“Democracy is messy, and it’s hard. It’s never easy.” — Robert F. Kennedy
As I sit at my desk this morning, the autumn leaves are changing color outside my window and, in the background, I can hear the volatile 2020 United States general election playing out on television. I am reminded of another November morning in the mid-2000s. At the time, I was serving as a U.S. Foreign Service Officer and was posted in the capital city of an undemocratic, single-party country. I recall looking at the hibiscus and palm trees outside my window that morning, while listening to mid-term election results from the United States come in over satellite radio.
It was in that moment that I genuinely grasped the famous Kennedy quote. Indeed, democracy can be messy, uncertain, and scary -- and the election process can even make a person question our system of government. However, beyond the tropical foliage of my window that morning lay the alternative. The country where I was posted was a single-party state without free press, without free elections, without freedom of assembly, and where those speaking out against the government often faced severe retribution, imprisonment, or worse.
Against the backdrop of a global pandemic and long overdue awakening to systemic racism, the United States election of 2020 will be remembered as among the most contentious in our history. Some will rejoice and others will mourn. However, I believe it is important that we look beyond this election cycle to celebrate the democratic system we do enjoy. We can elect, criticize, support, hold accountable, campaign for, and campaign against those who govern. Even after our officials are elected, we can advocate for, against, and help shape proposed policies. And perhaps most importantly, if we do not like the leaders we have, we can always choose new officials every two, four or six years.
As South Carolina’s nonprofit leaders, we play an incredibly important role in our pluralistic democracy and it strikes me that we do not always appreciate this great privilege in our daily responsibilities. We are the stewards of missions that transcend partisanship – advocating for the wellbeing of children, protecting the environment, promoting the arts, expanding access to healthcare, working against racism, and seeking to reform systemic inequities. The nonprofit sector generates new ideas, acts as a watchdog against malfeasance, provides opportunities for civic engagement, and supports interests that might otherwise be overlooked. In essence, a healthy nonprofit sector is a prerequisite for a healthy democracy.
In this short note, I recognize I am oversimplifying things; our political reality is not as straightforward as what we learned in “Schoolhouse Rock” as kids. However, as we wring our hands and witness the complicated democratic process play itself out on our televisions and phones, I do hope we will pause to consider the very critical role we all play as nonprofit leaders in sustaining our “messy, hard, and never easy” system of democracy.
President & CEO , Institute for Child Success