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Democracy fans make it personal

by Margaret E. Davis
| October 8, 2023 12:00 AM

“What is democracy?” Kristina Graber Wilfore asked the audience of about 40 people at her talk last month at the Northwest Montana History Museum.

Good question. Most of us squirmed in our seats.

Wilfore traced the term back to its Greek roots: “rule by the people.”

Fair enough. One wonders, which people? That, in part, is the question that has fueled Wilfore’s work around the world, from Ukraine to Kenya, and Afghanistan to Washington, D.C. The globetrotting started in earnest in 2009, when she moved to Ukraine for an assignment she thought would last a year or two. She ended up traveling for 10 years, from country to country, region to region, before returning to Washington, D.C.

All those miles to often politically fragile places seem to have had an energizing effect instead of making her world-weary. An experienced presenter, she delivered some hard truths (such as “we all miss the Montana we knew”), tempered by a frequent high-wattage smile.

Wilfore, a democracy activist, campaign specialist, professor and self-proclaimed “disinformation fighter” who grew up in Kalispell, also works with nontraditional candidates, many of whom might be ignored or disparaged in their bids for office on the basis of their female chromosomes. In many places, “women are undermined because of qualities related to their gender,” Wilfore said. She went on to explain that attacks on female candidates can “keep people in fear mode so they don’t act” or put themselves forward for office in the first place.

“Pluralism is our strength,” Wilfore said, noting that people everywhere want basically the same things: opportunity, choice and a better life for the next generation. She points to passive citizenship and armchair activism (like the “like” button Facebook) as relatively new features of the political scene.

“You get the country you work for,” she said.

More informed participation is possible. Wilfore had some ideas for improvement, starting with “getting smarter about the devices in our hands, and about data.” Modern convenience, instant feedback and free apps require that we up our critical thinking and assess the credibility of the information and its source. In pursuit of eyeballs, algorithms take advantage of the fact that engaging content often is enraging content.

With the increasing use of artificial intelligence, internet discourse eventually may be reduced to arguments among bots, and humans could lose interest. Just imagine how much extra time we’ll have!

“We have to choose to be hopeful that we will rise out of this,” Wilfore said. To do that, she counseled, “Be a doer.”

“Institutions alone will not salvage democracy,” she said, because after all institutions are simply people in buildings. As for connecting to those people in institutions and elsewhere, “we have to learn to talk civilly,” she said. We had a chance to practice this later in the Q&A as we discussed the symbolism of the Confederate flag.

Her last formal point, “We need to get a little bit cheerier.”

Discerning, active, civil and optimistic — those sound like qualities that will work for democracy.

Margaret E. Davis, executive director of the Northwest Montana History Museum, can be reached at mdavis@dailyinterlake.com.

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