A crowd is pictured during a rally in Pennsylvania

A crowd is pictured at a campaign rally for Pennsylvania's Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro and Democratic Senate candidate Lt. Gov. John Fetterman on November 5 2022 in Philadelphia. (Photo: Lokman Vural Elibol/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

To Improve US Democracy in the Future, We Must Defend It Right Now

It is only by defending the democracy we have, this week and in the weeks leading up to November 2024, that we can confidently work to create a better democracy in the future.

"You've got to have the foundations on which this country was built solidly in place in order for all the other things to happen."--MSNBC's Alex Witt on why voters should care about "democracy"

"Make no mistake: democracy is on the ballot for all of us."--President Joe Biden

What Alex Witt said this past Saturday afternoon on her TV show is more or less the conventional wisdom among mainstream commentators, from Barack Obama and Joe Biden to The Bulwark and The Lincoln Project, about why it is so important to defeat Republicans up and down the ballot this week.

The logic is simple: the Republican party is hostile to the basic rules of the liberal democratic game, and its hostility is driven by deeply racist and reactionary ideas that if empowered will shut the door on both democratic fairness and social justice.

To protect democracy this week is simply to avert a political disaster. But is also the only way to keep open the possibility of better public policy and greater justice in the future.

The reasoning is also correct: the Republican assault on democracy must be opposed. For there is no conceivable path to a working families economic agenda or public health or environmental sanity that does not run through the rules of the democratic game and the mobilization of democratic majorities capable of winning elections and passing better laws. The Republicans offer no agenda beyond MAGA resentment, hatred of liberals and Democrats, and the curtailment of voting rights and electoral fairness. And with the cynicism that defines post-truth Trumpism, they offer these things under the banner of "election integrity."

It is thus crucial, morally and practically, that the Republican threat to democracy be widely understood and directly countered.

As my late friend Todd Gitlin said, this is nothing less than an "all-hands on deck" moment for liberal democracy. The powerful campaign speeches of Obama, the efforts of centrist liberal and former-Republican journalists and politicians, and the comments of Alex Witt and her colleagues, all play important roles in defending democracy, and deserve credit for doing so. President Biden's nationally televised address last week brilliantly and powerfully sounded the pro-democracy theme. It is not the first time he has sounded this theme, and it won't be the last, whatever happens in the coming week. For whatever happens, our democracy will continue to be at risk.

Nothing is now more important politically than the defense of liberal democracy.

At the same time, it is also important to hold space for historical nuance and accuracy, in the interests of both intellectual integrity and democracy itself. And so, it must be said that the liberal democratic "common sense" articulated by Alex Witt, and more eloquently by Joe Biden, is only partially true.

For the United States was not built on a foundation of democracy. And forestalling Republican authoritarianism and reaction, as crucial as it is, will not keep democracy "solidly in place," for democracy in America has never been solidly in place. And, alas, the version of democracy we are now called upon to defend--and defend it we must!--is in many ways anemic, alienating, and not very democratic at all.

That the American republic at its founding was not democratic is fairly well understood--and indeed it is a point of pride for Mike Lee-style "constitutional conservatives" who claim that the U.S. is "a republic, not a democracy." These reactionaries are correct to a point--about the U.S. in 1787 or even 1861 and to some extent up until the present day. The U.S. has never unequivocally been a democracy. But while the U.S. was not established on a democratic "foundation," over the course of American history the nation's foundation has been repeatedly contested, and democratized, by disenfranchised groups and their allies, who have sought to make real the promises of the Declaration of Independence's "we hold these truths to be self-evident" and the Constitution's "We the People . . . to form a more perfect union."

This has not come easily. It has faced institutional obstacles and strong political resistance and ongoing remainders and resurgences of resistance. But it has come. And it has come to be seen as the realization of the promise of democratic equality, before the law, in the street, in the school, in civil society, and in the voting booth. And in the process, the undemocratic republic has become, haltingly over time, a democratic republic, a constitutional or liberal democracy in which universal adult suffrage, freedoms of speech and association, and electoral fairness are codified in law and reproduced in practice. The form of government now under siege.

What we are now called upon to defend is a kind of democracy worth defending. But it is deeply flawed, in part because it rests on anti-majoritarian "foundations" that together were intended to be a bulwark not of but against democracy.

The equal representation of underpopulated states in the Senate (whose members were not directly elected by the people until 1913, and whose filibuster rule requires a supermajority for any legislation to pass); the selection of the President by an Electoral College that filters the popular vote and is vulnerable to political confusion and chicanery, as we saw in 2020-2021; the system of federalism that has long privileged "state's rights" when it comes to the running of elections just as it long did when it came to civil rights; and the fact that the Constitution to this day fails to codify the right of all adult citizens to vote and have their votes fairly counted-these features of the constitutional system make governmental responsiveness incredibly difficult, and continually undermine the notion of broad democratic accountability. This is to say nothing of the highly unequal distribution of economic wealth and power, and the ways that media institutions are instrumentalized by economic and political elites.

This constellation of factors plays a central role in the legitimacy crisis that liberal democracy currently faces in the U.S. They do not "give the lie" to the idea that we have a version of democracy worth defending. But they mean that this claim is really a half-truth.

