Right On: Is democracy dead?

Image courtesy of Pixabay, St. George News

OPINION — “Democ­ra­cy is the worst form of Gov­ern­ment except for all those oth­er forms that have been tried from time to time.” – Winston Churchill

So is it time to try another form? A surprising number and diversity of observers seem to think American democracy is on its last legs.

They see a variety of issues sapping democracy’s vitality. Let’s take a look at some of them.

Start with gerrymandering – the process of drawing legislative district boundaries for partisan advantage – a Utah Republican art form.

Democratic-leaning urban Salt Lake City is split among Utah’s four congressional districts, each of which is heavily populated with Republican-leaning suburban, smaller town and rural voters. Unsurprisingly, we have four Republican congressional representatives.

From this conservative’s point of view that’s preferable to four Democrats. But my sense of fair play and balance tells me that our representatives don’t adequately reflect Utah voters.

I’d prefer a single, Salt Lake City-centered district and three other districts representing the rest of the state in some equitable way. Sure, Utah might have a Democrat in Congress at times. But that balance would better reflect our state’s voters.

So is gerrymandering legal? State legislatures establish both federal and state voting districts and the Supreme Court has never stepped in. But today the court is considering cases challenging Republican redistricting in both Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

The 1965 Voting Rights Act coupled with various court cases resulted in a reverse discrimination mandate. Wherever feasible, states were required to create “majority minority” districts that effectively ensured blacks were a majority in some congressional districts.

I find that abhorrent. As Chief Justice John Roberts said, “The best way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair explains in the New York Times that in gerrymandered districts, candidates that win the majority party’s nomination usually win in the general election in both Great Britain and the U. S. This pushes would-be candidates to take positions that appeal to party activists who select nominees but not to the broader public.

As a result, politicians have been moving away from the center and instead taking hard line positions that appeal to their gerrymandered home districts but rarely lead to effective governing.

I have lamented the lack of centrist voices in our political dialog, voices that represent a substantial majority of our citizens.

Media partisanship is a second threat to democracy.

Some readers are old enough to remember the day when the news media truly felt a responsibility to report news in a fair and balanced way. They acted as the fourth estate, holding accountable the three branches of government. They put into action the words of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”

Today’s darkness is infectious.

Once again, Britain’s Tony Blair offers a timely insight. He notes:

“The media in many Western countries have become more partisan as conventional audiences shrivel and news organizations see the best commercial opportunity in roiling their most loyal viewers and connecting with their specific interests.”

Opinions today are largely shaped by the media sources we choose to follow. If Bernie Sanders says the sun will come up tomorrow, Fox News will begin its coverage with reasons why it might not.

The Hudson Institute’s Christopher DeMuth believes media proliferation has produced “more numerous political causes than a representative legislature can manage.” He says Congress has responded by offloading legislative activities onto the administrative state’s executive agencies, leaving its members free to “strut and fret on the national stage.”

We’ve had far too much executive agency legislation and far too much strutting in recent years.

Is money a threat to democracy? Jesse Unruh, former speaker of California’s House of Representatives, famously said “money is the mother’s milk of politics.”

Conservative Alan Keyes says:

“An elitist faction controls meaningful ballot access informally by imposing the view that no candidacy is ‘viable’ without massive money and media support. … So, though more people may cast a vote, an elitist clique controls … the options effectively available for their choice.”

The Trump and Clinton campaigns each spent well over a billion dollars.

Perhaps the most telling criticism is that government isn’t working well. In today’s world of rapid change, democracy seems slow, bureaucratic and weak.

Powerful interest groups stand in the way of substantial reform. Reforming our educational system is a recent example with teachers’ unions fighting change at every step.

People need better services and have higher expectations, but as any politician can tell you, they don’t want to pay more for them.

Philosopher Robert Hutchins said, “The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment.”

Low voter turnout in recent years could be evidence of “apathy, indifference and undernourishment.”

That’s a daunting list of democracy’s problems. Are we doomed?

I believe our democracy is far from dead. But its preservation is up to each of us. To the extent that we educate ourselves, listen to reasonable voices from the other side, help choose candidates that represent our views, and express our opinions to elected officials, we strengthen our democracy.

Howard Sierer is an opinion columnist for St. George News. The opinions stated in this article are his own and may not be representative of St. George News.

