Joan Cardellino: The Democracy Jigsaw Puzzle

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Can the many disparate pieces of our democracy be put back together? Joan Cardellino has this metaphor for the difficult work ahead.

The 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle is a mess on the dining room table. I have the frame established, and now, of course, need to fill in all the other pieces. How do I begin to sort and connect? The picture is primarily shades of green, with bits of red and blue. Subtle differences, but important ones.

The puzzle feels like the current political situation: a mess of pieces that are meant to join together into a whole picture. Sometimes I look at the puzzle-in-progress and feel determined to conquer it. I will find the connecting pieces; I will be able to make the picture complete and whole again. I feel ridiculously joyful when I succeed in joining two pieces.

But other times I look at the puzzle and feel overwhelmed, on the verge of despair. Nothing makes sense, the colors and patterns are unfathomable; I don’t even recognize the picture I’m looking at.

The right-to-life puzzle piece should fit with the health care and family leave piece, the gun control piece, and the climate change piece, but it doesn’t. It should also fit with any of the family pieces, which includes the LGBTQ piece. The right to privacy piece should fit with the Supreme Court piece and the climate piece should fit with the jobs piece. The freedom of the press piece should fit with truth and facts, and education should fit with, well, any and all pieces. It’s as if there are magnets propelling the pieces away from each other, instead of pulling together; a reverse magnetism of fear stoked by corporate greed and religious doctrine.


Democracy is great because it is possible for us to discuss our differences safely. We have the tools to overcome our fears; we have the right to free speech, we have safe forums, we have a free press. But we are not exercising those rights effectively and we are not confronting the forces that seek to drive us apart.

If I’m going to work on that jigsaw puzzle, I have to get back to putting pieces together, two at a time, over and over, keeping the big picture in mind.

With a Perspective, this is Joan Cardellino.

Joan Cardellino is a retired State of California employee.