Last month I wrote to urge Americans to value and protect our democracy as a precious gift from our forebears. Today I suggest honoring voters as a way to do that.
First, I should confess a bias: As a lawyer and lifelong public servant, I am an avid admirer of our Constitutional Democracy, and value good governance down to my marrow. That should not make me partisan, but I acknowledge that to some it might. That’s a problem.
When originators of the local bi-partisan Beyond Civility started offering programs and workshops to promote “communication for effective governance,” we believed the tools and techniques of dialogue that were so successful in mediation might also be effective at overcoming obstacles to understanding and agreement in politics. If there was a flaw in that expectation, it might have been the implicit assumption that all politicians felt public pressure to solve important policy issues. That pressure is important.
Most mediation takes place in the shadow of litigation, or the threat of it, where participants know that failure to reach a voluntary agreement will result in a judgment being imposed by a third party—a judge or jury. The certainty of an outcome based on laws and rules of evidence motivates all parties to rationally adjust their positions in light of the strengths of the arguments of their opponent. Being wrong can have real and immanent consequences. Hence, their willingness to negotiate.
In American Constitutional Democracy, the final arbitration of partisan disputes occurs through elections; the ultimate, third-party decision maker is the electorate. In a well-functioning democracy, politicians representing competing interests negotiate in the shadow of elections like lawyers do in the face of court rulings. And just as the effectiveness of the legal system depends on all parties’ willingness to abide by the courts’ final decisions, so our political system requires participants’ acquiescence to the will of the voters. What keeps the legal system useful and functioning is our willing, even if grudging, acceptance of its authority to impose judgments on us. What keeps a democratic society functioning is a similar respect for the rules, processes, and decisions of the governed.
The urge to subvert or dominate opposition voters is understandable. We all think highly of our own values and opinions and believe we know better than others what’s best for the country. And clearly some opinions are better informed, some beliefs more accurate, and some values more helpful to society than others. It’s easy for me to think my vote, and those of my like-minded friends, should count for more than the votes of the ignorant and wrong-headed. But in our democracy, the ignorant and wrong-headed are also we-the-people. The stability and power, the wisdom, of democracy lies in its deference to the right of all of the governed to participate equally in their own governance. The challenge in democracy is not to deny others their opinions, but to convince enough of them that our own opinions and values are better.
The dysfunction we see from extreme polarization in America today is frustrating, but I would argue that the threat to democracy is not from disagreement, even vehement disagreement. The fight for democracy is not between those who favor openness to gender fluidity against those with more traditional social values, or between rural or urban populations, or between opposing views on immigration, criminal justice reform, or even the size of government; those are all arguments within our democracy. The real threat is coming from those who would convince us that we-the-people are not to be trusted, or that democracy is obsolete in this intense, fast changing world, and that those with different views are mortal enemies the defeat of whom justifies any and all means. The true mortal enemies of democracy, I think, are those who seek to prevent government from serving and answering to the voters, those who seek unfettered economic and political power for their personal benefit free from restraints or other priorities that might be imposed by the voters.
Diminishing the ability of the electorate to govern through elections is a deliberate project playing out on multiple fronts that include: undermining public confidence in the integrity of elections processes and results; impeding rather than facilitating access to voting; gerrymandering to undermine fair competition; and refusal to abide by legitimate election outcomes. If democracy’s political enemy today is authoritarianism, the authoritarian’s worst enemy is the voter, the all of us.
We should insist on treating voters like the judges they are supposed to be and protecting them like jurors in a high stakes trial, striving to inform them through credible processes designed for accuracy and truthfulness. This requires push-back against powerful special interests, including those of our own political parties. Encouraging all Americans to participate in our governance, perhaps with a national voting holiday, for example, could lead political campaigns away from divisive appeals to feverish base voters. It could nudge campaigns from exclusion toward more inclusion of competing interests, and reorient parties from mere opposition to advocacy and ultimately from gridlock toward more collaboration, thus dislodging some of the zero-sum thinking that poisons our social relationships and cripples our governance.
Protection and promotion of universal voting should not make any American a partisan, it makes them a Constitutional patriot. We might all be surprised, even those who are most afraid of voters today, at how wisely and fairly we would govern ourselves if we all stepped up to do so.