • A brilliant idea!!! We teach school debate teams how to argue and win their points, but the world is sorely in need of people who know how to consider another person’s viewpoint for some reason other than trying to shout it down.

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