Tom Hastings: America facing clash between Democracy and dictatorship

It was 1776. The US was a baby nation-state. It was very proud of itself for its radical new democracy, the first, it was claimed, since the ancient Greeks.

Great decision-making power was conferred to white men who owned property, except for Jews, Catholics, and Quakers. Ugh.

Sure, some states allowed Jewish, or Catholic, or Quaker men with property the vote, but not all states.

Black people, Native Americans, and women? Of course not. Indeed, in the first election just 6 percent of adults in the new country were allowed to vote.

Each advance in rights has been tough. Rights gained have frequently been clawed back.

We are in the middle of the greatest threats to the US democracy since World War II. Are we ready to engage, to protect our country?

When I say “our country,” I mean the America we have painfully and gradually created over the past 247 years, a democracy that began small with major flaws, but which slowly matured into one with more robust aspects of true democracy — one in which all people hold significant rights.

Milestones that made the US more democratic include:

1828 White men without property could finally vote in most states. That same year Maryland passed its “Jew bill” after eight years of debate, making it the last state to permit Jewish men to vote.

1869 More than 90 years after the Declaration of Independence the first state to grant women the vote was Wyoming.

1919 Women could vote in all states after 143 years into nationhood.

1924 Native Americans were birthright US citizens despite their original status as inhabitants here for as much as 40,000 years before white people.

1964-1965 Civil and voting rights finally extended to all peoples of all races in all 50 states, nearly 200 years since “freedom.”

1978 Native Americans could practice their religion. Two centuries of “legal” suppression and just 45 years of “allowing” people actual religious freedom.

1990 At long last, people with disabilities were guaranteed reasonable access and all rights.

Now comes Donald Trump, mounting efforts to render the US no more democratic than, say, Turkey under the autocratic Erdogan or Russia under Putin.

Democracy is when the people make the decisions. Dictatorship is when one strongman or a small group of generals make all decisions, and penalties for disobedience are swift, with no due process, and harsh.

In a free country, citizens accept properly counted elections, the transfer of power from office holders to the winner of the new election. Trump and his allies did not.

In a free country, citizens understand that protest, resistance, and disobedience are part of the contest, but violence never is.

The Jan. 6 insurrectionists were ruthless, killing a few but hunting more they did not find. It was like watching a Lord of the Flies mob clamor for its sacrificial victims — Nancy Pelosi and Mike Pence, both by name. They featured grown bodies, but adolescent emotions and brains that were armed and raging.

Now that courageous African American prosecutor Alvin Bragg has the unmitigated temerity to actually threaten to enforce one of the many laws that Trump has broken with impunity and apparent immunity, Trump threatens “death and destruction.”

We are rapidly approaching an inflection point, a rise back to a stronger democracy, or a descent into the dark dictatorship that Trump clearly aims to achieve. And so we either pay attention and stand up for freedom, the rule of law, and the slowly won democracy we have, or it will circle the drain imminently.

Dr. Tom Hastings coordinates degree and certificate programs in conflict resolution at Portland State University. His column is distributed through PeaceVoice, where he serves as a senior editor.