We might not know what we mean by democracy, but we Americans have often felt that our democratic system was under attack. For most of the twentieth century, we found our enemies abroad, or with “foreigners” within our land or with those who had adopted “foreign” ideologies, from communist countries or elsewhere. We had to be especially vigilant against these subversives because they did not operate openly, and their secret cells had to be ruthlessly rooted out lest they spread.
Today, however, the enemies of democracy are different. They are not hidden but public officials and local, state, and national leaders, with their secret sides, but also operating openly. This apparent openness may make us less vigilant concerning the dangers they present to democracy. We are often more concerned about what we fear is in the shadows than what is in front of our eyes. Because our vigilance may lessen when the threats to democracy come from public officials, the menace may in fact be greater.
The dangers to our democracy are many, but they fall into several categories. The last presidential election had record voter turnouts. That should produce huzzahs for the strength of our democracy. Instead, it has spurred efforts to make it harder to vote, or at least harder for some people to vote. One segment of Americans wants fewer “other” Americans to cast ballots. Of course, when voting is not equally accessible for all, democracy is subverted.
Many do not condemn these voting restrictions but instead applaud them citing justifications without factual bases. Perhaps this acceptance comes easily because similar subversions of the electoral process have been part of the American way for much of our history. Biased literacy tests, poll taxes, and voter intimidation — all part of Jim Crow America that arose after Republicans abandoned Reconstruction — had the effect of suppressing votes. Today the motive is not solely racial but also partisan, but the goals of those wanting to make it harder to vote are similar to those of the past.
We should be concerned when voting is not equal for all of the people. Surprisingly, however, these anti-democratic efforts indicate an acceptance of the central democratic principle that elections do matter. These subverters expect that the majority of the ballots cast will determine the outcome, but they want to reduce the votes for the other side so that they will have the majority. As dangerous as these subverters are, they still accept some democratic norms.
Another attack on our democracy, however, has fewer parallels in our history and is less accepting of democratic tenets. In the last year, we have seen many efforts to undermine faith in our elections. Much of this is akin to the whiny schoolyard kid who can’t accept that he lost a game. His cry: I didn’t lose; somebody must have been cheating.
There’s this strange movement afoot that elections should not be trusted unless our side has won. Polls show that a large percentage of Republicans believe that Joe Biden did not win the last presidential election, and it seems clear that there is no evidence that will change their minds. We have a long history of electing loony people to office. In this tradition, perhaps leading the parade, are Republican officials who were elected to office in 2020, but who maintain that while they were validly elected, Trump, on the same ballot, was shafted.
All of this is seeding the ground for the claim that the results of future elections should not be accepted if our side does not win. These claims may come from across the political spectrum. If it loses, that side will say that the anti-democratic efforts to suppress votes made the elections untrustworthy. The other side, if it loses, will say the election can’t trusted because . . . well, just because they lost.
By itself, the claims of steal or illegitimacy attack democracy. We may not like the results of an election, but if we believe in democracy, we accept the results. I did not like it that Trump won in 2016, and I feel that it is a flaw in our electoral structure that the person who got 3 million fewer votes became president. That result highlighted that our country is not a true democracy, but I accepted that under our system that the now Has Been Guy was your president and mine.
Grumbling about an election is the American way, as I did in 2016, and claims of a stealor illegitimacy may just be another version of that. On the other hand, the cries of theft may truly be a democratic danger if they give many a “reason” to resist, legally and otherwise, the lawful outcome of an election.
Whatever the true purpose of Stop-the-Steal movements, it is clear that the goal of gerrymandering is anti-democratic. With “improved” gerrymandering, more and more elections are becoming mere formalities. And with each cut from another meaningless election, democracy bleeds away.*
*The gerrymander term comes from Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, who pronounced his last name with a hard G, as if the name were Gary. And in the who-would-have-thought-it department, Ronald Reagan knew that and pronounced gerrymander with a hard G, unlike most people, including me and Supreme Court Justices, who use that term.
(Concluded December 22)