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Democracies do die

Last week a jury found two men–Oath Keepers leader Steward Rhodes and Kelly Meggs–guilty of seditious conspiracy. The number of weapons the Oath Keepers stored in the D.C. area on January 6, 2021, made it plain these men weren't just there to demonstrate. And not bringing all weapons to the Capitol suggests these men were expecting instructions. More trials will come.

January 6 and the 2020 election created widespread concerns about American democracy. A New York Times/Siena College poll in October indicated that 71% of American voters were concerned about threats to our democracy. Democrats were concerned about voter suppression; Republicans about fake ballots and corrupt counting.

In the past the very size of America protected our democracy. A charismatic governor might extend his powers in one state or the Ku Klux Klan control a few legislatures, but taking over the entire country was deemed impossible.

Those days seem over. Our communication infrastructure has grown enough that legislature after legislature passes identical bills.

And authoritarianism is gaining strength internationally. Annually, Freedom House, an agency partially funded by the U.S. government, issues reports on gains and losses in democracy among 194 countries around the world. Their data indicates in 2005 democracy advanced in 83 countries and declined in 52; in 2021, it advanced in only 25 and declined in 60.

And some of the 2021 declines were major. Military coups replaced democratic governments in Myanmar, Chad, Mali, Sudan, and Guinea. Right now we’re seeing armed gangs destroying democracy in Haiti.

Democracy is fragile. When people are not happy, they want change. And there are plenty of pro-authoritarian agents ready to plant seeds of fear and suggest changes.

In 2018 Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt published How Democracies Die which focuses on countries like Venezuela–and now Nicaragua–where gradual changes under a democratically-elected leader have led to autocracy. They warn of leaders who reject existing democratic rules and traditions, deny the legitimacy of political opponents, encourage violence, and seek “to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the news media.”

In 2016 a Swedish organization started paralleling the work of Freedom House in judging where democracy is advancing or retreating. The International IDEA (Institute for Democracy and Elections Assistance) studies 16 traits in five different categories: competitive and clean national elections; local elections and civic participation; checks and balances (including a free media); civil liberties and equality; and impartial administration.

The Institute sees democracy in the United States as declining seriously. Although one U.S. failing listed is “restrictive laws and bans on rights,” other causes are not so government-centered.

“Toxic polarization” leads the IDEA’s list. Divisiveness always exists with political parties; it becomes “toxic” when it’s deemed more important to see that the opposing party doesn’t get credit for benefitting the country than to see that the country benefits.

Also listed are “disinformation and fake news” and “intimidation of the press.” There was a time when being caught lying was enough to end a political career. Sen. Joe McCarthy gained a national following claiming that communists had infiltrated the federal government, universities, and the film industry. But his popularity was destroyed when newscaster Edgar R. Murrow called on other leaders to stand against his lies.

We may benefit today from remembering Murrow’s words.

We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men—not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular.”

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