Saving Democracy

Since 2021, I have used my column early in the new year to comment on the events of January 6, 2021. This year, instead of going over the past, I want to look ahead at the train coming down the tracks. The way to begin, though, is with a quote from the past, one I have used in a previous column but that bears repeating, particularly now. One of the great privileges of my life was to spend 14 years with John Heinz when he was senator from Pennsylvania. After his tragic and untimely death in 1991, Teresa Heinz established an awards program in his memory, and I had the honor of serving as a juror for one of the awards for a number of years. In 2000, the award for public policy was given to Senator Daniel P. Moynihan (D-NY), who was retiring from the Senate at the end of that year. Senator Moynihan’s remarks were compelling, and I’ve kept them nearby for the past 23 years. Here is an excerpt:

“It would be just 222 years ago that what we came to call the Constitutional Convention finished its work in Philadelphia. Benjamin Franklin emerged from what we now call Independence Hall, and a lady asked him, ‘what have you wrought.’ And he said, ‘a Republic, if you can keep it.’ And how wise he was.

There were in 1787 two nations on earth which both existed at that time and had not had their form of government changed by violence since that time. There are eight nations in the world which both existed in 1914 and that have not had their form of government changed except by violence since that time . . . not always approved, sometimes very much disparaged, the art of politics and government is the highest calling of a democracy. And the achievement we have in the stability of this society is so easily underestimated. It is normal for us—it is the rarest conceivable thing for most of mankind. . . . But it will not be sustained and continued if we don’t know in fact how fragile it is and how much it needs the very best of men and women to continue it with the knowledge and the courage to do so.”[1]

Senator Moynihan was talking about the importance of public service and the importance of getting the best in our society to be public servants, but his words take on additional meaning today. This is not the first time our political system has faced challenges. It was born out of struggle in the American Revolution, a war that tore the country apart, and challenges from both the far left and the far right in the years between two world wars. It was also a result of successfully fending off the challenge of Communism, which was not only a security threat but a threat to our political system and way of life. Even today, we face a similar external threat from China, which is busy trying to convince the rest of the world that democracy does not work, and its authoritarian system is superior.

I worry about China but also keep in mind what Abraham Lincoln said in a January 1838 speech: "At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide." Unfortunately, we face a growing number of people who have either lost their enthusiasm for democracy or have adopted a narrow definition of it that leaves a lot of people out. This is not unusual in times of uncertainty. People support change—as long as it happens to somebody else. They resist change if it means they need to think or act differently. Right now, we have groups that have historically been marginalized demanding the right to fully participate in our political system and respect for their values. There are a lot of primarily white males, mostly in rural areas and without a college education, who see these demands as a threat to their way of life. And they are right in the sense that their local and regional political dominance is threatened. That is a change that is overdue, but we should not be surprised people resist.

We should also not be surprised that some of them turn to demagogues who promise to save their jobs and their communities and keep out people that are not like them, but we should be disappointed that in their fear of the “other,” they are willing to abandon the political system that has made the country great. The fight for political power should be through the ballot box and not by denying others access to it. We should all be willing to abide by the results and have confidence in our public servants who protect the integrity of our elections. That is fundamental to democracy, and if we give that up, we give up on the entire American experiment, which has been successful for nearly 250 years. Sanity has, eventually, prevailed in past crises, and we should all hope it does so again.

William Reinsch holds the Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.       

[1] Transcript provided by the Heinz Family Foundation.