The Other “R” Word: Why Some Americans Do Not Understand How Democracies Work

As COVID-19 ramped up in early March, 2020, my Western Civilization students were in the midst of finishing a 3-day midterm exam. The last section consisted of a short essay which required them to compare the ancient Greek societies of Athens and Sparta. The assignment required the students to answer: “How would the ancient societies of Athens and Sparta respond to COVID-19?”

I was surprised at the across-the-board responses from my 9th Grade students because they nailed not only how Athens and Sparta would respond but also how modern free and authoritarian societies have responded. In general the students predicted that Athens, a free society, would not control the virus very well. People accustomed to individual freedom would not want to restrict their movements, and they would have trouble controlling the spread of the virus. On the contrary, authoritarian Sparta would be able to stop the spread much more easily.

On the other hand free speech and the free exchange of ideas would enable Athens to develop cures more readily. Societies like Sparta that control people and focus on security and order would have more trouble coming up with treatments or in a modern sense, vaccines.

When analyzing societies in history it is not difficult for students to see that authoritarian societies have negative aspects. What surprises them is the problems associated with freedom. In free democracies citizens tend to emphasize the rights that are owed them. They are quick to demand that their freedoms be respected. What they tend to overlook is that crucial element of healthy democracies, the other “R” word, Responsibility.

Obviously I am not diminishing the importance of rights in free societies. Ensuring the protection individual liberties against the arbitrary hand of government has always been the foundation of democracy. But healthy democracies need a generous dose of responsibility to balance the centrifugal forces of freedom. It can be very difficult for free societies, especially a large, sprawling, multi-ethnic one to function as a coherent whole.

Recently, some Americans, actually a small number, protested at the lock down procedures enforced by state governors in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. They claimed that government should not be able to take away their right to operate their business as they saw fit or force them to wear a mask in public. Protesters tended to say, “It’s my right…” as a natural response to what they saw as an infringement on their liberties. What you never heard them say is, “It’s my responsibility to keep myself uninfected, so I do not jeopardize the health or lives of doctors or nurses who are in a position to save other people’s lives.”

One wonders what these same lockdown protesters would say if instead of the U.S. being invaded by a virus we were invaded by hundreds of thousands of soldiers from a foreign country, say China perhaps. Surely the government would need to limit rights to deal with the threat. If a small part of American society protested at the probable limits on free speech or press to criticize the governments response would the lockdown protesters understand their feeling? Or would they condemn the failure to unify and respond to the foreign threat?

The other recent protests over the violation of the rights of people of color presents a different dynamic than the lockdown protests. The long-running violation of rights, most recently by some law enforcement personnel, but historically by large segments of American society, merits a patient focus and continuing work to ensure that the rights to life and liberty of people of color are protected. One set of protests requires citizens to accept the curtailing of their rights in the face of a dire, but most likely, temporary national threat, and the other demands the commitment to remedy the injustice done to rights over a long period of time.

The protection of rights is fundamental to the health of any democracy. But a sole focus on claiming rights at the expense of the binding value of responsibility can make it very difficult for democracies to function coherently. And it might be helpful to the debate to remember that NO right protected under the Constitution is absolute; they are all relative to other citizens’ right or to the needs of society to deal with threats. Absolute rights really would mean anarchy at its worst or the inability of a society to remain secure and full of opportunity at best. It is a fair question to take the pulse of America at the moment and ask if it resembles a healthy society.