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Jack DeVine / January 5, 2022

Democracy Under Attack?

It can’t be stolen in an afternoon by an angry mob; we lose it by letting it slip through our fingers, piece by piece.

Abraham Lincoln said it best: Ours is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. That simple principle — republican government — is the prime source of America’s greatness. We’ve managed to hang onto it for 240 years, but many today are voicing concerns that our Republic is slipping away.

Count me as one who is concerned about this erosion, although for reasons quite different than the ones we often hear.

The episode that seems to arouse the most concern is the riotous assault on the U.S. Capitol one year ago tomorrow — the one President Joe Biden calls the “worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War.”

That’s nonsense, no matter how aggressively pushed by politicians and media. January 6 was an ugly, violent, and indefensible mob action — a national embarrassment. But there was never a real possibility that a ragtag swarm of unarmed and disorganized hooligans would somehow overthrow the United States of America. The 2020 election certification they tried to disrupt recommenced that very night. “Democracy” didn’t miss a beat.

Our Republic can’t be stolen in an afternoon by an angry mob. If we lose it, it will be because we let it slip through our fingers, piece by piece, over time.

Take a closer look. Our form of government is properly called a democratic republic, in which we citizens elect leaders to act in our behalf. For that to work, we need (1) an electorate that makes informed choices, (2) a voting process that is transparent and secure, and (3) elected leaders who act in their constituents’ best interests. We’re losing ground in all three.

Informed electorate. In 2017, just after President Donald Trump took office, the venerable Washington Post adopted the slogan “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” That’s an ironic choice. While it’s hard to disagree with the inherent truth of those words, the Post and most other print and broadcast media tend to illuminate only one side of controversial issues, hardly shedding enough light to support well-informed choices.

Even more worrisome is the stranglehold Big Tech (Facebook/Meta, Twitter, et al.) exerts on information available to the public. Their platforms reach billions worldwide, and they decide, unilaterally, what their readers (surely, a majority of American voters) get to see and what they do not.

There may be a constitutional issue here. While the First Amendment does not apply to private companies, Big Tech is arguably a government communicator (for example, on COVID matters). At some point, the courts will weigh in.

But in the meantime, do we really want unelected, unaccountable, politicized, and privately funded organizations to select the next president? That arguably already happened in 2020.

Voting process. Many states hurriedly adopted sweeping changes in voting policy and practice before the 2020 election, nominally to address restrictions imposed by the pandemic. The changes yielded unprecedented voter turnout — a good thing — but corresponding uncertainty about election security.

In principle, it’s simple: Voting is for citizens, and all citizens deserve both a reasonable opportunity to vote and confidence that every legal and legitimate vote will count. But as we “improve” the process by expanding remote voting or relaxing voter ID requirements, we make voting easier but less secure — another chink in the armor.

Hyper-partisanship. In both houses of Congress, party-line block-voting by elected representatives and senators has become the norm. That practice effectively nullifies the votes of those whose elected legislators choose to obey the dictates of their party bosses rather than act in the best interests of their constituents.

And the Democrat-led U.S. Senate continues to tinker with established Senate rules (reconciliation and filibuster, as examples) in order to enhance the Democrats’ razor-thin ruling power. Doing so further muffles the voices of all who voted for the 50 Republican senators.

Each of the above examples is a very real impediment to practical exercise of what is colloquially called democracy in America.

For those understandably concerned about the January 6 debacle, you can be sure that we’ll be hearing much more about it in the year ahead, as the House of Representatives continues its massive investigation. (That’s the same legislative body that last year decided in just one day that it knew enough about what happened to impeach a president.) This week, Democrats outlined plans to roll out their findings in the fall of 2022, coincidentally just before the midterm elections. Politics, again, rule the day.

All Americans — left, right, and center — have a stake in our Republic. So let’s skip the political grandstanding and zero in on its real vulnerabilities.

And don’t let “democracy die in the darkness” of a January 6 smokescreen.

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