Guest Columnist

Democracy is no spectator sport

Tony C and Kasie stood with more than a hundred President Trump supporters who rallied outside the Capitol to contest th
Tony C and Kasie stood with more than a hundred President Trump supporters who rallied outside the Capitol to contest the results of the presidential election results. Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, outside the Capitol in Jefferson City, Mo. (Laurie Skrivan/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP)

On Feb. 14, 2014, Donald Trump told Fox, “When the economy crashes, when the country goes to total hell, and everything is a disaster, then you’ll have riots to go back to where we used to be, when we were great.”

By January 6, 2021, the economy had crashed, our federal government’s pandemic response was the world’s worst, and it seemed like “everything is a disaster.”

It was time for a President Donald Trump rally. He claimed “hundreds of thousands of American patriots” were there. The Park Service permit approved 30,000, and with no official count, the media settled on “thousands.”

Trump told them, “After this, we’re going to walk down — and I’ll be there with you — to the Capitol ... because you’ll never take back our country with weakness, you have to show strength, and you have to be strong. We have come to demand that Congress do the right thing.”

Minutes later, at the Capitol, we watched his followers’ “show strength” by staging one of Trump’s predicted “riots to go back to ... when we were great.”

Some Americans are aware of our slowly crumbling columns of democracy, institutions essential to democracy’s creation and preservation. For them, Trump’s Jan. 6 mob was no surprise. Riots are a part of the endgame in an authoritarian-wannabe’s playbook. It was only a matter of time.

Turns out representative democracy is not universally popular among Americans. The Pew Research Center found 13 percent thought it totally bad; others thought substitutions for elected officials with direct democracy (29 percent), experts (40 percent), strong leaders (22 percent), or military rule (17 percent) good ideas.

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More voted last Nov. 3 than in any election for 120 years. That was 67 percent of eligible voters. One-third didn’t vote. An Ipsos survey revealed 23 percent were “not interested in politics.”

A democracy is fragile, and subject to President Lyndon Johnson’s observation that, “It takes a carpenter to build a barn, but any jackass can knock it down.”

We cannot know if it will be possible to rebuild our shattered democracy. What we do know is that it cannot be rebuilt just by substituting one president for another. It cannot be rebuilt by those who just “believe in” democracy or merely prefer it to alternatives.

It will require those who recognize and work to oppose attacks on the columns of democracy. A democracy requires an educated electorate, a trusted and independent mass media, a wise and nonpartisan judiciary, and efforts to increase, rather than suppress, ease of voting.

Inadequate education and library budgets are an attack on democracy. So is failure to support media with subscriptions and advertising, talk of “fake news” and “enemy of the people,” reverse Robin Hood legislation, or treating courts as a third political branch of government.

Are you willing to watch a little less television to have time for calls and emails to officials? Share more of the resources you can afford with local media and democracy-promoting candidates? Help sturdy our crumbling columns of democracy?

If there are enough of us doing that, we have a prayer of rebuilding our barn, the democracy our founders hoped for. If not, we’re just waiting for the next authoritarian-wannabe, and the next Jan. 6.

Nicholas Johnson of Iowa City is the author of Columns of Democracy (2018). mailbox@nicholasjohnson.org

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