The challenge for supporters of democracy is to make this claim a less partial and ambiguous truth. This is an arduous, long-term project, whose success cannot be guaranteed. At the same time, however partial the "truth" of existing democracy, we now face an organized political party--the Republican party--and an organized movement--Trumpism--that is powered by two lies: the so-called "Big Lie" that the 2020 election was "stolen," and the even bigger lie that "American Greatness" requires turning back the clock on the gains of the past half-century and prosecuting a war against liberalism, human rights, multi-racial democracy, and truth itself.

As Albert Camus once said about the struggle against the authoritarians of his time: "one may even have to fight a lie in the name of a quarter-truth."

And the partial truth we are now called on to defend is a precious truth that some of the most important fighters for justice in U.S. history well understood. They were not naive about either the injustices of the system or their resilience. They understood, as Frederick Douglass famously stated back in 1857, that "if there is no struggle there is no progress." And they also understood that the right to vote is an indispensable means of progress, something to be achieved, exercised, and defended.

Here is Douglass, writing in 1866 about the requirements of post-Civil War "Reconstruction" and advocating for the 15th Amendment:

"The arm of the Federal government is long, but it is far too short to protect the rights of individuals in the interior of distant States. They must have the power to protect themselves, or they will go unprotected,. . . . The true way and the easiest way is to make our government entirely consistent with itself, and give to every loyal citizen the elective franchise--a right and power which will be ever present, and will form a wall of fire for his protection."

Here is Eugene V. Debs, speaking about "Liberty" after his 1895 release from Woodstock Jail after having spent months in detention for the "crime" of having led the 1894 Pullman strike:

"If liberty is a birthright which has been wrested from the weak by the strong . . . what is to be done? Leaving all other nations, kindred and tongues out of the question, what is the duty of Americans? Above all, what is the duty of American workingmen whose liberties have been placed in peril? They are not hereditary bondsmen. Their fathers were free born -- their sovereignty none denied and their children yet have the ballot. It has been called "a weapon that executes a free man's will as lighting does the will of God." It is a metaphor pregnant with life and truth. There is nothing in our government it cannot remove or amend. It can make and unmake presidents and congresses and courts. It can abolish unjust laws and consign to eternal odium and oblivion unjust judges, strip from them their robes and gowns and send them forth unclean as lepers to bear the burden of merited obloquy as Cain with the mark of a murderer. It can sweep away trusts, syndicates, corporations, monopolies, and every other abnormal development of the money power designed to abridge the liberties of workingmen and enslave them by the degradation incident to poverty and enforced idleness, as cyclones scatter the leaves of the forest. The ballot can do all this and more. It can give our civilization its crowning glory -- the cooperative commonwealth."

Here is Ida B. Wells in 1910, writing about the post-Reconstruction betrayal of Black freedom in "How Enfranchisement Stops Lynching":

"The Negro has been given separate and inferior schools because he has no ballot. He therefore cannot protest against such legislation by choosing other law makers, or retiring to private life those who legislate against his interests . . . His only weapon of defense has been taken from him . . . With no sacredness of the ballot there can be no sacredness of human life itself."

And here is Martin Luther King, Jr., in his 1957 "Give Us The Ballot":

"Give us the ballot, and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights. Give us the ballot, and we will no longer plead to the federal government for passage of an anti-lynching law; we will by the power of our vote write the law on the statute books of the South and bring an end to the dastardly acts of the hooded perpetrators of violence. Give us the ballot and we will transform the salient misdeeds of bloodthirsty mobs into the calculated good deeds of orderly citizens. Give us the ballot and we will fill our legislative halls with men of goodwill and send to the sacred halls of Congress men who will not sign a "Southern Manifesto" because of their devotion to the manifesto of justice."

These activists and social movement leaders--heroes of democracy all--well understood that the right to vote was a hard-won achievement whose protection requires constant vigilance. They understood that the right to vote was something of an abstraction when uncoupled from a robust and engaged politics of citizen action and public problem-solving. And they understood that the right to vote is not so much an end in itself as a means of achieving "progress"--legal protection from mob violence and personal insecurity; greater economic and social justice; and the ability of ordinary citizens to better enjoy their lives, experience their liberty, and pursue their happiness.

It is simply foolish to think-as many pollsters and pundits do, and as too many citizens are encouraged to do- that "democracy" is simply one value among others, to be rank-ordered in comparison to price stability or criminal justice or jobs or energy policy. For democracy is the only means for pursuing those and other important values short of dictatorship or civil war.

American democracy is deeply flawed and profoundly disappointing. And the alternatives on offer--some combination of dictatorship and civil war--are much worse.

To protect democracy this week is simply to avert a political disaster. But is also the only way to keep open the possibility of better public policy and greater justice in the future. Douglass, Debs, Wells, King--and the many millions who worked with them, marched with them, and carried on their legacy--understood this. And they made a real difference, however fragile and limited it has proven to be.

Their democratic accomplishments live on, in institutions, memories, and ongoing practices, and they point the way to future democratic accomplishments.

But all of this is now being placed in jeopardy by the Trumpist Republican party.

And it is only by defending the democracy we have, this week and in the weeks leading up to November 2024, that we can confidently work to create a better democracy in the future.

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.