truthfully, I wish I paid attention then

When do we start to care about democracy?

As a college freshman, I took a short study abroad in Hong Kong over the summer. I remember showing up to lectures hungover with my fellow American study abroad classmates, more focused on our plans for that night out than anything the professor had to say. The lecture was on democracy in Hong Kong, and she was passionate, and sadly, that’s all I remember.

Now it’s six years later and I know considerably more about what democracy is and is not, but more importantly, I care. Democracy in America wasn’t a perfect democracy even before the Trump election, but why did it take that for me to finally start looking into it?

First reason I think is that I grew up in a household that never talked about politics on any level – if we ate dinner together, our conversation was about our softball or basketball games. Next, and probably most important, is that I remember learning general history in school, but never anything specific to what it means to have a democracy, how it can dissolve, or what happens when it’s undermined. That being said, I did learn that explicit racism was bad and that it’s wrong to discriminate based on religion. So, when I saw this unfolding in front of me, coming from the highest office – I knew something was up. From there, I learned, read, and conversed my way through multiple essays, books (most recently: How Democracies Die), and conversations; I matched the insights against each other, compared my own thoughts, and held them up against what I was seeing clearly play out in the government (and on Trump’s Twitter).

Though, I still wonder, what does it take for a public to take an actionable interest in democracy, especially the people of Hong Kong against a Communist government? I listened to the New York Times’ The Daily podcast Inside Honk Kong’s Airport episode where they interviewed several Hong Kong protesters and Chinese mainlanders. The protesters filled up the Hong Kong airport, trying to reach mainland Chinese fliers about the importance of democracy, but felt they were at a standstill; as the NYT podcast portrays it, the mainland Chinese didn’t care as much about their lack of a democracy since the Communist Party had brought so much stability and prosperity in such a short time. **there’s more to learn for me here – my first questions: hasn’t the Hong Kong region been extremely prosperous as well? is it at all related to the British colonial history?

When it comes to the United States, I sometimes doubt our commitment to democracy – though, admittedly, I might be tainted by a skewed sample on my Facebook feed. Even so, when I hear something like Mayor Pete Buttigieg saying that his highest priority as President would be restoring democracy, I question: how sticky of a talking point is this? Even if America has been a democracy in theory for centuries, how many Americans really care or know how the threats to our democracy could lead to its ruin (i.e. lack of fair and secure elections, gerrymandering and a continuance of racial exclusion, etc.)? Then again, I care now – and the only leg up I might’ve had is the time and energy to educate myself on democracy and gain an awareness. Maybe Trump made a mistake in not quietly and slowly taking democracy back, and now, general people like me are woken up and hyper aware. Time (a.k.a. Nov 2020) will tell.

I now consider my University of Hong Kong lecturer: I wonder what she was thinking, seeing a bunch of American college students – America, the “symbol of democracy – not really giving a damn about democracy at all (especially while in a place that so desperately wanted it). If I could slide back into that lecture in Hong Kong from six years ago with the same knowledge I have now, I know I’d be on the edge of my seat. Though, truthfully, I wish I paid attention then.