By editorial board • 

Fate of our democracy rests with voters at the ballot box

Good news is in perilously short supply in these troubled times, but here’s one nugget we can cling to and potentially build around as we move toward the next round of national balloting: 88% of Joe Biden voters and 89% of Donald Trump voters in the 2020 election agree that we have real cause to worry about the future of our democracy.

Yes, it’s true. By virtually identical and utterly overwhelming margins, partisans on both sides of America’s seemingly unbridgeable political divide agree on the problem.

That’s half the battle right there. It creates the basis for uniting in common cause to embrace a peaceful and practical solution.

It’s shocking to find our noble experiment in democratic governing under serious threat. After all, the United States rose on the wings of its novel democracy to become the richest and most powerful nation on the planet, thus inspiring more than half of its fellow nations to embrace some form of democratic governing themselves.

But democracies have been succumbing to authoritarian strongmen in troubling numbers in recent decades, particularly in Europe, Asia and South America. And the leading cause has shifted from the violent military coups to electoral triumphs modeled after those of World War II dictators Benito Mussolini in Italy and Adolf Hitler in Germany.

There could be no starker wakeup call than the one that jolted our nation on Jan. 6 of the year just past, when a violent, armed mob sacked the Capitol in an attempt to seize the citadel of power. It should have burned into the mind of every American that we aren’t immune, among the world’s democracies, to the rise of demagogues bent on amassing limitless power on a permanent basis.

If it can happen in Italy, Germany, Russia, Hungary, Peru, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Turkey and the Philippines — among others — then it can happen here. All it takes is ordinary members of the electorate relaxing their guard, easing their vigilance, engaging in delusion or falling victim to apathy.

In their seminal work “How Democracies Die,” Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt identify four key indicators of the rise of authoritarianism in a democracy: 1) Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game. 2) Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents. 3) Toleration or encouragement of violence. 4) Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media.

They proceed to trace the erosion of traditional behavioral norms, legal checks and balances, institutional gatekeeping and guardrail functions, and judicial, legislative and media independence, on all four fronts. They show how these elements, all lying outside the paper constraints of an underlying Constitution, can bend to the will of a populist demagogue able to inspire followers with bombastic rhetoric.

Even more chillingly, they show how failing once can simply set the stage for a better planned and more successful future attempt — either by the original leader or one inspired by his near success. Political polarization, economic disruption, military debacle, demographic upheaval and rising criminal violence all add to the peril, they suggest, as do stressors such as climate change and global pandemic.

If there was ever a time for Americans to all pull together in service to the republic, it is this one.

If modern democracies typically live or die at the ballot box, ours desperately needs to find new life through the ballot box. And that means electing leaders of reason, moderation and character — decent, reasonable people capable of listening to others and forging compromise, regardless of their personal political leanings.

We haven’t always done that in the past. But it appears there’s still time for us to turn things around, putting America back on its hallowed track of reason and respect.

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