Our Democracy In Peril
Americans are celebrating our independence for the 241st time today. The country has certainly endured some challenging times over those years, most significantly slavery, the Civil War, and the disenfranchisement of women and African Americans. And today we are once again confronting a serious challenge as the democratic institutions that the Founders’ created are no longer allowing for a true functioning democracy. Added to this is the fact that one of our major political parties has also seemingly lost faith in democracy, preferring instead to rely on enormous sums of money from rich and powerful interests, the suppression of opposition voters, and the willingness to even allow foreign governments to interfere in our electoral process as long as that party is the beneficiary.
In an article in the Atlantic last fall before the election, Larry Diamond cited political scientist Juan Linz in describing the two greatest threats to democracies. “Democracies fail when people lose faith in them and elites abandon their norms for pure political advantage. In The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes, the late Yale political scientist Juan Linz stressed two factors in the failure of democracy. One is the growth of ‘disloyal opposition”—politicians, parties, and movements that deny the legitimacy of the democratic system (and its outcomes), that are willing to use force and fraud to achieve their aims, and that are willing to curtail the constitutional rights of their political adversaries, often by depicting them as ‘instruments of outside secret and conspiratorial groups.’ But at least as great a danger, Linz warned, was ‘semiloyal behavior’ by parties and politicians willing ‘to encourage, tolerate, cover up, treat leniently, excuse or justify the actions of other participants that go beyond the limits of peaceful, legitimate … politics in a democracy’.” I think you can find not only Trump but a significant and in fact a majority element of the Republican party and the right wing media in both those factors.
As I’ve written many times, Republicans have been breaking democratic and governing norms with increasing regularity and brazenness over the last two decades. Prime examples include the impeachment of Bill Clinton, the stealing of the 2000 election, the attack on voting rights through extreme partisan gerrymanders and blatant voter suppression, and the refusal to treat Obama as a legitimate President and to allow him the political appointments inherent in the office, culminating in stealing the swing seat on the Supreme Court, breaking yet another democratic norm to do so.
But even beyond the Republican attacks on our democratic norms, the democratic institutions that we rely on are also failing. Because of the anti-democratic nature of the Electoral College, twice in the last five elections the winner of the popular vote has not become President. Because of extreme partisan gerrymandering, multiple states have seen the party that won the majority of votes still remain a minority in the state legislature. Because of the delays in the judicial system and the courts’ inability to actually enforce their rulings, voters in multiple states have been forced to vote in districts that have been ruled illegally gerrymandered for most of the elections in this decade. And Republicans continue to make every effort to disenfranchise minority voters and make it as difficult as possible for those eligible to actually vote, either through restrictions like voter ID or reducing the time of early voting and the number of polling places.
In addition, the most recent election has shown how vulnerable our actual election systems are to hacking and outside interference. It is clear that there is a real need for a valid paper trail for every vote and that the entire voter registration systems needs serious reform with some sort of automatic enrollment.
More disturbing is what the foreseeable future looks to bring. Trump is obviously determined to prove massive amounts of voter fraud and will use all the means that Kris Kobach and Hans von Spakovsky can dream up. Republicans in the states will continue to find ways to restrict the votes of Democrats. As the urban/rural divide grows even wider in this globalized economy, we will see more and more elections where the popular vote winner will not actually win.
David Birdsell, a political science professor and dean at Baruch College, has calculated “[b]y 2040, 70 percent of Americans are expected to live in the 15 largest states, which are also home to the overwhelming majority of the 30 largest cities in the country. By extension, 30 percent of Americans will live in the other 35 states. That means that the 70 percent of Americans get all of 30 Senators and 30 percent of Americans get 70 Senators. The drift of the population has been so starkly different from what any of the Founding Fathers could have imagined.” Those are frightening numbers that should make every American fear for our democracy under our current system.
If Birdsell is correct, then those imbalances will make it virtually impossible for Americans to not lose faith in our democracy and it will fail. The entire electoral system needs a major overhaul and it is clear that it will be up to Democrats to lead the way on this issue. This goes beyond the important issues of automatic registration, national holiday or weekend elections, and neutral gerrymandering. It goes to the very existence of the Electoral College and the structure of the Senate. These will be difficult if not impossible to change and Democrats will be accused of being sore losers and trying to change the rules. But, as we have so many times in the past, we can only save our democracy by fighting for it. As we have seen with the rise of Trump and the recent actions of the Republican party, the threat to our democracy already exists and 2040 is closer than we can imagine. If we don’t begin to fight for our democracy soon, the battle may be lost.