By Ruth Gadebusch
When asked if this nation was a republic or a democracy, Benjamin Franklin is said to have answered, “A democracy if you can keep it.” Winston Churchill is known for telling us that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others. Pairing those comments with the many recent dire warnings of how fragile democracy is should make all of us sit up and take notice given the current political climate in our nation.
History tells us of the failure of great empires such as the Roman Empire, and in our own time we have seen the British Empire continue to diminish. We turn up our nose at governments frequently overturned by force, derogatorily calling them “banana republics.” We have confidently, or perhaps more accurately arrogantly, felt they were beneath our high standards. We are the good ones. It can’t happen to us.
How near we came to becoming one of them in the recent violence occupying our Capitol should force us to take a long deep look at our misplaced conceit. A nation formed by those escaping the missteps of their homelands appears to be settling into the same mistakes or some even worse.
In short, it would seem to be an all-encompassing attitude of me and mine instead of we and our. Or put another way, everything you get is something taken from me. There seems to be little appreciation for sharing the wonderful resources of this land or compromising our views.
Lest we forget, let me remind you that the land was taken from an earlier people already well established. Not to condemn our forefathers. They did what they knew to do in the light of knowledge at the time, but we should have learned from that history.
Our foremothers had little voice in the actions, and no one thought in terms of limited resources. Likewise, as we now explore outer space we are not thinking of long-term consideration of what might be for whatever form of life might already have claimed there.
Moving on to some of the other warnings currently calling on us to take that long deep look, no one could deny the most surprising, the most shocking insurrection of Jan. 6 that attempted to destroy our long-held sacred principle of the peaceful transfer of power. Yes, there were signs that something was amiss but our confidence in our system was so strong that normal preventive measures were not taken.
Subsequently, it would seem that no one could deny what was seen by millions on TV and repeated, again and again, yet many are denying it. An entire political party leadership has refused to acknowledge that anything out of the ordinary happened!
Of less concern are matters such as the filibuster—allowing one senator to prevent a matter from coming to vote by unending speaking. Now there even seems to be a simple announcement procedure as a way around the actual speaking.
There is another delaying technique of less consequence but still powerful when time is valuable. One senator may request that an entire bill be read. I should think that at least s/he be the required reader, but it does not work that way. Most of us are so audacious as to expect our paid lawmakers on their own time to read for themselves the bills on which they vote.
The majority leader of the Senate is also in a position to choose what House-passed measures will be allowed to go on the agenda for a vote. Parliamentary procedures are meant to protect the minority but are grossly abused in the U.S. Senate, thereby becoming the tyranny of the minority. Hardly democratic.
There is scarcely a greater abuse of power than that of the failure of the then majority party to even give a hearing to President Barack Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court. There was no question of the nominee’s qualification, just pure and simple raw political power. Anyone doubting that need only look at the handling of more recent nominees by the same guilty party when the nominator was the President of their party.
Dark money, meaning that the actual source is unknown, is another breach of open government, a basic component of democracy. Then there is the matter of a corporation being able to function as a citizen influencing the electorate so ruled by the Supreme Court. There is ongoing concern regarding candidate funding to make it possible for any citizen to conduct a viable campaign. When does limiting campaign contributions switch from freedom to express one’s own view to buying an election and future influence?
How does the separation of church and state really play out between restraints, privileges and responsibilities? Then there is that ongoing conflict on gun rights that continues despite the many deaths due to misuse.
We all know our criminal justice system still has a long way to go to be the fair one we all proclaim. But there are those who would not apply it to non-citizens who, after all, are humans too.
How can we justify all these years later holding without charge, much less trial, prisoners at Guantanamo? Almost forgot that one, didn’t you? Some have been cleared for release to their home countries, but we keep them in a prison constructed on land where our claim is somewhat dubious.
In the limelight now is the Electoral College. Originally instituted to protect thinly populated areas from being either overwhelmed or ignored in a time of less communication and interaction, it was the tool of abuse in this recent assault.
Regarding fairness or representation, variously lesser populated areas are protected in other ways such as a senator from Rhode Island, or even Montana, having many fewer constituents to represent than a California senator but the same power.
Three times the Electoral College has given us a president with less than the majority vote to say nothing of its misuse and near failure recently. What could be less democratic? Isn’t it time for reform? Surely, we can do better.
It would seem that our democracy is a bit warped. There are many more considerations than one column could cover, but without doubt the vote is the most sacred, the most cherished, the bottom line issue of democracy. Many have paid dearly for that precious vote, be it in this country or elsewhere on the planet. Yet there are those largely in one political party working seriously to suppress the vote. Power over the country.
At this writing, there are known to be more than 250 such bills introduced in state legislatures since the November 2020 election. That is more than three bills per state to reduce voting. Reduce it, not increase.
What could be more damning to democracy than to deprive citizens of the vote? Past efforts have been to increase voting by removing barriers such as property ownership, race, poll tax, gender and education. Many have given their lives for democracy. Our charge is that they have not died in vain.
Democracy is fragile, and it requires effort to preserve. It is worth that effort, our effort, for us, for the world.
Ruth Gadebusch is a former naval officer, trustee of the Fresno Unified School District, vice chair of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing and president of the Association of California Urban School Districts. An emeritus member of the Board of the Center for Civic Education, she retains an active interest in community life.