Democracy checks power; that’s why it’s in danger

April 13, 2023 6:00 am

U.S. Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-OH) (2nd L) and Chair of Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), is led away by a member of the U.S. Capitol Police during a protest at Hart Senate Office Building July 15, 2021 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The activists participate in a civil disobedience in response to “numerous voter restriction laws being passed in states across the country, as well as Senate Republicans’ refusal to engage meaningfully in drafting federal legislation to ensure that every American has equal access and opportunity to vote.” Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

These are darkening days for global democracy. Notions that all the world’s people would engage in egalitarian self-governance seem like grains of sand slipping through our fingers. 

Russia stabs at Ukraine with its full force while suppressing dissent among its own people. China’s government entrenches autocracy as its population and economy both stagnate. Mexico clamps down on its judicial system. Israel restricts free speech and looks to weaken its highest court. India and Brazil, both huge democracies, now pulsate with extreme nationalism, teetering near the brink of something not quite democratic. 

And the same may be said of us.

In the United States this year, a member of Congress spoke openly of dividing the country by creed. It’s no longer news. Former Vice President Mike Pence, targeted for assassination in the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol insurrection, said that his former boss should be held to account for the riots. 

Former President Donald Trump’s response? It was Pence’s fault, apparently for resisting Trump’s unconstitutional coup attempt and refusing to acquiesce to the mob. This, too, was just another routine political story covered like a press release about warehouse regulations. Old news by now. 

Half our states have rushed to ban concepts and identities in the name of ideological supremacy. One of our largest states, Florida, enacted de facto book bans and sought to bar meaningful discussion of historical racism in schools.

Many Americans still believe this is the way. I live in the woods of northern Minnesota. My drive to work passes many homes where pro-Trump signs and flags have been displayed nonstop for more than six years, many of them full of profanities. My kids, and all the kids, see them on the school bus every day. This is an entrenched ethos, not a passing fancy. The culture wraps around this new reality the way a tree consumes an ax-head stuck into its side. The sick tree bends to swallow the contaminant.

Pro-Trump forces have lost more elections than they’ve won, but they’re not letting up. I could admire their resolve, were I not aware of history. 

What danger really?

It’s hard to square that democracy is under threat when it’s still possible to cast a ballot at our local polling place. I voted last November at my township hall. The poll workers and I joked and laughed. I know my vote counted. Some of my candidates won and some lost, but that’s how it goes. Why would I be worried about democracy?

Of course the United States has never been a true Athenian Democracy, where all citizens vote on all laws. It is indeed a republic formed on the basis of a constitution. But the founders, even ones that were objectively racist and aristocratic by modern standards, understood that democratic ideals were the backbone of this republic. Leaders serve with the consent of the governed, or not at all. The rule of law — equal justice for everyone — was the goal, even when unrealized. 

The Trump administration’s chaotic term in office demonstrated that attacking American democracy is really about excluding “undesirables” from power. The powerful decide who qualifies and whether it’s class, creed or color that will separate us. Look at Tennessee, where a Republican majority expelled two Black state legislators for relatively minor rule violations during a gun violence protest. 

But this isn’t merely driven by contemporary identity politics. The purpose of this charade is to resurrect an even older system: serfdom.

Let’s look to the early 20th Century when global democracy was expanding. Across the world, people voted in their own leaders for the first time.

“And, in all the countries of the world, one impulse is driving the people on from victory to victory,” stated a Nov. 10, 1911 Duluth Herald editorial entitled “Democracy, the World Conqueror.” 

“That impulse is economic need. It is no mere sentimental desire to control government that is making history in these days, but the grim necessity that there shall be an end to conditions under which Special Privilege, in one form or another, reaps the richest fruits of humble toil. The day in which a few reap what the many sow, and in which the many toil that a few may riot in corrupting luxuries, is nearing its sunset.”

If worrying about American democracy seems too academic, consider the pocketbook implications of that democracy. 

Autocracies, be they left- or right-winged, are built to direct limited resources to the wealthy and powerful. Systems with democratic traditions determine fairer means of dividing the labor and spoils of society. Local culture and political tradition may vary, but the idea that prosperity should touch the many instead of the few is a bedrock principle. 

The slow drip of autocracy 

The fantasy version of a country falling into autocracy suggests an arriving army and sudden change. Reality is messier, but the goal is simple: power. A force seeks unchecked economic, cultural and political power.

For instance, the Russian system is effectively an oligarchy led by an autocrat. Vladimir Putin rules with an iron fist, but must carefully manage the wealthy oligarchs who supply his political power. Sure, these characters fall out of buildings time to time, but Putin risks the same if he loses their confidence. Meantime, everyone else in Russia is cut out of both the discussion and the affluence.

In this kind of system, it takes energy to resist and genuine risk to speak up. Resignation and silence become a sad form of self-care. But this only applies to those with economic comfort to fall back on.

Let’s look at the real outcomes of the Trump Administration, and what we could expect if he returns to power. Yes, name-calling and pot-stirring would occupy the masses, but the more lasting effects lie under the surface. 

Trump’s signature achievements included a tax bill delivering historic windfalls for wealthy Americans and a Supreme Court that enshrines corporate power with even more velocity than conservative social policies. A partisan judiciary allows permanent one-party control of half the states in the nation, states where – above all else – taxes stay low for those with the most. 

History has proven that the shared prosperity of the masses makes for the most human progress. Shared prosperity will not come from autocracy, oligarchy, or anarchy. We’ve learned that the dictatorships that rise from communism don’t work either. These are temptations, not solutions. 

Democracy’s value to the people isn’t just a vote, it’s a stake in the ever-changing human power dynamic.

We rarely concern ourselves with dangers we’re told about, only ones that we see ourselves. In politics, this is doubly true. At our worst, the only real danger we see is that we might lose power. That’s when humanity scrapes bottom. When times get hard we might feel tempted to neglect democracy, not realizing that it’s the only thing preserving our seat at the table. 

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Aaron Brown
Aaron Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author, community college instructor and radio producer from Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range.