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The Threat to Our Democracy’s Survival, and What We Can Do About It

Things will not get better if those of us who see what is going down give in to fear. There are things elected officials and the public in general can do to safeguard our bedrock principles.

Nevada voters waiting in line to cast their ballots on Nov. 4, 2020.
(Trevor Bexon/Shutterstock)
Within my lifespan I have witnessed democracy’s ebb and flow, from the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and bipartisan support for the Voting Rights Act in 1965 to the attack on our nation’s Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. I am as concerned today about democracy’s survival in the U.S. as anytime during my adult life.

I moved to Atlanta in 1973. Despite the progress achieved by the landmark legislation of the previous decade, it was a time when Black Americans, along with other moderates and liberals, were still grieving the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose 93rd birthday we recently commemorated. In addition to King’s death, we had lived through and mourned the assassinations of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, President John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Sen. Robert Kennedy and Chicago Black Panther leader Fred Hampton.

I began to feel hopeful that democracy might have a chance after Georgia’s governor, Jimmy Carter, was elected president in 1976. Among other encouraging steps, Carter appointed civil rights activist Andrew Young as U.N. ambassador and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee founder and leader John Lewis as associate director of the national volunteer organization ACTION. Over the ensuing decades, I remained relatively positive over the possibility that our republic could become a more inclusive, just and equitable nation, despite the limitations of what was achieved under the two terms of President Barack Obama’s administration.

I had at least a small basis for my optimism in those years. Building on the success of the civil rights movement, there were vigorous antiwar, counterculture, women’s rights and other social justice movements pressuring the establishment to transform its institutions. There was always a stealth right wing that attacked and criticized these movements, but the proponents of change were determined to be heard and forced their agenda upon society. The right wing that opposed them was not the core of the Republican Party, nor was the party openly sympathetic to antidemocratic forces, white supremacists and violent militia members.

As I write today, I feel less sure that our democratic institutions, not to mention the idea of democracy itself, will survive what we are now going through.

Progressives and Democrats in Georgia and elsewhere did a superb job in 2020 getting voters to the polls, which resulted in historic wins for the presidency and the Senate. But, egged on by the former president’s “big lie” that he won, in 2021 19 states enacted at least 34 laws that will make it harder for Americans to vote, according to the Brennan Center’s tally.

Meanwhile, last week’s failure by the Democrats to secure the support from two of their most conservative senators, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, resulted in no changes being made to the filibuster, a procedure that throughout history has been used to deny Black rights and that today stands in the way of passage of the federal voting rights bills. All Democrats were needed to be on board to protect what President Biden called our “threshold liberty,” since no Republican in the Senate would break ranks for fear of being primaried by candidates recruited by the ex-president.

My skepticism over democracy’s survival is not based just on the cowardice on the part of some federal elected officials or their refusal to place the country’s interest over that of their party. I am equally disturbed over what state officials are doing, particularly those with safe Republican majorities, to make it more difficult for even conservative voters to cast a ballot. Nowhere am I hearing bipartisan opposition to these anti-democratic developments.

Even Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, and GOP Gov. Brian Kemp, both of whom refused to yield to pressure from the former president to overturn the 2020 Georgia election, have repeatedly defended the Republican-controlled Georgia General Assembly’s voter-suppression laws on the grounds that they make for better voter integrity.

These are indeed scary times in the U.S., and things will not get better if all of us who see what is going down give in to fear. It is also important, however, to remember the five purple states — Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — that voted blue in the 2020 elections, as well as the prospects this year for Democrats to win governorships now held by Republicans in states including Arizona, Georgia, Maryland and Massachusetts due to the strength of minority and blue-trending suburban votes. To protect those victories and support these possibilities, there are some things that I believe elected officials and the public in general can do to better safeguard democracy.

First, all people of good will must wake up and recognize that the country is in grave danger of being taken over by antidemocratic forces. Then, constituents should screen candidates for public office based on their steadfast support of America’s bedrock principles of democracy. This won’t be easy in an alt-right environment where a large percentage of voters has had politicians prey upon their fears and feed them lies as to the reasons they are economically insecure.

Second, Republicans who are not afraid of or indebted to the former president must carefully weigh the cost of remaining silent against the dangers of losing democracy as we’ve known it and to what this loss could mean to the ruin of the American economy they depend on for wealth.

Finally, and unfairly, it will probably continue to fall on the backs of racial minorities, workers and women who have historically and persistently been denied the fruits of full participation in America’s democratic institutions to double down on their efforts in fighting racism, fascism, and voter suppression and subversion of all types.

By doing so, they might end up saving democracy not just for themselves but for us all.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
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