Was democracy saved? by Ken Burrows
Elections have consequences, goes the venerable saying. Many said the 2022 midterms were putting democracy itself on the line. There was a widespread feeling, especially after the January 6th insurrection, that democracy is not guaranteed as we might have long thought was the case. When the Democrats held onto the Senate and the Republican red wave sputtered, there was something of a collective sigh of relief.
But is our democracy actually secure? Historical perspective makes the question worth asking. Consider the following past vs. present circumstances and the possible near-future fate of democracy.
In the 1930s, Nazis in Germany used book burnings to help enforce their opposition to any reading that did not conform to their political ideology. In 2022 in the U.S., the American Library Association documented more than 1,600 books targeted for banning and nearly 700 attempts to ban or restrict library resources. The reason behind these actions: Would-be banners disagreed with the books’ social or cultural content. Their solution was censorship.
In 1850 under the Fugitive Slave Law, ordinary citizens could be called upon to aid capture of escaped slaves, with financial incentives offered. Anyone aiding an escaping slave faced fines and imprisonment. In Cold War times, the interior security forces of East Germany’s communist government (known as the Stasi) utilized citizen informants to spy on and report on families, friends and neighbors, creating a terrorizing surveillance state. In 2022 Texas offers vigilante bounties to anyone, anywhere who reports on a fellow citizen aiding or obtaining abortion services. Providers of such services admit to feeling terrorized, fearful of committing even an inadvertent offense. Other states are using the Texas law as a model. School teachers are being similarly threatened with sanctions if fellow citizens report them for teaching about bona-fide but “uncomfortable” or “sensitive” issues in our history and culture.
Years ago and again in 2021 when they returned to power in Afghanistan, Taliban militant Islamists wielded their extremist interpretation of religion to justify quashing the freedoms and rights of women. In Iran, “morality police” similarly subjugate women’s rights based on religious extremism. In 2022, governors in more than two-dozen states in America are denying women reproductive freedoms and rights while often pointing directly to conservative religious beliefs to justify it.
In the 1700s James Madison said the Constitution, which he primarily drafted, “forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion.” His contemporary and political colleague Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, called for a “wall of separation” between church and state. A 2022 poll conducted by Politico found that 78% of Americans who identify as evangelical or born-again Christians said they would approve the U.S. officially declaring itself a Christian nation. Close to two-thirds of one major political party agreed with them. Meanwhile one of that party’s congressional candidates told an applauding audience that in America the church should “direct” the U.S. government.
Are we troubled that today’s anti-democratic maneuvers are ominously similar to liberty-destroying methods and practices of the past? Do we pause at all when our elected officials mirror practices that present-day theocratic regimes are using? Will Christian nationalism and authoritarianism still appeal to too many? Are democracy, and our founding principles, secure?
Despite the sigh of relief many felt after the 2022 midterms, these questions are unfortunately still worth asking.
Published in the February 15, 2023 edition of SIXTY35 with the quotation below.
Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”