Superman for Democracy

jon-tyson-6RcT6zEmm9A-unsplashBrowse the word democracy on any online bookstore (an independent one please) and these titles and more will appear:

Books about democracy

  • How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (2018);
  • The System:  Who Rigged it, and How we Fix it by Robert B. Reich (2020);
  • On Democracy by  Robert A. Dahl (1998);
  • The Demagogues Playbook: the Battel for American Democracy from the Founders to Trump by Eric Posner (2020)and
  • The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehoods in the Age of Trump by Michiko  Kakutani  (2018)

They are all worth your time including a read of the Federalist Papers to understand how this experiment began.  It is also important to become familiar with the influence of the Iroquois Confederacy whose democracy dates from 1100. But that is for another article and no you won’t learn enough actual history by singing along to Hamilton…

Resilience thy name is The United States. As we worry about the health of our democracy, historians remind us of our strengths. In the midst of the hand wringing several key ideas are constant. In order to sustain a democracy, several conditions need to be in place. I am taking these from Dahl, the father of political science, and his book On Democracy. He lists the following:

  1. Avoiding tyranny, demagogues, and oligarchs
  2. Providing essential rights
  3. Proving general freedom
  4. Allowing for self-determination
  5. Supporting moral autonomy
  6. Allowing for human development
  7. Protecting essential personal interests
  8. Supporting political equality
  9. Supporting peace and prosperity

And of course, the old argument still stands that an informed electorate is essential for the survival of our system.  That means understanding the systems, keeping an eye out and as John Lewis would say, stand up and act. We have a presidential election looming ahead and how do we evaluate our choices against the health of a fragile and declining democracy? Well,  vote of course!

Times are tough and many folks are out of work and many have sadly died.  But it is not the first time our country has had challenges. One of the most significant for the US occurred in October of 1929 when the stock market crashed and over the ten years of the depression unemployment reached more than 20%. Bread lines and homeless shelters abounded and on the horizon was the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931. In 1934 the Dust Bowl occurred sending farm families from the South in search of work. In 1933 FDR launched the New Deal and began the economic recovery just as Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939.  What a decade!

It is not surprising then that in 1938 that the writing/drawing team of  Jerry Siegel and Jos Shuster were designing and published the first Superman comic book (if you had a copy you could sell it for 3.2 million). Here was an orphaned alien raised by a loving farming couple with American values of hard work, kindness, civility, patriotism, and a belief in the goodness of everyone. They had hope and instilled that in their “son.” Superman’s motto in 1938 when the comic appeared was Truth and Justice.

As his character developed he became more engaged in fighting crime. By 1953 and the development of the Superman radio show, his motto had shifted.  Superman now sought truth, justice, and the American Way. His writers began to develop him beyond fighting crime or helping little old ladies across the street. Instead, he focused his Xray vision on the oppression of the masses. Superman became political and fought the oligarchs and demagogues. For the period, particularly in the 30s as the world most workers knew began to disintegrate, it is no surprise that such a character would come along and support the democracy that seemed to be crumbling. His popularity brought a sense that things could improve.

Who is our superhero today?  Who can we elect who understands the people, who is caring, supportive, ethical, kind, hardworking, civically minded and patriotic who believes in the goodness of everyone?  Look! It’s a bird! It’s a Plane! It’s Joe Biden.


Dr. J. Cynthia McDermott is Chair and Regional Director of the Education Department at Antioch University Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.

This article first appeared on LA Progressive.

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