I worry that democracy is going out of style in America. I hear people from all parts of the political spectrum suggest that our election system is broken. I also hear that our elections produce “dangerous” leaders. For every Democrat who despises Trump, there seems to be a Republican who hates Biden, AOC, Nancy Pelosi, and a host of others.
If the electoral system cannot produce leaders and policies that America needs, is it broken? Is there a better system out there that solves the problem by reducing or eliminating democracy and replacing it with “wise, smart, leadership?”
My thinking about democracy this past week was prompted by news that the pandemic might be making a comeback. Like many of us, I worry about the “Delta Variant” of the Coronavirus. Because too many have chosen not to get vaccinated, infections and hospitalization rates are on the rise in several states. Efforts to encourage vaccinations are failing, and the Biden administration and various governors are searching for answers.
A friend of mine, a Democrat, discussed the issue with me last week. We were on the same page in recognizing the risk of a resurgence of the pandemic, but then my friend suggested that “the government” should just force reluctant people to get the vaccine. My friend was not suggesting that armed troops knock on doors but that through economic or other means, pressure be put on vaccine doubters. “Maybe they should lose their jobs,” he offered, “or, what if Maryland cancelled their license to drive.”
I was not ready for these suggestions. I was floored. I had just read that Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), arguably the worst person currently serving in Congress, referenced “brownshirts” in comments opposing government initiatives to strongly encourage people to get the vaccine. I have no respect for her, but setting limits on how far government can or should go is not easy.
My friend, for example, talked about China. He credited the country’s “strong government” with preventing the spread of the virus there. Then he gratuitously commented that he had no problem with Beijing’s takeover of Hong Kong and said he didn’t care about Taiwan. China was booming economically, he argued, largely because the “noise” that democracy produces has been eliminated. He had no problems with apartment doors being welded shut in Wuhan if that’s what it takes to stop a pandemic.
I am still friends with my friend but won’t be talking politics or pandemic with him again if I can help it.
My discussions of how to win the fights against COVID-19 and other topics have convinced me that doubts about democracy—about the right of people to govern themselves and place limits on the authority of the government over them—are on the rise. That should worry all of us.
Our current debate over voting rights is an example. Republicans argue that voting is “cheapened” by facilitating it. The theory is that a voter who is too lazy or disorganized to register to vote and arrange to vote on election day somehow is not as good a voter as one who does. That’s a problem. It also ignores the reality that some of us have more difficulty getting to the polls than others.
Basically, the Republican argument implies that some people should not be voting. Where have you heard that before? Have you read about literacy tests? How about limiting voting to property owners? Or excluding woman or people of color from voting on the assumption that they “don’t know enough” to vote?
All these past excuses to concentrate power in the hands of a white, male majority are now history, but the thinking behind them remains. Consider the arguments made against the For the People Act, proposed by Democrats as a means of expanding voting rights. The bill isn’t perfect, but some Republicans suggest it is nothing more than a power grab that would result in more Democrats being elected because they assume that more voting favors the Democrats.
Another suggestion is that less sophisticated voters, often understood by those questioning democracy, can be “bribed” into voting for Democrats. The assumption here is that these “less sophisticated” voters will vote for Democrats because they want more government benefits. How those benefits are paid for, how the country defends itself, and everything else, supposedly doesn’t matter.
The “bribery” argument is a curious one to anyone familiar with tax lobbying in Washington. Do you know of anyone who religiously votes for whatever candidate promises to lower taxes the most?
If I am right that support for democracy is on the decline, this is a dangerous situation for many reasons. But the worst reason is the belief that a “strong leader” who is smarter than everyone else can make decisions about how the country should be run better than the people themselves. Xi does that in China, and even Vladimir Putin has a few misguided admirers here in the U.S.
So, what to do? First, those of us who think that America has succeeded because of democracy rather than despite it, need to get vocal when we see democracy doubted. Second, we need to support the broadest possible participation in our elections, even if it results in the election of politicians who are not our first (or second, or third) choice. Third, we need to step up efforts to support laws that support our constitutional democracy. This means that those responsible for January 6 must be held accountable.
We may be closer to losing our democracy than most of us would like to admit. Freedom isn’t free. We need to fight for democracy, or we will lose it.
J.E. Dean of Oxford is a retired attorney and public affairs consultant writing on politics, government, birds, and occasionally goldendoodles.