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If You Can Keep It

Roy Christman is a retired political science professor and has a farm in Pennsylvania.

Compared to monarchies, dictatorships, autocracies, oligarchies, and theocracies, democracies have a short and uneven history. If we eliminate "democracies" that excluded slaves, women, religious minorities, or poor people from participating in government, democracies are a 20th and 21st century phenomenon.

In the last few decades we have witnessed a discouraging trend. Instead of the wave of the future, we are seeing democracy recede like the tide going out. Democratic governments are under attack in many countries including: Turkey, Hungary, Poland, Italy, India, the Philippines, Brazil, Israel and Venezuela. The "Arab Spring" that once seemed so favorable to a new democratic order is barely hanging on in Tunisia alone. One former Soviet republic after another has succumbed to strongmen or dictators. Even more alarming is the rise of nationalistic, xenophobic or fascist groups in such stalwart democracies as Britain, France and Germany.

To be considered a democracy, political scientists look for a number of prerequisites. These include fair and honest elections, a "loyal opposition," a free press, an informed citizenry, and public participation in the affairs of government.

Let's look at those five prerequisites in our own country and see how we are faring.

  • Fair and honest elections. We certainly have lots of elections, although their fairness and honesty are open to question. Some problems, unfortunately, are built into the system. When a presidential candidate can win with three million fewer votes than his opponent, the system may need to be updated. In addition we have seen an uptick in voter suppression schemes, gerrymandered districts, and vast sums of campaign cash. Foreign interference in the process has already influenced election outcomes. All of this could be fixed with some political will and effort, but few of our citizens seem concerned.






  • A "loyal opposition." One of the most difficult leaps for people to make is to realize that political opponents are not their enemies. Opponents may be wrong, pig-headed, stupid, or misguided, but they won't put you in jail if they win. Or will they? That is why the chant "Lock her up" so often heard at Trump rallies does not bode well for American democracy.

  • A free press. We do fairly well on this one, but we have a much diminished free press. Major cities have seen their papers cut to a few days a week or even go bankrupt. Cable "news" is partisan while the Internet is a cesspool of trolls, foreign disinformation, and cat videos. Our president goes on about "fake news" and calls reporters enemies. Faith in our press is at an all time low. How will we be informed about our politics without a free press? And please please don't tell me you get your news from your phone. When is the last time you saw a report on your school board or your town council on that screen?

  • An informed citizenry. Schools no longer bother to teach civics. Conspiracy theories run rampant. Millions of people believed that Hillary Clinton ran a child porn ring out of Washington, D.C. pizza parlor. Millions still believe that measles vaccines cause autism. The reading grade level has been steadily dropping, although that may not matter, since few people seem to read any more. Suffice it to say that the American citizenry was probably more informed about political issues in 1919 than it is in 2019.

  • Public participation in the affairs of government. If you need evidence of the paltry levels of political participation, take some registration forms, go door-to-door, and try to sign up voters.

As you may know, the title of this essay is from a remark Ben Franklin is said to have made to a woman who asked if the Constitutional Convention had given us a monarchy or a republic. Franklin replied, "A republic, madam, if you can keep it."

It's no longer a sure thing

~ Roy Christman































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