Can We Save Our Democracy?
by Ted Miller
(originally published in Tumbleweird November 2021)
On a hot July afternoon in 1975, a month after I graduated from high school, I stood at attention on the yellow bricks of Tecumseh Court at the United States Naval Academy, raised my right hand, and promised to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. I have administered the same oath countless times over the years at enlistment and commissioning ceremonies as other men and women who, like me, made a promise to their fellow citizens to keep this great nation alive.
We didn’t swear our loyalty to a person or to a party, but to an idea. The idea that the powers of government belong to the governed. As Abraham Lincoln put it, a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
The Constitution is predicated on the belief expressed in the Declaration of Independence that “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
We should all have the same rights and the same opportunities, and all be equal under the law. And as a democratic republic, we all have a voice in our government through the ballot.
Throughout the history of this country, the will of the people has been paramount. And the leadership of our country has had a long tradition of a peaceful transition of power in recognition of that democratic principle. Following a contentious and heated election in 1800, John Adams quietly left Washington, D.C. as his political rival Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated. Recognizing the importance of country over party, of loyalty to the Constitution and respect for elections over personal ambition, every loser of the presidential election since then has conceded and peacefully turned over the presidency to his successor.
Donald J. Trump lost the election in 2020. He lost the popular vote by over 7 million votes. He lost the electoral college vote, the process the Constitution specifies for electing a president, 306 to 232 (source: fec.gov). Not a single court challenge has changed this result. And yet, a year later, Trump still refuses to concede.
Republicans at all levels of government avoid admitting that Trump lost. Through distraction and obfuscation, they allow the Big Lie to continue, undermining confidence in our elections and then using that lack of confidence as a basis for disenfranchising voters. And it is working. Nineteen Republican-led states have passed laws restricting the right to vote this year.
After the Civil War, following the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment which ensured that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” Southern Democrats worked to prevent Black Americans from voting through a variety of voter suppression laws and threats of violence. It would take almost a century — and the constant efforts of the civil rights movement in the 1960s — before the Voting Rights Act would restore the right to vote.
But guaranteeing that right didn’t last. In the 1980s, Republicans began a so-called fight for ‘voter integrity’ using a pretext of unsubstantiated voter fraud to restrict voting rights. By 2013, with many of the provisions of the VRA already weakened through hyper-partisan gerrymandering and other state voter suppression efforts, the Shelby v. Holder Supreme Court decision gutted much of what remained of the Voting Rights Act.
Today, the 33 new laws to restrict voting rights will make it even more difficult for every citizen to equally exercise their right to vote. These laws not only limit who can vote, they make it more difficult for citizens to cast their ballots. Moreover, many of these laws shift the authority to run elections from local election officials to state-level political entities that could overturn election results they don’t like. The cumulative effect of these laws is to ensure that the party in power remains in power.
That puts the United States at risk of becoming a single-party government. And a single-party government that no longer has to answer to the people will no longer be a democracy.
In his 1796 Farewell Address as President of the United States, George Washington warned that allegiance to political parties at the expense of the nation as a cohesive unit were a significant threat and that “the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.”
It is not hyperbole to say that we are at risk of losing our government of the people, by the people, and for the people. The state of politics today is so divisive that extremists are arming themselves for civil war against their neighbors. Ideologies that were once considered fringe anti-government sentiment are now mainstream talking points on right wing media. We have a significant faction of the Republican Party that will do anything to remain in power, even if that means abandoning the principles upon which this country was founded.
We need a two-party system to provide the checks and balances necessary to reflect the will of all the people. We need an election system in which every citizen can exercise their right to vote easily, safely, and with confidence that their vote will be counted and that the election results will be accurate, regardless of their party affiliation.
The Fifteenth Amendment gave Congress the authority to ensure the right of every citizen to vote. The so-called voter integrity laws in Republican-led states are a threat to that right. Congress has an obligation to protect that right.
The For the People Act, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, and the Freedom to Vote Act currently before Congress would limit state laws that disenfranchise American citizens. A failure to pass voting rights legislation will allow a minority party in power to hold onto that power, regardless of the will of the people.
And when the will of the people is no longer reflected in the results of our elections, the power of the people guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States will no longer exist.