Last Election Day the unthinkable may have happened. George W. Bush may have been elected President of the United States of America … but we do not know if he really won or if we were cheated for the second election in a row. We do not know with complete certainty, because we have no assurances that the private companies that counted over a third of our votes, and have a vested interest in Mr. Bush being in office, did not act in their own self-interest to derail our democracy. We do not know because all four of them are major contributors to Mr. Bush, and have deep ties to the conservative movement. At least one of them pledged to give Mr. Bush the votes he needed to win and it looks as if they may have done so, but we do not know for sure.

We do not know if our electoral process works or not, so we cannot trust it or have any faith in the concept that “one person, one vote” still exists in 21st century America. So now we stare into Nietzsche’s abyss, at a corporate future where the rich get richer and the poor are devoured, one working soul at a time. What does it mean when the people of a republic lose faith in their ability to control it by exercising their will, and understand that voting may no longer matter, or be effective, or be protected or valued? What does it mean when powerful forces are not accountable to anyone but their own consciences, and their past behavior has been unconscionable? That sort of uncertainty challenges us, who are lied to, held so cheaply and perhaps even stripped of our franchise to do something — but what?

We have to begin by remembering that we used to be certain of a reality that said if you were Black and you tried to vote, you would be denied. That if you were a woman and you wanted to vote, you were not allowed. That you were old enough to be drafted and possibly killed, but you were still not old enough to cast a ballot. When these things were certain, so was unspeakable violence and deep corruption designed to keep us from gaining the right to simply be heard … that’s right, to just have a say, not to prevail.

But we acted and the world changed. You see, it is our values, not theirs, that have saved this country time and time again. And after each rescue, the forces of aggression, hatred, fear, xenophobia, greed and bigotry have always found their way back into America’s public life to make us doubt the possibility that there is a shining city on any hill.

We should begin by remembering what we did not do. What we did not do was flee and give up the field to people whose morals can be measured in doses of hatred and ignorance. What we did was gather our resources and values and take action against the system where we could, as we could. We defined what a just world looked like and fought for it like wolves fighting for cubs. We identified some structural evil and we destroyed it to bring some measure of fairness to our system, because some businesses should not exist: slave trade, child pornography and now the private voting industry.

In the end our values made America a place where that shining city could from time to time be seen. A vote is a public trust and we should do everything — including ordinary citizens being willing to take to the street and engage in vigorous civil disobedience that demands a reaction from this unjust society — to restore some certainty to the most important aspect of our nation’s health: free and fair elections. We cannot concede the very foundations of democracy.

Don Washington is associate director of the Community Renewal Society in Chicago and the keeper of two large and mischievous cats. He can be reached at jorhan@yahoo.com.