We are well aware of the key characters involved in the ancient Christmas story – shepherds, wise men, angels, Joseph, Mary and Jesus. It’s all so quaint and moving that we forget the oppressiveness of that era. Few would have believed in those times that the mighty Roman Empire was about to crumble. And they would have been incredulous to learn that within 70 years, the temple, Jerusalem and the Jewish homeland itself would be gone.

This is ever the problem with societal decay: the seriousness of the situation is hardly obvious at the time. Yet Aristotle warned that a growing inequality would only bring instability and chaos. Plato wrote that tyrants utilize the premise of free speech and public angst to claim absolute power for themselves. And an increasing amount of writing is being published, stating that modern democracy has now entered a period of serious decline.

Ironic is too timid a term to describe how populism has morphed from attempting to expand the democratic franchise to voting to contain it in places like Europe and America in order to return to the “us versus them” brutality of earlier times – all this within just a couple of decades. The list is long and troubling – official racist policies, loss of morality and ethics, the domination of the corporate structure, the decay of public policy in favour of private pursuits. And then this week, in an open act of betrayal of its historic accountability, the Republican majority in both sides of the Congress, along with the White House, rammed through a revolutionary tax bill that outlandishly favours the wealthy over the middle class – the crass ascendancy of privilege over process was complete.  Franklin Roosevelt would remind us of what he warned his own generation:

“The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerated the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than the democratic state itself. That in its essence is fascism: ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or any controlling private power.”

The results will be inevitable and the growing gap between rich and poor, as it careens to more severe proportions, can only result in class warfare. This isn’t a possibility, but an emerging reality. And what we are learning is that democracy can fail, the worst of human nature can acquire power through legitimate political means, and that, in the end, money can simply crunch meaning.

We make a crucial mistake by believing that democracy always rights itself, that it corrects it course to steer it away from injustice. We discover that voters can elect tyrants, that elected representatives can worship the wealthy, and that citizens themselves can act against the better angels of their collective and individual nature. If we abandon this truth, we abandon our freedom. If we accept the status quo, then we tolerate our own insignificance.

We must always be on guard as citizens and keep from making those similar insignificant blunders that, when compiled over time, lead to the demise of the public estate. Around the world, democracy is under assault from within and not so much from without. To keep it requires a citizenry that is just as vigilant as it is tolerant.