WATERTOWN — Reviewing the angst-ridden rhetoric about our state of electoral politics, you’d believe the United States teetered on the verge of becoming an authoritarian nightmare.
Pundits have heeded dramatic warnings about voting rights. Conduct a Google News search of the word “democracy” and you’ll find numerous headlines designed to raise people’s anxiety:
n “How to protect voting rights, prevent the Supreme Court from self-immolation and boost democracy,” Washington Post, Dec. 2
n “Young Americans are raising alarms about the state of U.S. democracy in a new poll,” National Public Radio, Dec. 1
n “Biden’s NLRB Assaults Democracy at Behest of Unions,” National Review, Nov. 29
n “Bankers Took Over the Climate Change Summit. That’s Bad For Democracy,” New York Times, Nov. 25
n “Jim Jordan thinks he’s attacking Biden, but he’s really attacking our democracy,” Fall River Herald News, Nov. 22
n “‘Woke’ Is a Bad Word for a Real Threat to American Democracy,” Wall Street Journal, Nov. 17
Scary stuff! And the notion that we’re heading in the wrong direction isn’t just an American viewpoint. For the first time, the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance added the United States to its list of “backsliding democracies.”
Let’s be honest: There’s good reason for concern. Numerous states led by Republican legislatures have changed their voting laws. This will reduce opportunities for people to cast ballots, giving the GOP more leverage in determining who wins and who doesn’t.
The most disturbing aspect is that some states have altered the system for verifying and defending election results. They’ve stripped county election boards and secretaries of state of their authority to finalize the process. If someone raises questions about the credibility of an election, GOP elected officials will now settle the issue — and, of course, we should feel confident that they’ll be scrupulous and fair about everything, right?
So this trend is troubling and imperils how we practice democracy.
But there is a great deal of misunderstanding about the root of the problem.
Don’t get me wrong; Republicans make the ideal scapegoats here.
Given how appallingly many of them have behaved and the atrocious things they’ve promoted, the GOP icon of an elephant could be switched for the Dr. Evil character these days.
But the flaws in our system go much deeper than this. Democracy itself has some weaknesses adding to its own decline.
If there’s any term that been grossly misused for more than half a century it’s “fascism.” It’s become a catch-all phrase for any political ideas that many people oppose.
Fascism is an authoritarian movement enforced by para-military power. Think of Germany under Adolf Hitler and Italy under Benito Mussolini during World War II.
What differentiates this from democracy, as we understand it, is that Hitler and Mussolini exerted absolute power. This was backed up by those who shared their ideologies. Nothing could change in German and Italian societies unless the dictators deemed it appropriate.
Americans throw around the word “fascism” as if we were on the brink of becoming an autocracy. And they point to the bizarre devotion that far too many Republicans have for Donald Trump as an illustration.
There’s no doubt that Trump has authoritarian tendencies. Early in his administration, some people I know jokingly wondered when he was going to abandon his business suit and start wearing a military uniform. He just seems like the type!
And it’s infuriating that Trump persuades his followers through blatant lies.
He says so many things that are demonstrably false, but it doesn’t matter. If it’s an idea that comes from him, it’s treated like gospel truth.
So I can appreciate the comparisons that critics are making. I firmly believe Trump would have exercised dictatorial power if he had the opportunity.
But he didn’t have that opportunity, so he had to keep his fascist inclinations in check.
For one thing, he lacked the conditions of a police state necessary to enforce any authoritarian plans. While many of his supporters tried to overthrow the government during the Jan. 6 insurrection, they failed because they had no widespread para-military support.
Therefore, tossing “fascism” around casually when referring to Trump and the Republicans is not helpful. Surprisingly, they’ve accomplished their goals through our democratic process.
People cite poor examples when decrying the loss of democracy.
They point to how the U.S. Senate doesn’t represent the will of most Americans.
The reason for this is that it’s not supposed to.
The Senate is designed to represent the will of most voters living in those states. Our system recognizes the authority not just of people as members of our overall population but as members of states.
American democracy calls for each state to have two senators — and a few of these states are so sparsely populated that they have one member of the U.S. House of Representatives! So they have twice as many senators as they do representatives. Far from being undemocratic, this imbalance is a staple of American democracy.
And so is the way that senators confirm justices to the U.S. Supreme Court. I’ve read more than a few people criticizing how the decisions of the U.S. Senate when it comes to selecting Supreme Court justices doesn’t match what most Americans want. How can we allow presidents who haven’t won the popular vote and a Senate that doesn’t reflect the U.S. population to make these choices?
Once again, because that’s how American democracy works.
We don’t elect presidents based on the popular vote; we elect them based on the results in individual states. And our founders believed that states with small populations should have equal footing in the U.S. Senate as those with larger numbers of residents. To oppose this is to go against the foundation of our democratic system.
Many people fear how Republicans are gerrymandering congressional districts to control the U.S. House of Representatives.
They view this as another attack on democracy.
I find it amusing that the practice of gerrymandering never really bothered them before. When Democrats use their power to consolidate future power, this is often dismissed as mere politics.
The assault on democracy is not a new phenomenon; it’s been going on for decades. Growing up in Chicago, I know all too well that reflecting the will of voters hasn’t exactly been a priority for the Democrats running the city, Cook County and the state of Illinois.
Their goal is to hang on to their authority — by any means necessary!
Since voting puts some people in control, power-grabbing comes with democracy.
You can’t separate the two.
We have some serious problems to confront to protect voting rights.
But we need to look at the flaws in democracy itself before we can resolve them.
Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may call him at 315-661-2369 or send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org. They also may follow him on Twitter: @WDT_OpEd.