When I was a kid I practiced pitching and fielding a baseball by throwing it against a cinder block wall as precisely as I could. More often than not, I hit or was at least close to my target. For years the thousands of throws I made against that wall did not seem to phase it. The cinder blocks I targeted never showed any noticeable signs of wear and so I just thought whatever effect the ball had on the wall was negligible if any at all. Even after all of the abuse the wall had taken it seemed that it was no worse for the wear, no weaker than it was prior to my first throw, but then something funny happened.
One day I wound up and threw the ball at the wall just as I had countless times before, but this time it did not come screaming back off the wall for me to field. No, this time the ball hit the wall with a softened thud and dropped to the ground below. I thought that it was quite odd and decided to take a closer look as to why the ball did not respond as it always had. When I got close enough to see, there it was: an indention in the wall, a triangular section slightly caved in by the impact of the ball, three cracks emanating out from the center. I looked closer and noticed that the grout used to hold the blocks in place had also loosened around the area I aimed at most often, an apparent gradual weakening from the impact of the baseball over the years.
Though the block finally gave way, I quickly realized that it was not just that one throw that had caused it to crack. In fact, as I looked closer at the blocks in the area I noticed a number of smaller, almost unnoticeable fissures, the type of tiny cracks that likely gave way to the larger, more noticeable one that occurred that day. It was at that moment I realized that sometimes the destructive impact of our actions is not always immediately apparent, that sometimes it takes time for a construct to weaken enough to break.
I realized that no matter how hard I could throw the ball, I would have never been able to break that brick in such a way if it were not already weakened by the thousands of other impacts that ball had made with that wall previous to the fateful one that day. What became evident to me as I looked at the once solid wall was that even the most rigid, seemingly impenetrable of objects can be weakened over time, that the cumulative force of many impacts can be greater and more destabilizing than a singular strike. It made me realize that nothing created by humans can withstand humanity should they choose to destroy it, even if that destruction takes place over a long period of time in which the underlying damage goes unnoticed.
I offer this story not simply as a testament of youthful ignorance and the power of learning through experience, but as a warning to anyone who thinks that America will inevitably survive forever. American democracy, as I have written before, is strong. Two-hundred forty-one years of war and peace, set-backs and progress, serene calm and teeming turmoil will attest to that fact. Over the course of that history our democracy has shown itself to be both, rigid enough to withstand challenges and malleable enough to accommodate change.
Yet, as I think about the political environment in which we currently find ourselves, I cannot help but think back to that wall from my youth. That wall that for years had stood strong, seemingly unfazed until one day it gave way from the cumulative force of my actions. For all of American democracy’s outward strength and historical resilience, it is not much different than than that wall, not so strong that it cannot be broken, and certainly not immune to forces acting against it.
If that wall represents our democracy – then each illegitimate claim of fake news, each degradation of America’s fourth estate, each effort to diminish the public’s trust in the free press – is another weakening blow of the the baseball slamming against it. If the integrity of the wall is American’s trust in government, then each lie spoken by our president produces a new, hardly noticeable but very troublesome, crack in that wall, each untruth further eroding the stability with which it stands. If the daily onslaught of the president and conservative media on the legitimacy of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation represents a day or week or years worth of baseballs impacting the wall, then the cracks in the foundations of our democracy are certainly deepening each day. If, when our democracy is attacked by foreign adversaries, our president refuses to acknowledge the threat, then the subversion of our democracy is not just from outside but from inside as well, and there in lies the greatest threat of all.
For democracies rarely succumb to the weight of external pressures, but instead are far more likely to be destroyed by the corrupt intentions of nefarious leaders whose subversive actions produce inequitable outcomes, exacerbate the gap between the haves and have nots, lays waste to well established norms that once held society together, and who manipulate laws to ensure they are above the law itself. While the individual impact of the threats listed above could never fell America’s democracy on their own, much in the way a single impact of the baseball could not crack the cinder block, the cumulative weight of them if unchecked and perpetuated through time, could eventually coalesce and produce an environment in which a leader could do exactly as many once democratic leaders have done in turning their democracies into dictatorships, slowly eroding democratic norms until eventually they were gone altogether.
However, there’s one very important difference between the wall I used to throw a baseball against and America’s democracy. Where as the wall stood defenseless and static, with nothing but empty space sitting behind it, America does not. In the void which occupied the center of the cinder block stands a nation of millions of Americans who generation after generation have defended this nation with courage and unity of purpose against threats both foreign and domestic. Our history tells us that we can, when alerted to a common threat, unify and come to the common defense of our Union.
What that requires however is an engaged citizenry ready and willing to challenge our leaders and to never be complicit in the undermining of our democracy. It requires that we pay attention, speak up, take action, and hold our leaders accountable. It requires us to say enough is enough, for our leaders to draw redlines in the sand that warn, if crossed, punishment equitable to the egregiousness of the transgression committed will be administered. Furthermore, if our leaders fail to take action and honor their oath to “defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic”, it requires us to honor our responsibility as citizens of the United States that we replace those leaders with ones who will honor their oath and protect our nation.
I have heard many people suggest that any talk of America’s democracy being under attack today as misguided fear mongering. That somehow what we’re witnessing is no different than in years past, that it is simply a bunch of hot air being exhaled from a divided nation, but don’t you dare be fooled. There is nothing normal about what is happening at the top of our government right now. History is ripe with stories of people and countries who thought they were safe, until of course they weren’t. Somewhere there lies a figurative cemetery of democracies whose institutions and protections were taken for granted until they no longer existed at all. In all of the days and years I spent throwing a baseball against that wall I never thought it could actually break the cinder block, until one day of course it did. The question we face today is not whether or not there are forces acting against our democracy, for assuredly they are. No, the question we face today is how long until the cumulative force of those actions produces damage that cannot be reversed, and even more importantly, what are we going to do to prevent that from ever happening?