There is no doubt that American democracy is in danger. Two years ago, thousands of rioters stormed and occupied the Capitol in a failed attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 elections. They gained the support of a majority of the “Republican” members of Congress who falsely claimed that the election result was fraudulent.
Other disturbing signs are popping up across the country. Angry parents storm the meetings of school boards and city councils, demanding that books be banned and teachers be fired. Armed protesters gather outside threatening election officials as they count ballots inside. Republican-led state legislatures pass laws restricting voting rights. Hate crimes and mass shootings continue to rise.
College students from the right and the left are chanting for speakers who disagree with them to be silenced. Universities are under pressure to fire professors or ban groups that challenge traditional views. The recent debacle of the Speaker’s election showed that our politics are so polarized by hyper-partisanship that our legislature is now immobile or dysfunctional. Against this background of intimidation, we must debunk the oft-quoted claim that “free and fair elections are the essence of democracy.” Elections, though important, are just a feature of democracy, not its essence. Even more important are the values that must be cultivated and protected to maintain a truly democratic system.
Chief among these factors is that the losers must respect the election results, and the winners must show respect for the rights of the losers. The rights of those whose views differ from the majority must be protected, and the winners and losers, the majority and the minority, must engage in constructive dialogue to find compromise solutions to the problems facing society as a whole. This is the essence of democracy. True democracy is not a zero-sum game in which the winners use their positions of power to silence, eliminate or show intolerance for the views of those who were defeated in free and fair elections.
An authoritarian impulse to crush or punish those who represent different viewpoints is anti-democratic. It is important to be vigilant in cultivating such a democratic culture because without it democracy may wither and die. Respecting the rights and views of minorities is important in a society where one clearly dominant group is, and even more so in societies that are equally divided.
Many Egyptians were horrified by the Muslim Brotherhood’s misuse of electoral victory. Many Israelis were frightened and reacted violently to the behavior of the victorious far-right coalition that currently rules Israel and attacks the judiciary, the rule of law and the rights of minorities.
And if democracy is not a zero-sum, then so is politics, especially in diverse societies. And when the victors overstep their bounds and impose their ideologies or try to expand their power by changing the rules of the road, they weaken democracy and demand a violent response from the groups threatened by their behavior. The United States today provides an example of this.
In 2022, the Republicans won a very competitive election, and currently enjoy a slight advantage in the House of Representatives, but lost in the Senate. The Democrats still control the White House. Given this outcome, one would think that Republicans and Democrats, evenly divided among the electorate, would seek compromises to the pressing problems facing the country, and House Republicans would use their influence to push for compromises that reflect their views.
Instead, the Republicans decided to use their control of the House of Representatives to block the government and smear opponents, demanding all or nothing. Such an approach is not only fatal to respectful discourse and compromise, but also poisons political relations, creating a more polarizing audience for the electorate. Politics is the ‘art of the possible’, but we must also acknowledge the vital role played by groups passionately advocating principled positions or forward-looking solutions. Our political history is replete with examples of visionary groups and leaders who were faithful to their principles and solutions, and moved the public’s inclinations in a certain direction and changed the political calculations of decision-makers, and thus made the art of the possible more spacious.
But when political opinions become doctrinaire – that is, rigid, absolutist and intransigent – this can be counterproductive and self-destructive. In such cases, the bad behavior of uncompromising extremists is deemed “principled,” while moderate voices seeking solutions are denounced as “abandoning principles.” Compromise becomes impossible and democracy suffers. This, unfortunately, is what we live in today in America. This puts our very democracy at risk.
* Quoted from the union
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