While Democracy Slept

In 1938, Winston Churchill published While England Slept, a collection of his speeches attempting to warn that the nation needed to prepare for a war with Germany. The general view in England was that its natural defenses – the English channel – were sufficient to thwart invasion and had protected the island since 1066.

Only two years later, in 1940, John F. Kennedy, a senior at Harvard, published Why England Slept, an examination of the policies that prevented England from preparing for a confrontation with Germany. Both views, one of time and the other of cause, are pertinent today in the United States as a paradigm for this nation’s unpreparedness for a president who has openly threatened to scuttle democratic values, processes, and rights in favor of winning an election.

While democracy has slept here, one political cohort has assiduously cultivated a hegemony over a vast breadth of the civic culture and its institutions, causing a depletion of the democratic energy and zeal that has traditionally guided the country.

While democracy has slept here, one political cohort has assiduously cultivated a hegemony over a vast breadth of the civic culture and its institutions, causing a depletion of the democratic energy and zeal that has traditionally guided the country. In large part, this dissolution has occurred despite the fact that, by and large, academics estimate that the preference of the electorate for Democrats over Republicans is substantial. Nonetheless, control of the wheels of the political processes has measurably been assumed by Republicans.

The disappointment of conservatives with Eisenhower’s appointment of Earl Warren as chief justice of the United States in 1954 launched a six-decade effort to cultivate a pipeline of jurists into the federal system, culminating in the dystrophic episodes of the Merrick Garland/Ruth Bader Ginsburg nominations. In addition, since 2016, some 200 judges nominated and confirmed by a conservative majority have gained lifetime tenure on the bench.

For a number of years, that same cohort has carefully executed a plan to secure majorities in state legislatures. Americans for Tax Reform (founded by the arch-conservative Grover Norquist) reported in 2020 that the GOP has full control of 22 states, representing about 132 million people, and 30 legislatures, representing 182 million. In contrast, Democrats hold full control of just 15 states with 120 million, and 19 legislatures with 135 million. The political ideology to implement this majority has been aided by a common legislative engine known as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), founded in 1973.

Voters still remain perplexed at the presence in the White House of a candidate elected without support of a popular mandate. The 2000 election results failed to produce a reform to ensure consistency between popular vote results and the eventual victor (Bush v. Gore). When the Supreme Court defanged the Voting Rights Act (Shelby v. Holder) in 2013 on an opinion that mistakenly asserted that states had demonstrated adherence to racially neutral voting rights, Congress was unable to respond. In its wake, the decision has proven that animus toward universal voting rights continues to exist and is subjugated to partisan interests by gerrymandering and voter suppression tactics. [See RBG Shines in Dissent in this issue of VoxFairfax.]

On Wednesday, September 23, 2020, the incumbent president stated that the electoral results may be challenged, in his opinion, due to illegal balloting. He further declined to assent that his administration would engage in a peaceful transfer of power to a succeeding president. Here again, the United States has for its existence boasted of its ability and capacity to exercise the voting franchise and experience a peaceful transition of leadership unlike that of many other nations across the globe.

This present, apparent paradox has come to pass, in large part, because we have slept or at least sleep-walked through our own shortcomings failing, at the same time, to take cognizance of the danger signals and engage action to correct the course. Our democracy has slept while its courts have been manipulated and its leadership has functioned without a mandate but not without power.

This present, apparent paradox has come to pass, in large part, because we have slept or at least sleep-walked through our own shortcomings failing, at the same time, to take cognizance of the danger signals and engage action to correct the course. Our democracy has slept while its courts have been manipulated and its leadership has functioned without a mandate but not without power.

Isaac Asmiov, the iconic sic-fi author (1920-1992) observed:

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been.  The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way throught our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.  January 1980

The American electorate has undergone a significant self-education in the past few decades and exhibits a far greater appreciation of the issues that affect everyday life and prosperity. Our knowledge is not perfect but our ignorance has surely diminished.  Even through a sci-fi lens, Asimov might not recognize America four decades following his comment.

There is sufficient experience in our political and civic culture to instruct that, while democracy has slept, we have permitted it also to lose its vitality, resistance to autocracy, to malevolent manipulation. Historians will more clearly define why our democracy slept but, for now, it is essential for its survival that the electorate determine a better course in 2020. We possess as much knowledge as Churchill to realize the outcome of our lethargy. Churchill and Kennedy provided the guideposts; we need to read and follow them.

 



Categories: Issues, National, RULE OF LAW, SCOTUS, State

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