The Rough Grind of American Democracy

The fight for the right to vote, appealing to the best among us

On the night of Tuesday, January 5, by the time most of us went to bed, it became increasingly likely both Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff would win, ushering in a new era of two Democratic Senators from Georgia, one Black, one Jewish, shifting the US Senate majority to the Democrats. By the time many of us woke on the 6th, that outcome became clearer, providing a stunning shift of fortunes that made the hard work of Stacey Abrams and the record commitment of Black and Brown voters to turn out that much more significant.

In what can still seem hard to believe, it was that same day when Donald Trump incited the crowd to head to the Capitol and the country watched the televised, deadly insurrection as members of Congress were gathered inside to certify the presidential election and the victory of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. If you had intended to celebrate the extraordinary turn of events in Georgia, the sickening onslaught aborted that.

At some other point, I expect to detail the tumultuous tick-tock of January 5 and 6. But it’s the rough grind of our political life and its consequences that I want to touch on now.

It was the dedication of Stacey Abrams after her questionable loss for Georgia governor to Brian Kemp, choosing to work tirelessly to expand a get-out-the-vote operation, that demonstrated the potency of our citizenry to embrace its duty and fulfill the promise of self-governance. Rather than turn away and pursue a different path, Abrams’ initiative played a powerful part in influencing nothing less than the outcome of a presidential election, two Senate runoff races and, ultimately, the realignment of the Senate majority.

If only there was time to pause and savor it. Instead, those inspirational achievements were quickly overtaken by the insurrection and then the brutal determination of Georgia Republicans to deny Black citizens the right to vote. Their blatant assault in response to a legitimate election—justified by the false insistence that they needed to ensure election integrity—exposed their willingness to toss aside fairness to hold onto power. In other words: Fix what wasn’t broken.

In the 2020 election, Black voter turnout increased with vote-by-mail, drop boxes for ballots, mobile voting places and the provision of water to voters stuck in ridiculously long lines. The response of Georgia’s GOP-led legislature? Ban drop boxes, restrict mobile voting places, end the right of third-party groups to provide water and food. Impose stricter ID requirements for vote-by-mail that will disproportionately affect voters of color. These are just some of the transparent measures in Georgia’s 95-page law that Gov. Kemp has claimed will increase voter confidence—aggressively partisan moves that have been repeated by Republican-led states across the country.

We are now stuck in a brutal war between the forces committed to ensuring one person, one vote is not just a beautiful ideal and those hell-bent on suppressing the vote and only letting “their” people easy access to the ballot box. The year 2021 has the vile odor of Jim Crow when white supremacists made every effort to disenfranchise Blacks and keep themselves in power. Violent inequality was not a bug, it was the goal. It’s why the passage of the For the People Act, now in the Senate, is so important to ensuring nationally the right to vote.

This anti-democratic reality calls for creativity and justice, such as Glenn Kirschner’s The Democracy Pledge, which asks corporations and other businesses to affirm the legitimacy of the 2020 election and refuse to support politicians, campaigns and political action committees that promoted false conspiracy theories. Looking ahead, getting out the vote is only part of the solution. Boycotting advertisers that stick with Fox News and other right-wing media that spun the Big Lie of election fraud and continue to spread doubts may be critical to putting an end to the dangerous disinformation that has harmed our democracy.

It’s worth rewinding to 1990 when John Gardner wondered why our nation is failing to produce more greatness among our national political leaders. Gardner, the architect of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society Program, former president of the Carnegie Foundation and founding chairman of Common Cause, surveyed the country’s growing fragmentation, rising sense of disappointment and increasing inability to react to immense threats. He worried about the disintegration of shared values and recognized the hunger for leadership.

“At the time this nation was formed, our population stood at around three million. And we produced out of that three million people perhaps six leaders of world class—Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison and Hamilton. Today our population stands at 245 million, so we might expect at least eighty times as many world-class leaders—480 Jeffersons, Madisons, Adamses, Washingtons, Hamiltons and Franklins. Where are they?”

Gardner’s assessment wasn’t only focused on top leaders. In his book, On Leadership, he also put the onus on citizens and the need to hold those in power accountable.

“Citizens must understand the possibilities and limitations of leadership, We must know how we can strengthen and support good leaders; and we must be able to see through the leaders who are exploiting us, playing on our hatred and prejudice, or taking us down dangerous paths…If we are lazy, self-indulgent, and wanting to be deceived; if we willingly follow corrupt leaders; if we allow our heritage of freedom to decay; if we fail to be faithful monitors of the public process—then we shall get and deserve the worst.”

Clearly, Gardner was writing before America was confronted with the divisive horror of a sociopathic demagogue in the White House—and the unleashing of the nation’s worst instincts.

Given the increasingly harsh grind of our political sphere, it’s not hard to understand why many of the best among us would take a look at the vicious battles of democratic life and choose another professional path. But the survival of our democracy, especially as the fight has intensified and accelerated, will depend on people of the caliber of Stacey Abrams—and, we hope to learn, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff—to decide it’s worth the struggle.