When Political Parties Subvert Democracy, Things Get Ugly Fast

Democracy is a delicate flower that requires planning and care. Recent events in Egypt have reminded us how arduous it is to plant democracy and how rapidly it can die. The Muslim Brotherhood won the popular vote and set about making sure that another vote would not be able to remove them from office. Popular resistance led the army to do that. Egypt provides a crucial example for our democracy in America.

Republicans today are acting exactly like the Muslim Brotherhood.  They do not trust their political opponents enough to preserve the democratic system or to give them an opportunity to run their country. Democrats respected the Bush administration despite the closeness of the election and its emphasis on military actions. The Bush administration responded by leaving power freely when voted out of office. But now Republicans are no longer willing to participate in this give and take of democratic government. They are like the Muslim Brotherhood in changing the rules after their election to preclude being voted out of office in the future.

Democracy cannot tolerate these attitudes and actions. Each group within a democracy has to respect other groups enough to allow them a turn at political power. And powerful groups have to reciprocate by preserving the rights of others to vote them out of power. We do not want to descend into the chaos that now envelopes Egypt. We need to find a way to restore democracy in America before the stakes become that high here. 

The Egyptians toppled their long-term ruler, President Mubarak, through massive public protests during the Arab Spring. President Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood was elected through a democratic election. He stated he was the president of all Egyptians, but he appointed only members of the Muslim Brotherhood to subsidiary positions, disappointing secular Egyptians. These secular Egyptians feared that if only members of the Brotherhood were running the government, there would never be another democratic election. The military, trained and supported by the United States, stepped in to depose and arrest President Morsi.

Bloody public protests, both pro and con the military, quickly followed. Military training turns out to be poor training for the peaceful containment of civilian protests. We in America look on this ephemeral democracy with distress, but we comfort ourselves with the observation that Egypt is far away and lacks a history of democratic government. Don’t be so sure.

Under the radar,  obscured by national news about Syria and debt, America is changing and regressing. In the beginning of the country's history, only wealthy white men could vote, but gradually the franchise expanded to include other white men, white women, and finally men and women of color. The last step was written into law only in 1965, and it has been a subject of controversy for the last half-century. We had a democratic election in 2008, in which voter turnout was similar across all relevant demographic groups.  American democracy appeared safely universal, supported by its long and gradual expansion and definition.

The Supreme Court, however, ruled in Citizens United (2010) that the constitutional allowance of free speech extended to corporations, legal entities created by the state, and the court extended to corporations the ability to give money to political candidates. The result was an outpouring of corporate cash into the 2010 election. Corporations were quicker to adapt to the new conditions than individuals, and they had far more cash to dispense. Cash turned out to be more effective in local and state elections than in national ones for the simple reason that so little money had been involved in these elections before Citizens United. The result was that many states emerged from the election of 2010 with Republican governments.

This is important because voting is arranged by states in our federal system. Some Republican states, notably Texas, gerrymandered congressional districts to reduce the impact of black and brown voters. Then the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby (2013) to limit federal judicial oversight of state election rules granted by the Voting Act of 1965 encouraged state governments to go further. Texas, North Carolina and Pennsylvania acted to disenfranchise black, brown and poor people in their states. They used voter ID laws, a modern form of poll tax since members of these groups would need to pay with time and money to obtain the relevant IDs. They also have restricted voter registration and voting hours to make it more difficult for registered black, brown and poor voters to vote. Michigan and Wisconsin destroyed unions in their states, depriving Democratic candidates of funds. Other Republican states have followed these leads.

The most essential part of democracy is at risk in the United States today. Republicans denying access to voting are trying to put the demographic genie back in the bottle. If they succeed, we risk following Egypt into civil disorder.


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