Saturday, June 25, 2022

Our Democracy Is Under Siege. What Can We Do?

In the aftermath of the Supreme Court overruling Roe vs. Wade, it is important for all of us to acknowledge our anger, frustration, and fear. But then we have to engage our brains and come up with a plan that gives meaning to all of the calls to "fight back." The first step is to accurately diagnose the problem, which Sherrilynn Ifill did so expertly on Twitter.

That's the big picture: the rules that govern each branch of government have been weaponized to herd us toward minority rule.  Zachary Roth made the same point in his book, "The Great Suppression."

Beginning in the 1970’s, Richard Nixon referred to the “silent majority.” Through the Reagan years we heard a lot about the “permanent Republican majority.” As Roth says, “Today’s conservatives have no such confidence that the people are on their side. In fact, they are beginning to perceive that they’re in the minority – perhaps more glaringly than ever before. And yet this realization has brought with it another more hopeful one: being outnumbered doesn’t have to mean losing.”

That's the tie that binds Republican efforts to suppress the vote, gerrymander congressional districts, require a supermajority to pass anything in the Senate, stack the courts, and engage in judicial activism. The goal is to ensure that they can hold onto power, even in the minority - which is antithetical to democracy. 

Rick Tetree made a similar point on Twitter.

So the task before us is daunting. It is to reset the rules of government so that they serve democracy. As Ifill points out, that begins with power. 

Gaining and wielding power is something liberals have typically had trouble talking about. That is because, in our culture, it is assumed that power is achieved via dominance. But as I've been talking about for years now, we need to recognize the power of partnership. 

Back in 2007 Marshall Ganz - who teaches community organizing at Harvard - wrote an article titled: Organizing for Democratic Renewal. He began with this quote from Sidney Verba.
Democracy is based on the promise that equality of voice can balance inequality of resources.
Ganz went on to review some of the observations of Alexis de Tocqueville about American democracy. He summarized those observations as follows:
In other words, he saw that we had learned that choices a few people make about how to use their money could be balanced by choices many people make about how to use their time.

But only by joining with others could we come to appreciate the extent to which our fates are linked, gain an understanding of our common interests, and make claims on the political power we needed to act on those interests.

In the 70's and 80's, the direct marketing techniques adopted by advocates and politicians led to citizens being viewed as “customers” and/or “clients.” According to Ganz, that stripped us of our power and turned us into objects that are acted upon rather than the drivers of action.

A mindset that views citizens as customers or clients of government is an invitation to tyranny and the antithesis of democracy. That is what John F. Kennedy meant when he uttered his most famous words: "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country." 

Barack Obama devoted his speech at the 2012 Democratic Convention to the idea of citizenship - with words that become more prescient every day.

We honor the strivers, the dreamers, the risk- takers, the entrepreneurs who have always been the driving force behind our free enterprise system, the greatest engine of growth and prosperity that the world's ever known.

But we also believe in something called citizenship — citizenship, a word at the very heart of our founding, a word at the very essence of our democracy, the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations...

We, the people — recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which asks only, what's in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.

As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It's about what can be done by us, together through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. That's what we believe.

It is important to recognize that the "necessary work of self-government" is "hard and frustrating." When it comes to things like the Supreme Court's recent ruling, there is no quick fix in a democracy. So what can citizens do? Here's just a few ideas from Ifill. 

That last  one is critical. On that score, there is a lot we can learn from those who fought before us. 

Assuming that it is the job of someone else (ie, the president, congressional leaders, Supreme Court justices, etc.) to save our democracy is part of the problem - not the solution. The essence of democracy is captured in the words "we, the people."


  1. I appreciate the hope, since I'm as close to despair about politics today than ever before in a fairly long life. That's not just on account of this ruling, much less the incredible piling on of dismaying rulings. It's also the reminder that, even though his pathetic attempt at denying the election results failed, Trump's legacy very much lives on. We shall never again, however well we mobilize, have the chance we had in 2016, where we could have prevented all of this, plus no end of corruption, financial mismanagement, deregulation, mishandling of Covid, and handouts to the rich, starting with the Trump tax cuts.

    So how do pointers hold up? I am grateful for them, but not well. The first two amount to asking private initiatives to stand in the way of legal protections, as if the whole problem before Roe v. Wade was a lack of generosity on our part.

    The third amounts to street organizing, and I'm very much jaundiced when it comes to that. It can help no end in bolstering our own spirits and thus, perhaps, a step toward political action. But in practice, it is all too often ineffective. The surge of optimism from it that boomers will remember did not prevent the Vietnam War from another 5 years beyond Nixon's campaign promises and anything anyone could have expected. It did not in the least avoid the country's sharp turn to the right after Nixon. And I marched happily in the first three January women's marches under Trump, and here we are.

    It can even be counterproductive if it breed insularity and cynicism, that sense of "forget government: it's us on the ground." Arguably, noble as it was, Occupy Wall Street just brought us closer to Bernie or Bust -- and, again, the horror today.

    The other 7 of 10 come down to the same thing: pressure your elected officials. But that overlooks two fatal problems. First, as the post itself begins, the GOP knows it's policies are wildly unpopular. It just doesn't care. It can take advantage of even modest flaws in our system of government, rigging elections in favor of the rural, aging base, not to mention spending and media advantages to preach to a minority and win that way. It's another reminder that when some on the left tell us to emulate the GOP's madness, as a route to success at the polls, it's a mistake. (Not that centrist appeals to Trump voters are any better.)

