July 14, 2024

Undermining democracy

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The Steady Team

The news hits hard, once again. A reminder that democracy is fragile, very fragile. 

A vote in the United States Senate… entirely along party lines… about voting rights… where to even begin? 

Images flash across my mind of the long struggle for enfranchisement in America, which stretches back to the tragic imperfections under which this country was founded. These injustices defined the society of my youth, one of state-sponsored segregated society. When I started my career as a journalist, bearing witness to voter suppression across the South was one of my first assignments. I would later see it in different forms across the rest of the country. 

Fierce battles, sometimes bloody battles, over the basic freedom of fair elections has marked this nation’s history, and the undercurrents remain. For all the progress we have made, we can see that these gains could prove illusory. The time for sugar coating reality has long since passed. We have large sections of our citizenry eager to undermine the most fundamental mechanism for a free, just, and accountable government. These forces have been stoked by a divisive autocrat who bent the Republican party to his whims and needs. 

I believe, however, it is too easy to chalk these voter suppression efforts to mere hatred or bigotry, though those currents are certainly at play. But I don’t think the lines of demarcation are as clear as they were during the Civil Rights movement. As with back then, this is about power, raw power. But it is a power based on a view of the country that is more complex than race, although race certainly plays a part. It is about a belief that we should hew to only one vision of America, a vision that those on the far right of the political spectrum define as patriotism. It is an America where old social orders largely remain intact, where a view of what society is and should be passes through the most conservative of lenses. Those who had firmly felt themselves in the majority see this America slipping away. Rather than evolve and modernize, they would rather retrench with a steel-eyed political calculus: if you can’t win a majority of voters, you must construct a system that allows for minority rule.

One would like to think that in a country that prides itself on telling the rest of the world that we are a “city on a hill,” the issue of voting rights would be one that unites us. Even granting the most generous reasoning to the Republicans, that there were aspects of this bill that went too far, that they had concerns, then the healthy response would have been good-faith negotiations, not a stone wall of opposition. But compromise was never going to be in the cards because Republicans fear that an expansive approach to voting could pave the way for the extinction of their party in its current form. And they might very well be right. 

When presented with these facts it is understandable to feel demoralized, maybe even to the point of hopelessness. There is no shortage of injustice in what we are seeing – starting with the fact that progress on voting rights can be blocked by a minority of senators who represent an even smaller minority of voters. There is also no shortage of targets for finger pointing – those who won’t reform the filibuster, the Biden Administration for not doing enough to push the issue, the media which too often ignores voting rights, or frames it with false equivalence. 

But I would like to step back for a moment. From the founding of the United States onward, the forces who wanted to limit the power of government beyond their own group always had the advantage. Over time, however, that power has been eroded by the actions of Americans who refused to accept the status quo. This progress has come far too slowly, far too fitfully, and far too unevenly. But in the long run, the will of the majority cannot be easily suppressed. I remember covering Dr. Martin Luther King in the early days of the Civil Rights movement, when defeats far outpaced victories. He saw his struggle as one that would have many chapters. He knew that justice was on his side, and that those who stood in the way of progress could never take that away.  

I know how this moment feels, now, and for the important elections in 2022 and 2024, and beyond. I know the stakes. I feel them deeply. But I also know that the improbable progress that got us to where we are was made by people who refused to give up on what this country could be, and who were willing to do the work to make that a reality. This spirit is required to save America once more.

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