Jack DeVine / August 2, 2021

Democracy: Can We Keep It?

Democracy is in trouble, but not for the reasons we usually hear.

In 1787, when our Constitution was under construction in Philadelphia, Ben Franklin was asked, “What kind of government will we have?” His answer was: “A republic — if we can keep it.”

Ours is a democratic republic, a form of democracy in which the will of the people is exercised through their elected representatives. Wise old Ben was keenly aware that keeping intact a government that is truly “of the people, by the people and for the people” is no small matter, particularly when partisan politics get in the way.

And sure enough, there’s much hand-wringing these days about the decline of democracy in America. Is it true? Is democracy really on the wane?

I believe so, although for reasons different from the ones we hear so often.

Consider first the January 6 Capitol riot, which President Biden tells us is “the worst assault on American democracy since the civil war.”

At this point, the January 6 narrative has become firmly planted in the public psyche — an armed insurrection, unprecedented, incited by Trump and his “Big Lie,” disrupting of the democratic election process, etc. — and accepted by many as gospel truth. It’s not.

The storming of our Capitol on January 6 was disgraceful, the kind of violent mob behavior that has become all too familiar. Over the past year, U.S. cities have been battered by thousands of such riots, leaving a trail of death, injury, and destruction. The Capitol riot was more of the same, an intolerable new normal in America.

We’re told that January 6 was worse because it involved intrusion on government property and interference with congressional process. But, sadly, that’s nothing new. Just last year, rioters took over and sacked a police precinct in Seattle and torched a federal courthouse in Portland. In 2011, union-inspired protesters took over and occupied the Wisconsin State Capitol for the better part of a week. And don’t forget the chaotic Kavanaugh hearings, when swarms of activists protested outside and inside the Senate Office Building, disrupting hearings and cornering senators in halls and elevators.

We’re told also that congressional challenge to state-submitted election results is somehow anti-democratic, perhaps even treasonous. Nonsense. It stands to reason that the Constitution calls for certification by a joint session of Congress because the founders considered it imperative to get the full weight of that elected body behind the election.

There were (and still are) legitimate concerns about the 2020 election that are not erased by Democrats screaming “Big Lie!” There’s nothing improper about elected members of Congress challenging one or more state vote counts based on unresolved concerns — it’s happened in every election since 2000. Doing so opens the door to serious debate and possible reexamination by the states. And in the very unlikely event that Congress chose not to fully certify an election’s results, that by itself would not overturn the election, because the law clearly assigns to the states final accountability for vote counts.

So no, we did not almost lose our democracy on January 6. But there are numerous areas where democracy is in trouble. Two obvious ones:

Today’s circumstance in the U.S. Senate is a perfect example of how democracy is supposed to work and why it’s not working. The Senate could not be more evenly split — 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats, collectively representing all Americans. Yet that chamber currently plans to pass a $3.8 trillion package of sweeping new spending and entitlements, using the reconciliation process so that it can pass with zero Republican support.

It’s money we don’t have, a massive debt imposed on all Americans to fund actions that many don’t want and whose elected representatives have no say in the matter. That doesn’t feel very democratic to me.

Here’s another. Our government is actively engaged in controlling (i.e., censoring) the information Americans see by “helping” social media decide what to allow on their public platforms. These giant organizations are now the primary source of information for the American populace, far eclipsing print and televised news. More often than not, the items they deem unsuitable for public consumption turn out to be matters of political opinion, not objective fact.

Our democratic way of life thrives on the freedom of speech that is guaranteed by our Constitution. We naturally assume that our nation would never stoop to the level of authoritarian regimes like the former USSR or the Chinese Communist Party in controlling public opinion and stifling dissent, but we seem to be creeping down that path.

Ben Franklin was right. If we intend to hang on to our cherished Republic, we’d better start working on it — together.

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