America's democracy is in danger

Particularly worrisome are the large numbers of Americans who believe the Big Lie and other conspiracy theories even once they’ve been irrefutably debunked.

 Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. (photo credit: ELIJAH NOUVELAGE/REUTERS)
Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.

John Adams, the second president of the United States, once warned: “There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” Today, more than two centuries later, Adams’ words are reverberating throughout the country, which is facing growing threats to our suddenly fragile democracy. And while it’s largely civil rights groups representing communities of color that are sounding the alarm, American Jews should be deeply concerned as well.

Despite absolutely no evidence of widespread voter fraud as affirmed by over 60 failed lawsuits challenging the 2020 presidential election, former president Donald Trump continues to claim that the election was “stolen.” Known as the “Big Lie,” his incessant efforts to delegitimize last year’s election have already severely undermined American democracy.

The violent insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6 was a direct consequence of the Big Lie, but by no means the only one. Republican legislators in multiple states, claiming to be acting in the name of “election integrity,” have passed laws that are designed not to catch fraud but to deter and dissuade minorities who lean overwhelmingly Democratic (such as people of color) from voting. They have also adopted laws that change who oversees the election process by removing power from career election officials and giving it to partisan actors. Such measures constitute blatant election subversion.

In Texas, for example, drive-through voting, which 127,000 Texans took advantage of in the 2020 election, is now banned as is 24-hour voting access. Moreover, it’s now a felony for an election official to send someone an application for a mail-in ballot that they did not request.

Georgia’s Republican-led legislature went even further in passing restrictive measures, including making it illegal to provide food or water to people standing in line to vote. The number of voter drop boxes, which helped spur a record voter turnout last year, will be significantly reduced in the next election. Fulton County, the state’s most populated county and one with a sizable African-American population, will see its number of drop boxes cut from 38 to eight.

Even more egregious, Republican lawmakers removed the secretary of state as the chair of Georgia’s election board, and gave the power to appoint the chair to themselves. It mattered little to these Trump sycophants that the current secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, is a Republican. What mattered is that he certified Joe Biden’s victory in Georgia, and then prevented Trump’s flagrant – and likely illegal – attempts to overturn the election results.

According to Steven Levitsky, professor of government at Harvard and co-author of the book How Democracies Die, American democracy “can’t survive if one major party cannot accept electoral defeat. The [Republican Party] is the only mainstream political party among all established Western democracies that has turned against democracy.” 

Election subversion, he recently told CNN, is “how democracy will die.”

Particularly worrisome are the large numbers of Americans who believe the Big Lie and other conspiracy theories even once they’ve been irrefutably debunked. An October poll by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) indicated that 60% of white evangelical Christians believe the election was stolen from Trump. The same holds true for 82% of Fox News regular viewers and 97% of One America News (OAN) viewers. And as if these findings weren’t alarming enough, 30% of Republicans say violence may be justified to “save” the US.

Closely related to the Big Lie is the patently absurd QAnon conspiracy theory, whose believers were highly visible at the January 6 insurrection and at Trump presidential rallies.

According to the PRRI poll, nearly one in five Americans believe a central tenet of QAnon, which is rooted in the medieval antisemitic blood libel: that the US government and media and financial worlds are “controlled by a group of Satan-worshiping pedophiles running a global child sex-trafficking operation.”

As conservative New York Times columnist Bret Stephens wrote in the Autumn 2021 issue of Sapir, “A nation that can bring itself to believe anything about anything will, sooner or later, have little trouble believing the worst about Jews.”

In the context of the widening assault on our democracy, this prediction is hardly alarmist. When democracy is weakened and our enlightened political culture is undermined, it’s axiomatic that the security, well-being and freedom that Jews have enjoyed in America will be diminished.

Nevertheless, a minority of American Jews are pining for a return of an authoritarian demagogue because of his so-called pro-Israel credentials, seemingly willing to sacrifice the democratic values that have protected minority rights and enabled Jews to flourish in this country. They need to realize before it’s too late that allowing narrow political interests to trump democracy (pun intended) is both shortsighted and extremely dangerous.  

The writer is director of Community Relations and Public Affairs at the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland.