American democracy is under assault – and each side is blaming the other.
Democrats believe Republicans are restricting minorities from voting and thus undermining democracy. Republicans believe Democrats are stretching election rules in a way that corrupts democracy. Democrats believe U.S. President Donald Trump is attacking long-established institutions and precedents in a fashion that is eroding democracy. Republicans believe congressional drives to investigate or eventually remove the President constitute an effort to overturn an election, the ultimate attack on democracy.
Americans may have not abandoned their commitment to democracy, but perhaps not since the Great Depression and the rise of the European dictators in the 1930s have they been so vocal with their qualms about its survival. This is a moment – indeed, this is a month – when claims about the gradual destruction of democracy are being flung across the airwaves, in the public prints and in conversations from coast to coast, with unusual ferocity and passion.
These doubts have enormous implications for the world’s oldest democracy. “This is a dangerous pattern that is developing,’’ said William G. Mayer, a Northeastern University political scientist. ‘’There are no widely accepted referees any more whom everybody trusts. And as the smoke continues to swirl over the Russia investigation, it gets even more worrisome.”
This comes in a year when a poll undertaken by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Georgetown University’s Baker Center for Leadership & Governance indicated that only two in five Americans are satisfied with the state of the country’s democracy. And with pugilists on both sides of the partisan divide expressing concerns about its erosion – and with younger voters more congenial to socialism, a term abhorred by most Americans until recently – the issue is less the veracity of the claims than the frequency of them.
In the background is the greatest question of all involving the integrity of democracy: the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into whether Russia warped American democratic processes and, moreover, whether there was collusion between Russian operatives and Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign.
That investigation may extend into the new year, but questions about the integrity of democracy have emerged as a persistent theme in the United States in recent months, perhaps to an unprecedented degree.
In only the past several days, for example, Republicans in Florida have charged that the camp of Democratic Senator Bill Nelson, behind by a formidable 12,562 votes, wanted to count mail ballots that were received after the 7 p.m. election day deadline – a gambit that Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida said ‘’isn’t a strategy to win an election [but instead] a strategy to steal an election.’’
Just across the state’s northern border, in Georgia, it is the Democrats who are crying foul. There, the effort of Stacey Abrams, a lawyer, businesswoman, writer and state legislative leader, to become the country’s first black female governor fell short by 58,150 votes. On Friday, Ms. Abrams said the results reflected an ‘’erosion of our democracy,’’ charging that GOP efforts and institutional racism kept some of her supporters from the polls. ‘’Democracy,’’ she said, ‘’failed Georgians of every political party, every race, every region. Again.’’
And along the Canadian border, in Maine, a congressional race that ended on election day with GOP Representative Bruce Poliquin capturing 46.2 per cent of the vote and Democratic challenger Jared Golden winning 45.5 per cent went into an awkward overtime that was only just resolved. Because neither candidate won a majority, the state’s unusual ‘’ranked-choice’’ procedures went into play, with the remaining votes distributed to the top two candidates on the basis of which one of them was the voters’ second choice.
The result was a slim 2,905-vote triumph for Mr. Golden. Mr. Poliquin, however, is charging that his defeat is undemocratic because it came in a district where ranked-choice was defeated by the voters in an earlier referendum.
At the heart of the debate over whether democracy is being endangered is Mr. Trump – who, as the 2016 election day approached, repeatedly raised questions about voting security and who has described election procedures as ‘’rigged.’’
Mr. Trump’s critics, however, believe that he is the greatest danger to democracy, with former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, in an April book titled Fascism: A Warning, arguing, ‘’We have not had a chief executive in the modern era whose statements and actions are so at odds with democratic ideals.’’
At the same time, the President’s supporters contend that Mr. Trump is merely trying to provide a counterweight to the liberal press, with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich arguing, in Understanding Trump, published two months after Ms. Albright’s volume, that Mr. Trump was “redefining the very structure of American political and governmental dialogue by insisting on fact-based conversations.’’
Yet even some Republicans are wary of the Trump style and some of his policies.
This debate will go on through the 2020 election cycle – and very likely beyond. But it is not a new debate. It is, in fact, the foundational American debate, dating to the colonial period before even the 1787 Constitutional Convention.
In the influential Democracy and its Discontents, published amid the Watergate episode in 1974, Daniel Boorstin wrote that democracy was ‘’one of man’s most amazing and surprising achievements on this earth.’’ Mr. Boorstin, who became the Librarian of Congress and died in 2004, would be stunned at the qualms about democracy that are the currency of modern American politics.