I lived in South Africa and worked there as a journalist from 1993 to 1996. I had the privilege of covering that country’s first all-race ballot in 1994. In 1995, while visiting the United States for the first time in two years, I found that many relatives and friends were curious about the historic, apartheid-ending election. A cousin had a question on which I still think back often. Particularly these days.
My cousin wanted to know: “How do black South Africans vote? On what do they base their decisions?”
Black South Africans had been denied citizenship and cheated out of education for generations. I suppose my cousin’s question was fair. But I bristled. I’d heard too many dismissive suggestions from white South Africans that their black countrymen and women “weren’t ready for democracy.” White South Africans, whose prejudices and privileges had been fed and coddled for generations, had much to prove when it came to readiness for democracy, but no one was giving them a poll test.
History tells us no one is ready for democracy. Not the American colonialists who believed so little in their own declarations of the equality — on which democracy depends — that they held slaves and denied the vote to women and the landless. Not the descendants of those slaves who marched and died demanding to be enfranchised. Not the East Germans whose wall fell in 1991 — few questioned their readiness to vote despite the fact that dictatorship and suspicion were all many knew, and I suspect that was because they were white.
White or black. European, American, African or African-American, democracy isn’t given to you when you’re ready. You take it when you can, then you make it work.
On what do we base our votes? Sure, sometimes on a sober assessment of the facts, a determination of what is true. Sometimes on fear. Sometimes because we believe it’s good for our tribe, whether that’s our neighbors in Crown Heights or our fellow Xhosa.
As I mentioned, I’ve been thinking about my cousin’s question a lot lately. Americans readied for democracy by more than two centuries of trying it out have proven as likely as any rank novices to make their decisions based on impulse, insularity or ignorance.
But we do get to keep trying. We make mistakes, correct, repeat. And repeat. Democracy is not an end. It’s the best means we have of working out our differences. Then we encounter new differences and return to the work of perfecting our union. We’ve been doing it so long in America we have perhaps forgotten what the alternative to democracy — to continually making democracy — will cost us.
I sense a lot of the angst we’re feeling now over the state of our democracy and its susceptibility to untruths does not come out of an actual inability to determine the facts.
People say figuring out what’s true is difficult. Often, what they mean is that they’re finding it difficult to let go of what they want to believe, or finding it uncomfortable to consider how their cherished lies affect others.
Yes, we have to contend with misinformation. But we are capable of recognizing the lies. It’s just that we sometimes don’t want to. We sometimes would rather undermine democracy than face the truth.
Luckily, we have art — fiction — to help us. To inspire us when our energies and commitment lag. Our truest myths endure because they order the facts into stories that can sustain us and help us remember where we set out to go.
Perhaps democracy is the fiction we need the most. It demands faith in cooperation and selflessness — without which a diverse society won’t long endure.
Donna Bryson is housing and hunger reporter for Denverite and an author. Her 2018 book, Home of the Brave, recounts how a small American town took on the big challenge of helping military veterans reintegrate into civilian life. It won second place in the non-fiction book category of the National Federation of Press Women’s 2019 Communications Contest. Bryson is also the author of It’s a Black White Thing, which explores young South Africans’ attitudes about race.