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Democracy Needs Music

School programs that encourage self-expression are essential to our freedom.

Key points

  • Music strengthens values such as self-expression, which underpin democracy.
  • Music is a healing force for a nation's citizens.
  • Funding should prioritize school music and other art programs.
 Al Aumuller/New York World-Telegram and the Sun (uploaded by User: Urban), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
"This machine kills fascists" emblazoned on Woody Guthrie's guitar
Source: Al Aumuller/New York World-Telegram and the Sun (uploaded by User: Urban), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I recently read an article about a New Hampshire town cutting music and other programs because they are supposedly “not necessary to participate intelligently in a free government” and that using taxes to pay for them “crosses the boundary between public benefit and private charity” (Barry, 2022).

The logical conclusion of this line of reasoning is that fields such as science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) provide citizens with the skills necessary for democracy to function, while music contributes nothing. But history demonstrates quite the opposite.

Fascist, Communist, and other totalitarian regimes have traditionally prioritized STEM over arts and continue to do so to this day. From Wernher von Braun leading the development of ballistic missile technology for Germany in World War II to today’s North Korean cyberattacks (Sang-hun & Yaffe-bellany, 2022), STEM has been the educational bedfellow of many a tyrant. What these regimes often lack are robust programs in music and other forms of artistic self-expression.

Despotism’s aversion to art makes perfect sense. Individual expression is a restorative force and an existential threat to conformity. Three words can easily demonstrate music’s power to change the world: Rock and Roll. Earlier still, while Woody Guthrie sang his anti-authority anthem “This Land Is Your Land,” the message on his guitar read, “This machine kills fascists.” I’m sure the interconnectedness of music and political defiance can be traced back much farther still by someone more knowledgeable in music history than I am.

I became perplexed as to how voters in this New Hampshire town could err so badly on such an obvious historical truth. After some consideration, I believe I now know the answer: They are conflating capitalism with democracy.

A distinction needs to be made between our economic and political systems. While music strengthens the values underpinning democracy, such as freedom, independence, and defiance, those same values simultaneously undermine the more dysfunctional aspects of capitalism. Maladaptive capitalism requires subservience, docility, and indeed, even trauma. Historically, corporal punishment and disconnection from individual expression during childhood are two ways many people have been groomed from an early age to accept these abuses as not only inevitable but natural.

While I believe capitalism provides the most economic benefit to the most people, I can also admit that there are necessary and fundamental improvements yet to be made. Capitalism utilizes individuals as a means to an end, whether through employment, consumerism, or outright exploitation of vulnerable people. The process of employment, for example, can be carried out in a humane manner, and indeed it is in many countries.

But in the U.S., which has often provided little, if any, safety net, loss of employment can jeopardize housing, medical care, and food security. In this way, the employer often literally holds the power of life and death over the employee. Such a chronic threat, whether conscious or not, is both dehumanizing and traumatic.

But how can such a threatening relationship be foisted upon an intelligent adult with them not only accepting it but regarding it as normal? It requires that the employee take the experience of trauma for granted as an experience they’ve always known and that they learn to suppress the urge to connect to and vocalize their traumatic experience.

As corporal punishment becomes less prevalent and self-expression such as music more prolific, the number of adults entering the workforce with trauma tolerance will continue to decline. I suspect this is at least one factor behind the Great Resignation labor shortage we currently witness.

In fact, I’d love to see a correlational study between the decline of music programs and the strength of democracy after 10 to 15 years when those students become voters.

While the more trauma-tolerant older generations may look at a movement such as the Great Resignation as a product of entitlement or weakness, that is the same language often used by abusive parents. “Well, I went through it, and I turned out okay” is the sad refrain of many abusers (and by the way, they are often far from “okay”). We owe it to the next generation to avoid using our suffering to justify theirs.

Music is not only supportive of democracy, but it is fundamental. If the real aim is to preserve democracy, then we’ll fund it more robustly than any STEM field. If not, it demonstrates that we’re only using democratic language as a pretext for authoritarianism, a tactic utilized by so many despotic “republics” supposedly governing in the name of the people.

The more children experience music and other forms of individual expression in a physically safe environment, the more a threat will emerge to the economic status quo. If we want the freedom to endure, we must prioritize the arts. Capitalism may be reformed, but it will emerge more humane. And democracy will thrive.


Barry, D. (2022, July 10). One small step for democracy in a 'live free or die' town. The New York Times. Retrieved July 19, 2022, from…

Sang-hun, C., & Yaffe-bellany, D. (2022, June 30). How North Korea used crypto to hack its way through the pandemic. The New York Times. Retrieved July 19, 2022, from

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