On the preservation of democracy in perilous times
“You say you want a revolution,” John Lennon sang in 1970. Ten years later, he was gunned down by a man who should never have owned a firearm.
With 434 million guns in America, the debate over whether the conditions exist for a second civil war strikes fear. Violent arms, violent rhetoric. Both harm. But more likely than any large-scaled armed insurrection, events such as the Jan. 6, 2021, breaching of the Capitol loom as fallout from an election in 2024 in which a Republican is not elected. Such is the state of our nation in 2022 with April showers bringing what florescence they will.
The cry of the lunatic fringe over the 2020 election became the belief of a majority of Republicans polled. We could pour Thorazine into the drinking water, but it’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle. The unfortunate outcome of Donald Trump’s fall has been an appallingly successful effort to change laws — and those who administer them on the state level — so as to enable electoral alchemy in 2024. Malice aforethought is now an elephantine recipe for excess.
As established by the 12th Amendment, a failure to achieve an absolute majority of 270 of 538 electoral votes would throw the presidential election into the House of Representatives, while the Senate would decide the vice president. Nearly 10 percent of our national elections have been determined by the Electoral College versus the popular vote, most recently in 2000 and 2016. Imagine a scenario in which the guardrails that held in 45 and his acolytes were no longer crafted of steel, set firmly in solid ground, but mercury, malleable and poisonous. Heretical as it may sound, it doesn’t have to be that way. Polls show that only a third or more of Americans support the Electoral College. The framers of the Constitution failed to anticipate the rise of political parties, or the role they would come to play in national elections. In his 1796 farewell address, George Washington issued an urgent cry against such parties.
How democracy is administered worldwide and here at home has been a work in progress, with America recently backsliding fearlessly from paragon to precarious precipice. The word “democracy” itself has a noble history. It derives from the Greek “demos” for “people,” coupled with “kratos” for “power.” The city-state of Classic Athens and the Roman Republic set the pick for Western democracies featuring either direct democracy or more frequent representative democracy with governing officials who, in theory, carry out popular will.
The Electoral College is only one of our tortuous anomalies. Our so-called democracy was long anything but. The 1828 election was the first in which non-property-holding white men could cast a vote in most states. The 15th Amendment in 1870 gave Black men a nominal right to vote, but poll taxes and other tactics prevented full enfranchisement of citizens until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. For women, the 19th Amendment brought suffrage just over a century ago in 1920, after 80 years of struggle. A female president? Now but a heartbeat away.
Across the globe, America stood as a beacon of democracy throughout the 20th century. By the 1970s and 1980s, countries such as Spain, Portugal and several South American military dictatorships resumed civilian rule, joined in the late ’80s by some South Asian countries. In 1972, the world boasted only 40 electoral democracies; 35 years later, there were 123, a three-fold increase, and twice the number of other forms of government. Nearly 60 percent of earth’s population now casts a vote. The march of democracy is on good footing, with a renewed stride in its step when confronted by the Bigfoot of Putin and the example of Zelenskyy and Ukraine.
The polarization of American politics, with violent language and outbursts of matching behavior, plays out on a stage in which the consensus needed to govern effectively is a ghost of Congresses past, an echo chamber of the interests of tribes that have lost their way. Civility is nonexistent on the Hill. It isn’t just normative pariahs such as Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz. With little moral compass in the elephant kingdom outside of marginalized Liz Cheney, the art is by Sun Tzu. And the donkeys wrestle their DINOs Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.
We were raised on “One if by land, two if by sea,” but our reverence for Longfellow’s commemoration of external invasion pales before the latent crisis of homegrown havoc. Whether we fear the popular vote or no, the Electoral College has exceeded its expiry. The eggs are sulfuric. Electoral manipulation will tear us apart in 2024. Ukraine is a stark reminder of what needs preservation. Before we shred the Constitution, we ought to amend it. Let’s get to work, citizens.