It may be nightfall for the world’s greatest democracy. Not since the Civil War has there been a greater threat to our nation’s basic democratic principles. Recently President Joe Biden was in Athens, Greece—the birthplace of democracy—for an international forum designed to promote freedom and free elections. Speaking in Athens, Pope Francis warned Americans, “We cannot avoid noting with concern how today, and not only in Europe, we are witnessing a retreat from democracy.” He called for people in the United States and around the world to turn away from authoritarianism, individualism, and indifference; and instead, to rededicate themselves to the common good and to strengthen democracy. Francis concluded: “May there ever continue to resound a message that lifts our gaze both on high and toward others, that democracy may be the response to the siren songs of authoritarianism and that individuals and indifference may be overcome by concern for others, for the poor and for creation." [i] The pope’s comments mirror an increasing awareness here in the U.S. that our democracy is in crisis.
A Democracy in Peril
What are the signs that indicate our American democracy is at risk? They are many.
• Republican leaders and right-wing media continue to promote the “Big Lie” that, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent. Poll after poll has shown that around 60% of Republicans believe the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. And in a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll only one third of Republicans said they would trust the results if their candidate lost in 2024. [ii]
• Donald Trump and his supporters are running candidates for secretary of state in such swing states as Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. These are the officials who have the authority to certify the results of an election and might be persuaded to reverse the peoples' will.
• A number of Republican state legislatures have recently passed laws seriously restricting voting rights. These have included limiting the use of mail-in ballots, stricter voter ID rules, eliminating polling places and drop boxes in communities of color, and threatening prosecution of individuals who might assist voters with humanitarian aid such as offering food or water to those enduring long waits or inclement weather.
• Most leading Republican politicians have supported the anti-democratic movement, noting that many in their base appear persuaded that authoritarianism is a more efficient way of governing.
• Some people want to remake our nation as a white supremacist haven and know this is their last chance. White supremacist groups like Patriot Front are threatened by the growing diversity in this country and want to “reclaim America” by violence if necessary.
“This is a five-alarm fire,” suggests Jocelyn Benson, the Democratic secretary of state in Michigan, who presided over the 2020 vote count there and received death threats for doing so. “If people in general, leaders and citizens, aren’t taking this as the most important issue of our time and acting accordingly, then we may not be able to ensure democracy prevails again in ’24.” [iii]
How to Save America
How can we stop the march toward authoritarianism in the United States? There are steps we need to take now if we value our freedom.
• Congress must pass a new voting rights bill. So far efforts have been stymied by Republican opposition in the Senate and the filibuster requirement for 60 votes.
• The media needs to be more proactive in pushing against “The Big Lie” and exposing the efforts of Republican leaders to subvert democracy through false claims and deception. Truthtellers like Liz Cheney and others like her should be heralded as heroes of democracy rather than demonized.
• The Justice Department must challenge any attempts at partisan takeover of election authorities that would permit the fixing of elections. Several GOP legislatures are seeking the authority to overturn election results in their states.
• One way Democrats can push back against the anti-democratic movement is to make a bigger, more effective effort in winning across more voters among the working-class, Independents, and youth.
• We must do a better job of “getting out the vote.” There is evidence that many elections are won or lost by very narrow margins. We can educate our family and friends and anyone else who thinks their vote doesn’t matter.
• We must find a way to bridge the divide that exists among us. Efforts by groups such as Braver Angels are seeking to find ways to help people with different viewpoints have respectful and civil conversation around difficult issues. Rather than viewing each other as the enemy, it is imperative that we find ways to work for the common good.
The End of the American Experiment?
Americans have weathered many assaults on our freedom—both internal and external. Our country has also been a bulwark for democracy, coming to the rescue of our European allies in two world wars. We rose to the challenge to turn back tyranny and save democracy in Western Europe. Since then, we have sought to stand for freedom across the globe. If America fails to meet today’s test and is unable to protect our basic right to vote, we will have forfeited our own freedom. And there will be no one to rescue us from ourselves. Unless something changes prior to the 2022 elections, it appears that the great American experiment in democracy is about to come to an end; and lady liberty’s light may be snuffed out.