Email: hsierer@stgeorgeutah.com

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

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5 Comments

  • dons8120 February 8, 2018 at 8:18 am

    Very well written article. You held to your beliefs, but didn’t attack the liberals. This is the kind of thinking our country needs. Although a different subject Ed wrote an article similar in bipartisan thoughts this week as well. Good on both of you. We may still have a little hope for our country. Both of our presidential candidates were flawed, but we were forced to choose the least evil (although I believe we missed the buck on that one). Who wins with elections like this? The special interest groups with the most money that’s who. The media has become a dangerous place these days. What happened to the days of the evening news just telling the stories and leaving opinion to the people. Fox news, CNN, MSNBC, they are not news anymore, but a 24 hour a day opinion network for the political parties they endorse. I am by no means a conservative, but I am even getting sick of Fox news and CNN’s bias. I want the facts and only the facts, not some over paid opinion generator.

  • chris keele February 8, 2018 at 8:57 am

    You have brought to our attention a few of the issues ” We the People” need to continue to address if we hope to keep this great nation heading in the right direction in an even and non partisan manner, and I think we all need to remember that the United States of America is a Republic not just a mere ” Democracy”, thank God we have the Constitution to refer to and keep us on course, let us remain mindful of that and protect that blessing at all costs. Please thank the incredible Men and Women of our Armed Forces and Law Enforcement that have fought and died to defend our liberty.

  • bikeandfish February 8, 2018 at 11:02 am

    Good to see a more centrist article.

    A few points of clarity:

    1). Percent of voter turnout for voting age citizens has actually risen, on average, since 2004. 2008 was the highest turnout since 1968 and overall the average since 2004 has been higher than the 70s-90s.

    2) Calling the requirements of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act “reverse discrimination” requires historical and contextual blinders. Yes, we have seen the creation of “majority minority” districts but that happens after a state or voting district is effectively gerrymandered to the point of “voter dilution” to the disadvantage of minority citizens. To justify a majority minority district the citizens have to prove various measures were in place to hurt their chances of representation. Its absurd to call that “reverse racism” given that nuance and the history of actual racism that leads to that avenue of consequence. (There is actually evidence this VRA measure benefits white citizens at the state level given minorities are removed from original districts and concentrated into less influential ones.).

    3) I question the veracity of the claim that “the news media truly felt a responsibility to report news in a fair and balanced way” was a thing of the past. Your follow up highlights some details we agree on but I’m not sure media in general has become less “fair and balanced”. Instead I think viewers are consuming more cable and internet infotainment like CNN, MSNBC, FOX and Breitbart while traditional journalist continue to crank out fair articles with integrity. American media has always included hyperpartisan news and pundits but the internet age has just allowed citizens to hear their voice louder. I would wager news media is about the same while Americans media literacy has decreased as they reinforce their bubbles with memes, bots, and pundits/talking heads that don’t challenge their worldview with the facts that don’t align consistently with one ideology. I think it citizen choice and social psychology more than a loss of the fourth estate.

    4) I think its important to highlight the role of the Executive in undermining the free press and the fourth estate. Trump had emphatically done so in a way we have never seen but Obama is equally culpable in degrading our democracy’s standing in that regard. Ironically its the press’s fundamental job of holding the government accountable that is being jeopardized and criticized. Journalist are making mistakes but they are doing it in the pursuit of exactly what the founding fathers considered their higher purpose. Citizens need to stop listening to official rhetoric designed to protect themselves (“fake news” from Trump; Obama’s war with Fox) and actively protect the fourth estate.

    I think your theme and concerns are fair even if we disagree on some details. We’ll never get rid of a two party system but partisan loyalty should not supercede fidelity to democratic principles and institutions.

  • McMurphy February 8, 2018 at 1:57 pm

    To build a Congressional district with Salt Lake County as its core so a Democrat could get elected would require gerrymandering.

    Highly biased journalism has been around since the founding of the country. Study Lincolns first election.

  • bikeandfish February 8, 2018 at 3:01 pm

    Per SLC and gerrymandering…..I’m not sure a district that fairly represents the area would require gerrymandering. From 1983, when Utah got a third district, to 2002 the state managed to recognize demographically and geographically that SLC was a distinct entity within the state. Since then redistricting has been clearly partisan as it attempts to dilute or break up the voting power of that area. Both redistricting efforts used whats known as cracking, though the maps are radically different. The 2013 map is especially bad as it breaks up the region into three distinct areas which only makes sense to maintain partisan control.

    Several non-partisan options are available. I don’t think Howard was actually saying its best to just give a district to democrats but that properly remapping our districts that the SLC County one would likely swing democrat. Two very different situations. I tend to agree with Howard on this one even though it means my district will never see another democrat like Matheson ever again. It just doesn’t make sense from demographics to split SLC the way they have . SLC, Cedar City and St George should not be in the same district.

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