Will our democracy survive deep political division?

I recently heard an interview with Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, authors of “How Democracies Die”.” In their book, the authors show democracies often die when an authoritarian and populist candidate gets elected. Most often the candidate aligns themselves with a major political party that is seeking to use the candidate’s popularity to win, and just as often the party overestimates their ability to control the candidate. Unlike yesterday’s coups, today’s authoritarian uses what looks like a democratic process to attain their real goal — absolute power.

Divide and conquer is the method of choice. First the authoritarian identifies real problems the country faces, blames the opposition party, and characterizes them as enemies of the people. Next they attack the media with claims of fake news. They undermine the electoral process and appoint government officials based on political ideology and remove them for the slightest question of loyalty. Lastly, they label any criticism of their plans to make the country great again as unpatriotic.

Sound familiar?

Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Tennessee got it right when he spoke out against his party for a “flagrant disregard for truth or decency” and a “regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms.” He concluded, “When such behavior emanates from the top of our government … it is my obligation to (speak out) as a matter of duty and conscience.”

Other branches of the government often support the demise of democracy as well. By refusing to hear Merrick Garland and rushing to confirm Kavanaugh, the Senate drove a stake through the heart of our democracy and maneuvered themselves into a political lose-lose situation. They either confirm Kavanaugh and cause swing voters and women to vote for the Democrats, or they don’t confirm him and cause the base to stay home.

As Flake noted, the Constitution works because of unwritten democratic norms established over years. Just because the Constitution allows an action, or doesn’t specifically prohibit it, doesn’t mean the government shouldn’t exercise restraint. Franklin Roosevelt tried to increase the number of Supreme Court justices (not prohibited in the Constitution) to swing the court hard left for generations but the Senate blocked him. This administration is much stealthier at advancing their party’s agenda. The Trump administration put enormous pressure on Kennedy to resign so they could swing the court hard right for generations, and the Senate participated.

The Republican Party has become the party of older white men and Christian evangelicals. When President Barack Obama got elected this group feared the fall of a white Christian nation that made the rules for everyone. Minorities and non-Christians were tolerated because, with no power, they were no real threat. Now that racial minorities, the LGBT community and non-believers have fought for their rights and are winning, the Republicans have gone into overdrive, appealing to the most basic fears of many Americans — those involving race, sex and religion.

Fanning the false fear of immigrants taking away American jobs, same-sex marriage, abortion and Muslims instituting Sharia law has so polarized our country that trepidation and uncertainty seem to be the predominate emotions many people are feeling. Add to this turmoil a conservative Supreme Court that is likely to decide a religious privilege case in favor of the religious plaintive and we have a recipe for more division.

That case involves a business owner who fired an employee who came out as transgendered. The owner, a devout Christian, fired her, claiming having a transgender woman work for him would violate God’s commands. If Kavanaugh gets confirmed, civil rights advocates think it is very likely the court will decide that one’s religious beliefs take precedence over another’s Constitutional rights.

The fact that 16 states — including Gov. Paul LePage, representing himself, not Maine — have urged the Supreme Court to rule that companies can fire workers based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, while another 20 states (including Maine) and Washington, D.C., have laws banning employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, shows just how deep the political division is in this country.

Many people realize how the Supreme Court decides this question will affect everyone’s rights for the foreseeable future. To quote the late Justice Antonin Scalia, deciding that religious beliefs are above the law would make everyone “a law unto himself.” “What principle of law or logic can be brought to bear to contradict a believer’s assertion that a particular act is ‘central’ to his personal faith?” Scalia said.

Upholding the constitutional principles of equal protection under the law and the separation of church and state is our best defense to ensure our democracy survives the nation’s deep political divisions.

Tom Waddell is president of the Maine Chapter of the Freedom from Religion Foundation. He can be reached at: [email protected]


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