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Our Democracy is Being Challenged

American democracy is being challenged. I’m not talking about the election of Donald Trump as our president. The challenges began before his election and, though his presidency is likely to intensify some of them, they have been and would be present under almost any president. I attribute their danger to a mindset that is taking over much of America today. Here are the challenges that most worry me.

Free Speech: Our Constitution guarantees the right to free speech and, over the years, the kinds of speech to which this guarantee has been extended has broadened, so that the U.S. laws regarding what speech is protected by law are the most liberal in the world. Flag burning, advocacy of force or of violating the law so long as it is not directed at imminent law violation or action, and even so-called “hate speech” are all constitutionally protected. At the same time, we have seen increasing social attempts to restrict speech, such as on college campuses where hate speech is prohibited (when challenged in court, such prohibitions are routinely found unconstitutional) and where speakers who represent divergent (usually conservative) views from the student body and/or faculty are more and more often “disinvited” from speaking or driven off the stage when they attempt to speak. When NPR broadcast an interview with a supporter of the “alt-right,” it was criticized for allowing such views to be presented on air. The charge was that NPR was “normalizing” racism by allowing such a person to speak. In fact, the charge of “normalization” of fringe opinions, or even simply those opposed by a majority of people, seems to be regarded by many as a legitimate reason for suppressing such opinions in the public conversation.

Suppression of speech is a tool used by every authoritarian regime in the world. It is particularly malignant when the majority of the population goes along with it, as in some countries that don't allow criticism of religious figures or advocacy for allowing gay sexual preferences. In such countries, those who want to express a minority opinion cannot even find support for their right to do so among their fellow citizens. What America is in danger of doing today, is forgetting that the guarantee of free speech has, with minor exceptions for slander and incitement of immediate violence, nothing to do with the content of the speech. Once one kind of speech is suppressed or prohibited, the gate is opened and those who suppress speech while they are in the majority may find their ideas prohibited from expression when the public attitudes change. Prohibiting speech because it fits someone’s idea of “evil,” even if the majority agrees, is a violation of a constitutional guarantee that is absolutely essential for preserving a free nation.


Degradation of the press: Following 9/11/2001, the U.S. press showed a monumental failure to question the pronouncements of the Bush Administration with regard to weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the need to go to war to eliminate them. Despite numerous mea culpas by such prestigious media outlets as the New York Times and CNN, the state of news reporting in the United States has declined even further since that time. The issue with reporting on weapons of mass destruction was twofold: first, the news agencies took government press releases and announcements at face value, acting as if telling the country what the government said was the end of their responsibility for reporting the news. They failed to act as the critical and skeptical fourth estate. Second, the press appeared to be cautious about going against the public tide, and, along with most of congress, jumped on the bandwagon that was sweeping the country urging war. A press that fears its own public is not free.

Presently, our cable television news media have all but abandoned real news coverage. According to a 2013 Pew Research study, only CNN devotes more of its programming time to news than to commentary opinion (54% to 46%) Fox news devotes 55% of its time to commentary/opinion and MSNBC 85% to commentary/opinion. The typical information show, at the evening news hour, is one with a host and with either a panel of partisan pundits, who then argue with each other or “talking heads” who are highly partisan and argue with each other, all making for an entertaining show, but shedding little light on the news. Furthermore, the “news” they are debating is often the significance of someone’s latest tweet or faux pas during a speech or press conference, rather than any substantive news. Today’s New York Times’ lead stories both contained headlines critical of Donald Trump (“Trump Claims, With No Evidence, That ‘Millions of People’ Voted Illegally” and “Combative, Populist Steve Bannon Found His Man in Donald Trump”), headlines more worthy of a tabloid than the NYT. Such opinionated headlines have been typical of the Times for months. After several years of terrorist attacks and controversial U.S. and Russian positions on fighting ISIS in the Middle East, the recent Iraqi army invasion of Mosul to drive out ISIS from Iraq’s second largest city earned no stories on today’s front page and only a handful of stories since the invasion began in October. Other media outlets are similarly meager in their coverage of this pivotal event.

In North Dakota, Native Americans are engaged in a standoff with local law enforcement and the North Dakota National Guard. On several occasions the protests have resulted in violent confrontations including the use of water cannons, beanbag pellets, dogs and perhaps concussion grenades by law enforcement and rocks, fire-setting, and perhaps Molotov cocktails by protesters. Reports from the site of the protests have largely been via press releases from law enforcement and YouTube videos or alternative media outlets supporting the protesters. Yesterday, the Los Angeles Times ran a detailed report about the injuries to the arm of a protester, which may necessitate amputation of her arm, and the counter claims as to whether it was due to a concussion grenade thrown by the law enforcement or to an accident lighting a Molotov cocktail by the protesters.

What was missing and what has been missing is the presence of onsite reporters from the major media who can give the rest of the country a truer picture of what is actually happening at this event. Why would the LA Times report on each side’s claim and devote lots of space to a story about conflicting claims and conjectures, and not send a reporter to the scene? CNN has Arwa Damon embedded with the Iraqi army in Mosul half a world away (at the risk of her own life), but no on-the-scene reporter giving us a picture of what is happening in North Dakota. There are plenty of on the scene reports from the alternative media, but they are strongly biased in one direction or another and fail to provide a clear picture of what is happening. Listening to biased reports on both sides of an issue, when a reporter providing a neutral description of what is actually happening could give us a lot more information, is not the way to report news. Yet this is what we are getting from the mainstream media. The result is that many of our citizens are relying on social media, such as Facebook, for their news. And as we have seen, social media is not only filled with completely biased news sources, it is filled with completely fake news, which gets circulated as if it were real.

