Does the Reality of America Demonstrate that Democracies Work—Or, Not?

If I lived in an America where our democracy’s reality matched its ideal, I would not respond defensively or angerly when deeply-held opinions of political opponents run counter to my views. Instead, I would trust that in a functioning democracy we would resolve our differences in the interest of the common good.

This, however, is not the case in America today. I am angered by those who not only refuse to come to the table in times of disagreement, but who instead use arcane rules to block even discussions about contrary ideas. I disdain the elected partisans whose primary work is not to move America forward, but to use any means to enhance their own power rather than nurturing the power of the nation. These partisans spread untruths about their political opponents and describe them as enemies of America, thereby dismissing their ideas as illegitimate.

A functioning­­­ democracy, on the other hand, requires truth-telling and good will. But, in America today too many leaders act as if they are part of an unruly gang that resorts to lies, ill will and a quest for dominance as their governing theme.  The members of this anti-democracy gang are intent on destroying their opponents rather than on establishing a governing agenda. They reject the work of seeking common ground as somehow traitorous, and they use demeaning and hyperbolic personal attacks on opponents rather than engage in substantive negotiations with them.

A Battleground of Ideas

America’s political system has always been a battleground of ideas, but it has not always been a death march through the brambles of lies, character assassinations, deceptions, and power struggles. It has not always been stymied by bullheaded resisters who view any election their team loses as fraudulent.

Reflect back two decades ago and remember Al Gore’s words in October 2001. He spoke them less than a year after losing a bitter and contested election to George W. Bush, and a month after the 9/11 terrorist attack: “My commander-in-chief is George W. Bush…We are united behind our president…united to make sure we have the strongest unity in America that we ever had.”

America in 2021 is not united. We have, instead, seen the rising of a “heads I win and tails you lose” brand of politics. If this becomes totally ingrained as our permanent political motif, America will have a government that doesn’t bring peace; doesn’t strengthen the economy; doesn’t provide opportunities for the poor and disenfranchised; doesn’t improve schools; doesn’t address racial injustice; doesn’t solve the existential climate crisis; doesn’t address healthcare inequities; doesn’t even pave roads or pick up garbage. It instead corrodes our democracy by pitting neighbor against neighbor and children against parents in an attempt to scour the political earth and cleanse it of any competing ideas.

In this regard, President Joseph Biden asked the salient question while speaking to firefighters in Shanksville, Pennsylvania on September 11, 2021: “Are we going to, in the next four, five, six, ten years demonstrate that democracies can work— or not.”

Hyper-critical Posturing

The political tactics from today’s GOP seems to indicate that their side of the aisle has chosen to follow the “or not” path. The net effect of their relentless campaign of hyper-critical posturing about non-existent voter fraud is to undercut the peoples’ confidence in the beating heart of democracy: voting.

In the same vein, many elected Republicans use bizarre rhetoric to justify the January 6 insurrectionist invasion of the Capitol, which was orchestrated for the stated purpose of disrupting the certification of votes. Their words express support for using violence as a tool to annul democracy. In addition, their democracy-destroying attempt to limit access to the polls (52 new voting restrictions enacted in 21 Republican-led states) is an audacious but deceitful effort to give election victories to a minority of the electorate.

The July 3 edition of The Economist stated that “having campaigned on a promise to rejuvenate democracy around the world, Joe Biden finds himself in a battle to defend it at home. In June, 200 prominent American scholars of democracy signed a letter warning that changes to state laws are ‘transforming several states into political systems that no longer meet the minimum conditions for free and fair elections.’”

Now Is the Time

The Economist also reported that Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, seemed to agree with the scholars. In January he said that if an election could be overturned by fact-free allegations from the losing side, “Our democracy would enter a death spiral.” But, in defiance of his own words, that death spiral is exactly where McConnell is leading his party (and possibly the nation).

Now is the time for Americans who cherish a functioning democracy to stand up and say, “Enough of your foolishness!”  Now is the time for pro-democracy Americans to insist that the Republican’s state-based movement to scuttle access to the polls be overridden by enactment of federal legislation.

Now is the time to insist that Democrats in the House and Senate act like people who treasure their democracy more than their caucus ideologies. Instead of fighting on the margins they need to come together and pass a comprehensive voting rights bill.  My preference is the legislation that has already passed the House, but I would compromise and accept the current proposal emerging in the Senate.

Do not be deceived: this is not, as McConnell claims, a Democratic Party “power grab.” It is an urgently needed response to irresponsible and self-dealing Republicans who seek to replace democracy with autocracy. Contact your House members and Senators today.

 

 

 

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