As comic-strip character Pogo Possum once famously said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
We should heed those words; we should pay attention.
Pogo could well be describing the homegrown threats to free-and-fair elections and to our trust in American democracy.
The Russians, insidious cyber-invaders, meddled in the last election. That is a fact. Efforts to prevent it from happening again are in limbo because of partisan warfare. Whether cyber-subversion was decisive in a Trump victory is not known. However, the real danger is Russians like Vladimir Putin don’t much care who wins, who loses. Their more sinister purpose is to stir up discord to the point of weakening Americans’ faith in our institutions. Russian oligarchs are mafia-style tyrants who cannot stomach democratic ways. Democracy makes them look bad. They are bad, in fact.
The grim irony is some Americans just don’t care or deny electoral sabotage happened. That includes the current president who has denied or minimized Russian meddling, even though just about every time the investigating Bob Mueller turns over another rock, a Russian is found squirming under it. Denial or minimization is tantamount to giving aid and comfort to the enemy.
Russians or not, there are plenty of other threats to democracy we should pay attention to.
One threat is the gerrymandering process, which draws congressional district lines to favor one party over another. The party that controls a state legislature at the end of each decade, after the U.S. census is taken, is the one who gets to determine how those legislative boundaries will be re-drawn. Both parties have long been guilty of it. In recent years, Republicans have controlled most state legislatures so currently there are vastly more districts gerrymandered to favor Republicans than Democrats. The courts have been striking down some gerrymandered boundary lines, most recently in Pennsylvania, but the skewed process remains a threat to free-and-fair elections.
Another homegrown domestic threat comes from voter-suppression laws, ways to discourage wide participation in elections. Their aim is to discourage certain demographic groups from voting by erecting barriers such as restricting voting times and opportunities, requiring only certain photo I.D.s and other onerous restrictions/requirements.
The creaky rationale for such laws is “voter fraud,” even though that is virtually non-existent, according to multiple independent studies.
Another threat to our democracy is big money, especially since a lamentable 2010 Supreme Court decision opened a floodgate to billions of corporate campaign dollars. That kind of big bucks can now, more than ever before, “buy” candidates, fund smear campaigns and send battalions of lobbyists to pull strings. Enacting tougher campaign-finance laws has never been so urgent. But will that happen? Only if we demand it.
Yet another danger are the constant assaults on our institutions: the Department of Justice, the FBI, the courts, the mainstream media – to name just four. Sewing seeds of doubt will result in a harvest of distrust, more divisionism and a quick erosion of vital checks and balances. The nefarious goal, as it is with the Russian meddlers, is to weaken democracy by infecting society like a virus so that almost nobody can agree with anybody else on anything, and where each person, each tribe, has its own self-manufactured “alternative facts,” to the point where some will insist a circle is not round but square. Such lies and distortions constantly pop up on social-media postings and – make no mistake – not just by Russian meddlers.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, fired by President Trump in March, spoke persuasively about such dangers in a recent speech warning against “twilight in America.” He urged us to “preserve and protect our freedom by recognizing what truth is and is not, what a fact is and is not” and “to demand our pursuit of America’s future be fact-based, not based on wishful thinking, not (based on) hoped-for outcomes made in shallow promises.”
Tillerson’s advisory could serve as a perfect primer when choosing candidates in the next election, and the next.
Let’s pay attention.