Democracy Dies When Elections Don’t Matter (continued)

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.*

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*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)

When Government was BIG

          FDR had been dead for fifteen years, but my social studies teacher remained fixated on him. She would slip comments into class discussions that derided him and the big government of the New Deal. One day she said, “Whenever the government starts a program, the program never disappears. It just gets bigger and bigger.” I knew little about the New Deal then and was not interested in defending it or other government initiatives. Instead, I was a general wiseass, and my mind instinctively searched for counterexamples. I raised my hand and when she called on me, said, “What about prohibition? That was a huge government program, and we no longer have it.” She turned her back on me and did not call on me again for a week. I was not unhappy with that outcome.

She was from that American school of get-the-government-off-my-back, a strain of bitching that always seems to be with us. The examples seem ubiquitous, and we see it now with people denouncing required face masks as socialism. Underlying such complaints is that in the good old days, government was smaller, and Americans had more freedom. Of course, as with prohibition this has not always been true. Big government programs of the past are not all still with us now. Slavery and the many tentacles of the Jim Crow laws that existed in the lifetimes of many of us required a strong government for example, but those “programs” no longer are with us.

Because of my northern roots in a white small town, I was not directly affected by Jim Crow (nor was I directly affected by the myriad laws and government actions and policies that discriminated against women), but I, as were almost all Americans of a certain age, was affected by another, now defunct, freedom-restricting, big government program—the military draft. To someone my age, the draft needs no explanation, but many of my students, a generation or two younger than I am, not only did not know that it existed, but could not believe that it ever was the law of the land. But, yes, men (only men, not women) could be required to join the armed services. Put in slightly different terms, the government could force men from their homes and jobs and families, control their lives for years, and place them in a position where there was the possibility that they would have to kill or be killed. This was big government writ large.

Its reach was so pervasive that it routinely affected people’s behavior even before a military induction. I learned this early. In sixth grade, Glen and I hung out at George’s service station. A couple of high school boys did some work there. One day they discussed what they would do after high school and whether they should get some vocational training. Gary said, “No. I’m just going to get any job I can and wait to get drafted.” He was going to put his life on hold until after his forced military service.

The draft led many to enlist. Perhaps part of the motivation was public service and patriotism, but a self-interest was also at work. An enlistee, unlike a draftee, could choose the branch of the armed services he would go into, and the college-graduate enlistee could be an officer while the draftee was a private. In a personal cost-benefit analysis, many concluded it was better to enlist than wait to be drafted. I have many friends of my age, often graduates of the country’s most selective universities, who were officers in the armed services while the draft existed. There are fewer similar people today who are veterans.

The draft affected education and job choices. College males got deferments; that is, they would not be drafted while in school. And for a long time, deferments were also given for graduate school. In my generation, only those from 18 to 26 were drafted. Back then, I never heard of a “gap year” before college or graduate school. We knew that such a time off from school might find us not in Europe with a knapsack and a rail pass but backpacking in Vietnam using military transport. One of the reasons so many of my generation may have gone to law or business school is the draft deferment it offered. (Not so for medical school. Doctors got drafted at 26 and beyond because not enough doctors enlisted. Go watch M*A*S*H).

If, however, you finished all this education by the ages of twenty-four or twenty-five, you still had to make it until twenty-six not to be drafted. Ah, but for some jobs, you also got a deferment. Public school teaching was one. Teach until twenty-six, and then start your real career. Many of my generation had a brief stint as a middle-school teacher.

The draft was not only big government because it could intrude into every corner of a life, it was also big because it produced a huge bureaucracy. Nearly every county in the country had a selective service (the official name for the draft) office with one or more paid workers as well as volunteer (I think) boards. (Does anyone know who came up with “selective service”?) And, of course, regional and national offices. Paperwork galore.

Both aspects of the big government came together for me in my second year of law school. As I began my legal studies during the height (or shall we say, depth) of the Vietnam War, deferments for graduate school ended. And thus, one day during a break in my classes, I found the missive in my mail with what was then the famous salutation, “Greetings.” I was being drafted pending a physical, for which I had to return to my home county.

It wasn’t as though I hadn’t thought about being in the army before—all males of my generation did–but the draft notice certainly, how shall we say, focused my attention on an impending military life. It was more than a little hard to concentrate on the law of corporations or the tax code with the army looming. Part of my thoughts that followed the draft notice were about the war that the U.S. was then bogged down in, but many of my thoughts just went to basic training, which I dreaded for good reason.

(continued September 14)