By Paul Rozycki
“The ship of democracy, which has weathered all storms, may sink through the mutiny of those on board.” –Grover Cleveland
“While democracy in the long run is the most stable form of government, in the short run, it is among the most fragile”. –Madeleine Albright
Democracy isn’t easy. It’s not easy to make it work well. And it’s not easy to keep it. In our place and time in history, we assume that democracy is the best way to govern a nation, and given the choice, anyone would prefer a democratic government. As Winston Churchill famously said “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
But it hasn’t always been that way. More than a few serious political philosophers thought that democracy was a poor way to govern (Plato, Thomas Hobbes). For most of recorded history, democracy was very much the exception rather than the rule.
More than a few nations tried to make democracy work, only to fall back into an authoritarian dictatorship when the going got tough. (Ancient Rome, 1990s Russia, 1930s Germany, and several Eastern European nations today)
Even in our own nation, it took some time before we gradually welcomed ‘all the people’ into the democratic system. It took a century and a half before non-property owners, African-Americans, women, and 18 year-olds, were allowed to vote.
Yet, with all the changes and growth in the idea of democracy, it will work only if we have trust in the system. Those who are governed need to believe that, win or lose, the system is “fair.”
Declining trust in democracy
Today trust in our democratic institutions seems shakier than ever. The election of 2020, the events of Jan. 6, and the charges that the election was “stolen” or unfair, are only the most current signs of the weakening of democracy in the U.S.
The trust in many of our institutions have shrunk in the last half century. In 1964, 77 percent of the public believed that the government would do the right thing most of the time, but by 2021 only 24 percent were willing the say the same thing.
The reasons for that are many. The Vietnam War, Watergate, presidential scandals, economic challenges, rant radio, and social media, which amplify the angriest and most conspiratorial of voices, all fostered distrust and cynicism of government. On the local level, the Flint water crisis, and the endless conflict in the Flint City Council, are additional reasons distrust has grown.
But even with the growing cynicism and distrust of the system, as least one thing seemed to remain true: the belief that the people could govern themselves by electing their officials. Whatever the details, trust in the electoral process is the essential core of any democratic system.
Within the last few years that core belief is under attack as never before.
The January 6 insurrection
On Jan. 6, 2021, a riotous mob attacked police and smashed windows and doors, as they stormed the U.S. Capitol when the 2020 election results for Joe Biden were about to be certified.
What seemed like an impulsive and out of control mob soon began to look more ominous as details emerged. Though much is likely to be revealed with the Jan. 6 Commission in months to come, it’s already apparent that there was much planning and coordination for the events of that day, and the goal was to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
Exactly who said what to who, and who emailed who, remains to be seen, but clearly this was a concerted effort to undo a democratic election at the highest levels of government in the most brutal manner, including death threats against the vice-president.
All of that was fueled by a defeated president who claims that the election was stolen, even after more than a year of recounts, audits, and more than 60 court challenges to the contrary.
What is most worrisome is not that Donald Trump believes that, but that as many as 75 percent of all Republicans, and 40 percent all Americans, buy into it as well. Those beliefs are not simply a disagreement over policy, they strike at the heart of the trust that any democratic system needs.
Restrictions on voting
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many election officials responded by allowing mail-in voting, early voting, same day registration, and no-excuse absentee voting. Considering how quickly some of the adjustments had to be made, the system worked remarkably well. Voter turnout was at a record level, and by most estimates the election was probably the fairest and most honest in our history.
But in response to the large turnout, and the new methods of voting, more than 19 states have passed laws aimed at restricting the right to vote, limiting times and places for casting ballots, making registration more difficult, and placing other barriers to prospective voters.
The full impact of those measures remains to be seen, but the motives are clear. They aim to suppress the vote that elected Joe Biden but, more importantly, they strike at the trust in the system, and the trust in the voters.
Partisan attacks on local election officials
Those who have sought to undermine democracy have taken a new tack and begun targeting local offices that rarely make partisan headlines. While much of the nation focuses on the presidential contest or the governor’s race, it is the state secretaries of state and local city, county, and township election clerks, who will manage the elections, and count the ballots in 2022 and 2024. It was these individuals, many of whom were Republican, who oversaw the counts and recounts in 2020, and found there was little cheating of any consequence.
Those who support the ‘big lie’ that the election was stolen in 2020 are now targeting these often invisible offices, with the hope that, in 2024, they will be able to rely on their partisan state and local officials to do their bidding when votes are counted. This year, Michigan may see a ballot proposal that would limit the power of the secretary of state to conduct audits. Some local officials have received death threats for doing their jobs.
As Josef Stalin said “The people who cast the votes decide nothing. Those who count the votes decide everything.”
Fake Electoral College votes
Finally, in one of the most blatant and bizarre attempts to undo the election, Michigan Republican electors tried to submit a fake electoral ballot, giving Michigan’s 16 electoral votes to Donald Trump, in spite of the fact that he lost the state by over 150,000 votes. They showed up at the Michigan State Capitol as the electoral votes were being recorded, and were turned away by Michigan State Police.
It appears that this attempt was a coordinated plan to reverse the electoral vote in a number of other states as well. According the Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, both federal and state criminal charges are a possibility for those involved.
This attempt goes far beyond an individual voter trying to stuff an extra ballot in the box for their candidate, or voting for a dead relative. This organized attempt is an attack on the very idea that in a democracy the voters should decide elections.
What to do?
We need to recognize the full nature of the threat from the events of Jan. 6, the attempts to limit the vote, and the ways in which even the most local officials are critical to democracy. These aren’t simply disagreements over public policy, right vs. left, or even Republicans vs. Democrats. They strike at the heart of democracy, and the trust that supports it.
Democracy requires participation; those who work against it count on the apathy of others. Take the time to learn about the candidates and issues and vote. Pay attention to those offices that are often at ‘the bottom of the ballot’, they may be more important that you realize. Don’t accept everything you read on Facebook or Twitter. Check things out. Use fact checkers regularly when you see a new ‘fact’ on social media.
Democracy can be fragile. Other nations have lost it when faced with challenges. We need to face the current challenge to assure that we remain a democratic nation for the next 200 years. Perhaps the best quote is attributed to Ben Franklin, when, after the Constitutional Convention, he was asked “What do we have, a republic, or a monarchy?” His response was, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Let’s hope we can keep it.
EVM political commentator Paul Rozycki can be reached at Paul.Rozycki@mcc.edu.