Losing Democracy

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

“Dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy . . .”

– Plato, The Republic, circa 375 B.C.

Leave it to the Republicans, and the “American experiment with fascism,” as a former White House official wrote, will become something permanent. Our democracy will be nothing more than a veneer, as in Hungary.

And this un-American backdrop as the country celebrated freedom with the declaration of Juneteenth as a federal holiday. It’s a commemoration of June 19, 1865 when slaves in Galveston, Texas, were told they had been freed more than two years earlier by President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Oh, the shame of it.

Republicans in Congress, but for 14 in the House, extended a hand toward Blacks by voting overwhelmingly for the new holiday. But they stabbed them in the back with the other hand by restricting their ability to express their freedom by voting without constraint.

By endorsing what originally was a Black holiday now blessedly shared by all, the Republicans varnished our Potemkin democracy, a surface gesture that hides the true nature of what the GOP is doing to undermine democracy.

Legislation being aggressively debated and enacted in many Republican-led states not only is intended to suppress the votes of minorities. In some cases, bills include threats of criminal penalties against those who run the polls and take away control of administering balloting from election boards and other officials and give it to members of legislatures.

It means Republicans in power could get to control who gets elected to a particular office like president or governor regardless of the popular vote. Simply put, election results could be overturned.

“Had these bills been in place in 2020, they would have significantly added to the turmoil that surrounded the election, and they would have raised the alarming prospect that the outcome of the presidential election could have been decided contrary to how the people voted,” the States United Democracy Center, a new bipartisan organization, said in a report in April.

“Today,” it said in a June update, “. . . the situation is worse. Even as states continue to pass a raft of measures to erect barriers to people’s freedom to vote, state-level legislative efforts to stop longstanding norms about election administration have gained momentum.”

These laws and pending legislation are a result of Trump’s repeated failures in at least six states to get election returns favoring Joe Biden overturned so he could be declared the victor. Put sycophants in charge of elections, and they can control who wins.

Republican legislators have introduced 216 bills in 41 states, with Texas leading the pack at 37, to give them power over election officials, the States United Democracy Center reported. Fully 24 laws of the kind the center has warned about have been enacted into laws in 14 states, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

Consider the vote recount farce underway for weeks in Maricopa County, Arizona, home of Phoenix. Other states are considering following suit, all based on Trump’s Big Lie.

“The 2021 state legislative season may ultimately prove to be a turning point in the history of America’s democracy,” the States United Democracy Center concluded in its June report. “The number of anti-voter laws that have been introduced and passed is unprecedented. These are the ingredients for a democracy crisis.”

The Democrats are trying to right the listing democracy ship with two pieces of House-passed legislation that, of course, is bogged down in the Senate because of its chief obstructionist, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

One is the For the People Act, which is intended for federal law to override most of the state-passed voter suppression laws. The other is intended to restore elements of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that were deleted by the Supreme Court in 2013.

“I’ve taken a look at all the new state laws – none of them are designed to suppress the vote,” McConnell told reporters last week. “There is no rational basis for the federal government to take over all of American elections.”

Of course, there is.

Ben Rhodes, President Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser, recently wrote a highly personalized book, “After the Fall,” in which he expresses concern about the future of democracy.

He traveled to several countries to research his book, Hungary and Russia among them. The book opens about the degradation of democracy under Hungary’s longtime prime minister, Viktor Orbán. Bit by bit, Orbán has been creating an autocracy, just the kind of inchoate system of government Trump was moving toward.

Rhodes wrote of learning about people “who lived the political trends that I had watched from the exalted distance of the White House.

“Unburdened by being American themselves, they experienced no difficulty of politeness or discomfort that prevented them from seeing the Trump years for what they were: an American experiment with fascism, albeit of a particularly incompetent and corrupt kind.

“But there was also a similarly obvious reality: The forces that produced a Trump presidency long predated it and would still be there after it was over. Indeed, a new model of nationalist authoritarian politics is a defining reality of our world today.”

And I am watching it happen right before my eyes, feeling helpless.



Richard C. Gross, who covered war and peace in the Middle East and was foreign editor of United Press International, served as the opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun.