For democracy to achieve its potential, it must be a democracy for everyone. That not only means that a majority of the people have the power to determine how they will be governed, but it also entails ensuring a relatively level playing field where the many potential privileges a person may have as an accident of their birth or by other means, doesn’t result in them having a stronger voice than their compatriots. This is why democracy properly instituted isn’t just majority rule—or “mob rule” as some have termed it—where majorities are permitted to infringe on the rights of minorities.
Last month, I attended the 2023 World Humanist Congress, where organizations from many nations gathered under the Humanists International umbrella agreed to the Copenhagen Declaration on Democracy. This document takes democracy’s potential power for social good a step further, stating that, “Democracy is not just a political process. With its emphasis on equality and participation, democracy is a powerful tool for the realization of social justice, human dignity, and the common good.” This suggests democracy’s true potential to transform societies.
A vision for what democracy could be, would start with a broad consideration of who can vote that allows every United States resident who has a stake in the elections to fully participate. Specific measures such as voting by mail and an election day holiday could ensure nobody is prevented from voting because they don’t have the time, money, or access to do so. Rules for identification, registration, and voting should be written to make the process as straightforward as possible, so every eligible voter would be certain their vote will count. Districts should follow more natural contiguous political boundaries so that some votes are not more valuable than others. And campaign finance laws should be overhauled so that money isn’t the driving factor in who wins. The culmination of this vision would be a society where elections lead to political representation that universally serves their constituents, protects and empowers marginalized communities, and ensures that progress continues unabated.
So why haven’t we seen democracies around the world achieve this kind of success? Our democracies remain fragile and imperfect, not yet living up to our aspirations for them.
In the United States, as elsewhere, many are trying to prevent democracy from realizing its potential as they strive to maintain their advantage over others. Unsurprisingly, those who deprioritize true democracy include some among the rich, powerful, and privileged who fear the loss of their status, but there are millions more who have been convinced to take the side of the privileged, even to their own detriment. Since, without these masses on their side the elites couldn’t be successful in maintaining their position, it’s worth delving a little deeper into this point.
Alexis de Tocqueville conveyed in Democracy in America that an educated electorate is a key component to a successful democracy. By educated, he meant accurately informed about the decisions their representatives make so they can make choices on election day to ensure their voices are heard. Today, this is lacking. We have whole swaths of society who vote against their own interests because of appeals to bigotry, tribalism, fundamentalist religious doctrine, and downright lies. Always strategies of those who would hold us back from equitable progress, these have become more effective tools for regression as social media, Artificial Intelligence, and the overall siloing of news by political affinity allows more and more people to live in separate information streams, confirming biases and stoking their fear. It results in unshakeable allegiance to politicians that are at best poor representatives who would sacrifice democracy for their own interests, and at worst would-be fascists.
Opening the toolbox of those seeking to repress democracy, one finds the power tools of limiting mail-in voting, strict voter ID, and gerrymandering, along with some tools that are so plainly opposed to American values that it’s hard to believe they get support. Some of these extreme laws include the way student ID is regularly disallowed as valid for voting, and some states like Georgia going so far as to allow student ID from some universities but not others so they can try to exclude Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Another example is the law in Montana that eliminated Election Day registration, not for any failings of the practice, but because the leading party in the legislature discovered that the majority of those who registered on the same day they voted had a preference for the other party. And yet another example is the increasing number of times that hundreds of thousands of voters are purged from the registration rolls with insufficient notice and for illegitimate reasons. As The Brennan Center for Justice reports, state legislatures have passed a near-record number of new restrictive voting laws so far this year. These are transparent attempts by right wing legislators to maintain their seats of power.
One of the most damaging practices to democracy today is the false narrative that somehow a presidential election was stolen, that voter fraud is rampant, and that every election is rigged—this despite zero evidence that these problems are systematic or widespread. The far right used this false narrative to push all the above limits on democracy and more. They convinced legislatures in thirty-eight states to put voter ID laws in place to combat this nonexistent threat—laws that may seem harmless to those with the money, time, and access to secure the necessary ID, but are disenfranchising millions of otherwise eligible voters. Those prevented from casting a counted ballot are not coincidentally predominantly from young and disabled communities and disproportionately Black and Brown voters who would often vote for Democrats.
As the Copenhagen Declaration on Democracy warns, “Democracy as a culture must be actively defended against all threats, including those from regimes, movements and political parties that embrace authoritarian principles, from those with unaccountable economic and social power, and from all other forces that seek to undermine democratic values and institutions.” Some progressive groups like Movement Voter Project and Public Wise are funding organizations and initiatives that can truly defend democracy. Others like the American Civil Liberties Union and Common Cause use law and public policy work to halt or reverse antidemocratic administrative actions and legislation. And those such as VoteRiders, and the League of Women Voters seek to educate and assist voters to overcome the barriers that are sometimes going up too fast to stop.
If we want to stop our society from being dragged back into an age when many were categorically disenfranchised, and move toward a truer and more equitable democracy instead, then we have to do our part by supporting organizations on the front lines championing voting rights policies, collaborating as much as possible with all who share this vision, and of course, exercising our right to vote. As John Lewis wrote in his final volume, “We can’t afford to let democracy slip away. … Don’t take this right for granted. Don’t squander it. Keep building. A vote is your voice being heard. A vote is your power.”