    And second, it overlooks a theme of many an article in the last two days, that American government is sharply divided. My state, NY, is not going to criminalize or prosecute women having an abortion. Never. In that sense, as of this week, I have lost my voice in the future of America.

  2. Nancy's article above redounds with 'practical hope', the civil version of 'practical theology.' Ifill's article demonstrates the numerous realities that have brought us to this point, but also the numerous possibilities that have been brought to light by the results of this 'takeover' by the few. This quote "The extremity of GOP positions reveals their intent. These are *not* positions that are viable in any normal political calculus (on a national level). No party 'playing by the rules' would push them as far as the GOP is doing" underscores the extremes of the GQP in its dealings. These will not change, but get continually more severe. More and more media posts are calling for something like: Doesn't matter Who, just vote BLUE. Well, that makes a bit of catchy media presence, but it does not address the actual needs of the nation: "...but what you can do for your country." Start with those contacts, letters, and backyard conversations. Remember that people are more accepting of a 'personal' contact than one that is laden with policy details.

    1. I have to disagree. I really do think that "just vote Blue" is truer to the reality. I'm sure my comment sounds utterly hopeless, because I'm close to that myself. But I meant more to question bogus solutions that, yes, include "those contacts, letters, and backyard conversations."

      We're not going to convert elected officials, although maybe we can push some Democratic leaders to work a bit harder, and maybe that would help, although I'm not convinced. All we can do about elected officials who are the problem is to throw them out. And do so starting with Susan Collins, as a clear message that people like her can't pretend any longer that representing the popular will is essential to democracy.

      Of course, this requires extraordinary reserves of hope, too. We had a once in a lifetime chance in 2016 to reshape the court, and we blew it. And that chance won't happen again until decades after I'm dead. We have to hope that, by then, democracy won't be dead letter. The court has already spoken on abortion, guns, Miranda, gerrymanders, and more, and a long list is still to come, soon. But I guess we have to hope. I'm just ever so sad.

    2. My apologies. Make that can't pretend it ISN'T essential.

  3. I'm probably the last person anyone should consult about what to do. I've spent much of this year stuck somewhere between "uninspired" and "demoralized." Inflation fears, mass shootings, the war in Europe, one damn SCOTUS decision after another -- the news is filled with lots to feel bad about. Even glimmers of good news get buried or ignored. (If you're wondering "What good news?" that just proves the point.) My usual reserve of hope has been depleted.

    The attack on our democracy is the most insidious and worrying, at least to those of us paying attention. It looks unstoppable, a battle where all the advantages are on the side of the autocrats. The playing field of election politics is tilted in their direction (Electoral College, Senate, etc.). The have power to veto any progress, even in the minority. They have the Supreme Court. They have a huge propaganda apparatus, corporate money, a paramilitary organization, and an army of voters who will vote for a stinking shit sandwich if that's who they're told to vote for. Somehow, they also maintain an air of respectability across mainstream media no matter how deranged their rhetoric and behavior are. There isn't a single generation in American history that wouldn't look at today's Republican Party and say, These guys are nuts, they pose a danger, and they need to be defeated.

    What our generation decides to do is the question of our time.

    1. (cont'd)

      The situation is dire but not hopeless. Our best hope comes from remembering that for all the power and advantages the other side has, what they do not have is "the people." They are an outnumbered minority whose political power derives from a bug in our democratic software. "The people" will put up with a certain amount b.s. because no system is perfectly fair, but I don't think they'll put up with anything. Overturning every important court decision of the past century is not going to be a long-term winning strategy for the right. Overturning the election of a president who by rights wins the popular and electoral college vote is not something the people will let stand, even if blessed by an illegitimate court.

      The House hearings on the January 6th attack are important. The early polls show they have been persuasive. The general outline of the story has been known since the day of the attack (only some details are new information). What makes the hearings persuasive is not new evidence but that the public is now viewing the testimony and evidence unmediated by the usual figures. The hearings have fixed, for a time, the epistemological problem that constrains much of our politics. The hearings are also showing the power of narrative.

      This generation is hungering for a new telling of the story of America. The American revolution was not a war fought against the British. It was an idea -- radical in its time -- that the people should decide how and by whom they will be governed. We need leaders who can tell that story and make it relevant for today. Connec the dots. Our history may be imperfect but our legacy is a great one, one that we cannot allow to die. The threat is real and the call is coming from inside the house. Our democracy is under attack. We are in the fight of our lives. The people are ready to be inspired and ready to fight. We need leaders to show the way.

      I came of age in the '60s. People didn't need to look hard to find inspiration then. JFK, RFK, MLK were towering figures whose legacies long outlived their tragic ends. While I'm a fan of many Dem leaders today, I don't find anyone filling the same role.

      I can't offer any guarantees that the inspiring story of America will reach the casual citizens and disengaged voters who make up much of this land. Though it can't hurt. But maybe it will reach me. I'm a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat who has spent decades fighting Republicans, and I find don't need anyone tell to go out and vote, or to donate, but I find the rhetoric from most Democrats to be uninspiring at best and often counter to the need of rousing support across the entire public for the necessary job of saving this country for my son's and future generations.


Conservative white men are allowed to call America sinful. Black preachers...not so much.

At about the same time that Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson was talking publicly about obstructing justice , he sent out a fundraising...