A Fraying Hope: Steps to Repairing Democracy

The 2020 elections reminded us in stark terms of the fragility of our democracy. As former President Obama remarked in his eulogy for the late Rep. John Lewis last year, “democracy is not automatic. It has to be tended. You have to work at it.” And there is important work to do. Not only are we challenged with long-neglected steps to strengthen our democracy, but we are also challenged to address direct threats to voter rights and election integrity in recent years. Too often we set aside the critical work of democracy reform when we are not in the midst of a midterm or presidential campaign, and this has serious repercussions.

This week Congress will certify the results of the 2020 election. What has often been more ceremonial will be more contentious this year, with a number of lawmakers vowing to object to the certification. The basis for democracy is contingent on the will of the people being voiced by their vote and upheld. Most of us at some time or another will vote for someone who doesn’t win; it doesn’t feel good. Especially when it is someone who you think will drive policies that you believe in. But the great experiment of trusting people to choose their own leaders cannot succeed if the people who lose elections fail to accept the will of the people. What we’re experiencing now, a chief executive who has lost an election but unwilling to accept those results and taking extra judicial steps delegitimize the election and to change the vote tally is in direct contravention with the values of a truly democratic nation. There is a difference between ensuring a free, fair, and accurate election and what is happening right now; and the choice of elected leaders to ignore the vote and will of the voters is dangerous and destabilizing.

At each step in the history of the United States there have been forces of oppression bent on keeping power and silencing the voices of those who oppose them. Our democracy is not built on a bedrock of equity or justice, it is built on the subjugation of enslaved Black people, of genocide of Native Americans, and suppression of anyone who wasn’t a land-owning white man. This means that we have to fight each step of the way to enfranchise as many people as possible and then to ensure that their voice and vote are represented in the halls of power.

January 21, 2021 will mark the 11th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in the 2010 Citizens United case, which unleashed the unchecked power of big money in election campaigns and drowning out the voices of ordinary voters. The 2020 elections also marked the second presidential election in which we had fewer voter protections than we did in 1965, as a consequence of the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Holder v Shelby County. That decision gutted key provisions of the Voting Rights Act addressing racial discrimination in elections. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted long-standing vulnerabilities in our democratic process – an outdated and aging infrastructure, security concerns, the need for more and better equipped poll workers and election officials.

Imagine a fraying rope, under immense strain. Each attack on democracy, every voice inciting increased polarization and each move to disenfranchise voters is a fiber on that rope being snapped. Without intervention, eventually the whole thing will break. 

But it’s not an impossible task. Immediate actions can be taken in the new congress with support and passage of the For the People Act. This legislation is an important first step toward fixing what’s broken in our democracy. The legislation includes measures to:

  • Expand and protect voting rights and access to the ballot;
  • Put ordinary Americans ahead of Big Money donors;
  • End gerrymandering so that electoral districts are fairly drawn;
  • Hold elected officials to the highest ethical standards.

The work to strengthen and reform our democratic process is at a critical juncture. Any progress we can make on the issues that we care deeply about – racial justice, environmental justice and the climate crisis, growing economic disparity – hinges on a strong and robust democratic process. The 2020 election outcome has been decided by the voice of the people. Now is the time to turn from divisive partisanship to meaningful governance that will empower us to address the substantial challenges before us.

Categories: Column Getting to the Root of It

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