President Biden gave Americans “one final warning” that our democracy is at risk this week, his Chief-of-Staff Ron Klain explained in the aftermath of Biden’s second major speech demonizing the right and insinuating that only Democrats are committed to preserving and protecting our system of government. In the final days of the campaign season leading up to Tuesday’s mid-term elections, it’s become clear that this is a top-down message posing as a strategy.
On the political yard sign packed median strip of the Franklin arterial in Portland, one in particular caught my attention the other day. It reads: On November 8th, Vote for Democracy. The word “democracy” is in larger type-font than everything else. On the same sign are also the numbers from 1-8.
The numbers refer to referendum questions on Portland’s ballot. They all apply to structural changes in how the city is run, whether the mayor or city manager should have more power, whether the city council should have a say on the school board’s affairs, and that sort of thing. But are they essential to “democracy”? Obviously Portland will not become North Korea if the amendments are shot down.
Yet the Charter Commission is just repeating the instructions from on high: the only way to stave off an even more humiliating defeat than the one polls suggest might be in the offing for Democrats is to invoke extreme polarization.
Speaking at the National Education Association’s annual conference in late September, President Biden announced that this year “democracy itself is on the ballot.” Coming from the leader of the free world, that is a pretty serious statement. The implication of course is that there is a right and a wrong choice when it comes to preserving our liberty.
When it comes to parsing the script, there is no better authority than the congressman from Hollywood, Adam Schiff. His concern for defending our democracy is always exemplary, and he’s even gone so far as to say: “Republicans across the nation are involved in an all-out assault on democracy.” If Republicans are the praetorian guards of autocrats, then Democrats must be the champions of democracy – after all, the very word is in their name!
In the days following, I received emails with nearly identical messages from documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and actor Martin Sheen, who once played an American president on television.
The problem with all this dire rhetoric is that democracy is not a brand, nor a label you wear. It is something you do – or don’t.
Once upon a time, I worked for an organization that published annual reports on Freedom in the World and literally graded countries on their democratic performance. We used metrics, like freedom of the press, equal access to justice, competitive elections, and the freedom of the state of partisan capture. In democracy development work there has always been a red-line: you try to get as many people to vote as possible – without telling them how to vote.
Pretending Republicans are poised to snuff out the flickering light of democracy is disingenuous. It diminishes the sacrifices of Ukrainians who are literally putting their lives on the line for their freedom. And ironically, the same administration that has been quick to call “ultra MAGA extremists” the enemy has been slow to hold the Iranian regime accountable for its vicious suppression of popular protests in that country today. Accordingly, the media has given these courageous protestors too little coverage.
Maybe this is why I find the kind of exhortations we’re hearing now from the Portland Charter Commission, President Biden, Adam Schiff, Ken Burns, Martin Sheen and others to be off-key. In the past, Americans have always considered the protection of democracy our common purpose. In World War II we were, as Franklin Roosevelt declared, the “arsenal of democracy,” and in the Cold War and struggle against violent extremism, we promoted democracy as an alternative to totalitarians and fanatics.
But what about election deniers and “insurrectionists,” you might ask. If our democracy allows the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis and other malcontents to march in public streets, and pornographers like Larry Flynt to without factual basis parody televangelists like Jerry Falwell as a drunk lusting after his own mother, people are free to hold whatever opinion they choose. The January 6th commission was supposed to have wrapped up its work and delivered a report in June, yet somehow their hearings have continued right up until the eve of this election.
Now, according to President Biden, there is a direct line between the riot on January 6th and the deranged Canadian illegal immigrant lunatic who has been charged with attempting to kill Paul Pelosi, husband of the Speaker of the House, last week.
That sounds a lot more like politics as usual than defending democracy. But then again, maybe Biden is right. Democracy is on the ballot on November 8th, just like it is every time people vote. Thanks to the tireless efforts of the January 6th committee, voters may go the polls with no shortage of information on that topic. What we intend to do with it is entirely up to us.
Seems very democratic to me.