Not everything is a matter of opinion. Not every piece of news should be about who said what about whom or who did the most outrageous thing lately. Our mainstream news services have become lazy, opinionated, ambulance chasers, running after the stories that will evoke controversy or tug at heartstrings instead of inform. An informed citizenry is necessary for democracy to function and it is the obligation of our free press to inform us.


The influence of business on public policy: Bernie Sanders campaigned against “Citizens United,” the Supreme Court decision that allowed corporations and unions to expend money to elect a candidate for office This decision, plus others that followed, are credited with creating today’s “Super-Pacs,” which fund many of the ads we see on television during political campaigns. Expenditures on campaigning for a candidate are not limited to presidential elections and have as much or more influence on down-ballot races. Although corporations are not allowed to make direct contributions to a candidate’s campaign, wealthy individuals are, and candidates are well aware which corporations supported the Super-Pacs that supported them. This has turned governing by elected officials into the implementation of policies that favor large, often corporate, campaign donors, particularly so those donors remain friendly in the next election.

A now well-known 2014 study by Gilens and Page examined nearly 1800 U.S. government policy decisions (excluding Supreme Court rulings), enacted by congress or the executive branch in terms of whose interests determined the policy decision. Their conclusion was, “Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”

Although President-elect Donald Trump has criticized the influence of money on politics and largely funded his own campaign, his sentiments and his connections are with the business community. He may even continue his ties with his own business interests once he is in the White House, which amplifies these concerns. Certainly, he has campaigned on and appointed advisors who favor business interests over environmental concerns and the Republican congress, led by Paul Ryan, has favored “privatizing” social security and Medicare, both of which proposals would favor the interests of the business community over the needs of the citizen. Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education is a person who has favored voucher systems, which would spur the growth of for-profit schools, which have a poor track record for serving the needs of children.

As Gilens and Page have demonstrated, the United States has already gone a long way down the path of allowing business interests and those who possess wealth to control government policies. The danger of moving even further in this direction in the next four years is very real.

Discriminatory laws: We are only democratic if our laws guarantee freedom for everyone in the country. No citizen can depend upon the good will of his fellow citizens for his safety or well-being. We saw how that kind of dependence worked in the years of slavery, segregation and overt racial discrimination in our country. We saw how that kind of dependence worked for Jews in Germany and in fact in much of Europe, during World War II. Freedom is guaranteed through laws that respect the rights of everyone regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, age, or religion. That is why the Bill of Rights in our Constitution exists.

Today we see sympathy for laws that would allow us to discriminate against Muslims in the name of national security. Donald Trump and some of his advisors have favored surveillance of Mosques, registration of Muslims and limitation of entry into the country by Muslims (some of these recommendations have been walked back or softened, but they were made and continue to be favored by many people). Laws such as “stop and frisk” laws in policing are not by their very nature discriminatory, but as they have been carried out by law enforcement, have proved to be so. In 2013, U.S. District Court Judge Shira A. Scheindlin ruled that New York City police had violated the U.S. Constitution in the way that they carried out the city’s stop-and-frisk program. She called it “a form of racial profiling” of young Black and Hispanic men. Donald Trump has suggested a return to stop and frisk laws, lauding their effectiveness and turning a deaf ear to the findings with regard to them being used discriminately.

We tend to forget the vital importance of treating everyone the same under the law when our fears and prejudices make us afraid or angry toward one group or another. We even get away with claiming that we are “defending freedom” when, in fact, we are violating the freedom of some people. Just as free speech needs to be protected, regardless of what is being said or who is saying it, our laws need to protect our other freedoms for everyone in this country, a fact often forgotten in the rush to protect ourselves from real and imagined fears.


Erosion of confidence in the democratic process: One effect of giving in to the challenges described above is that more and more people will lose their confidence that a democratic form of government can protect their interests. We’ve seen signs of this in the aftermath of the recent presidential election. Large groups of citizens have taken to the streets to protest the winner of the election. The loser is asking for a recount and the winner is claiming fraud. A foreign government apparently hacked into the private emails of the Democratic Party during the election and the emails were published, possibly affecting the election and further undermining faith in the process. America can’t survive as a democracy if our election processes are not believable by the majority of the population. The alternative to rigged elections is to bypass the election process and use other means to influence government decisions. The most obvious other means are protests. Protests are time-honored and protected by the constitution in America. They are an expression of free speech and a sometimes effective way of influencing government through influencing public opinion. We need them alongside our other methods of influencing government, which are supposed to involve voting. But if protest is our only method of influencing government, then we will lose our democracy.

It’s not just lack of faith in our voting processes that can erode faith in democracy, it is a loss of faith that our freedoms are being protected. If one or another group of citizens feels unsafe because they either believe they are not being protected by the government or they feel the government is attacking them, and they feel that they cannot do anything about it by appealing to laws and lawmaking, then they will feel justified in doing whatever is necessary to protect themselves. To the degree to which their fears are correct, they are justified in taking measures that keep them safe, even if those are outside the law. But then we will have a lawless society.

Basic democratic processes have to work for a democracy to work. That is why the challenges listed above (and others) are so real and so important to each of us and to our country.

Reader Comments (1)

Part of the problem,I believe, is that many of us live in a bubble where we interact only with people who share our views and values. We don't listen to, or maybe don't know, anyone with a radically different set of values. It's easy to stay in the bubble and interact with people we feel comfortable with. Stepping out of our comfort zone is frightening. It requires some effort and persistence, but it is what we need to do to understand others.

November 28, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterWarren Bull

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