David R. Jones (137830)
David R. Jones Credit: Contributed

This year, Black history month should be extended. We need more time to reflect on the remarkable challenges we face in America today. 

Despite our great strides, American democracy is in grave danger. The attempted dismantling of our form of government is happening before our very eyes. The aggressors call it patriotism. The enfranchisement of the poor and people of color is unquestionably in the bull’s-eye.

The bigoted faction in our society that has always existed is now a clear and present threat. We saw the same thing after the Civil War with Black Codes and Jim Crow laws. We’re reminded that even as we rise, we’re besieged on all sides by white supremacists who will stop at nothing to deform true democracy.

The solution is to know your history, and double down on democracy. Vote, organize, engage your community leaders and elected officials. Find common ground with people whose politics you may not espouse, but who are willing to join the fight against antidemocratic forces. Voting rights is the front line of the fight.

At least 27 states have introduced more than 250 bills that would restrict voting.  Some have toughened voter ID requirements, some reduced the time in which mail-in ballots can be requested, some limited drop boxes, and some made it easier to “purge” voter rolls. There’s also extreme gerrymandering.

These antidemocratic forces in Congress blocked the Freedom to Vote Act and the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act. They promote passage of state laws that attempt to literally whitewash American history. Bills have been introduced in 33 states that restrict what schools can teach about race, politics, American history, sexual orientation and gender identity, according to PEN America, a nonprofit advocate for freedom of expression.

This movement exploded into public when a white supremacist mob, urged on by a sitting president and carrying weapons and confederate flags, stormed the U.S. Capitol, erected gallows and forced Congress to halt the counting of Electoral College votes. Seven people died in connection with Jan. 6th.

There’s a surprising amount of public uncertainty about the precise threat to democracy, and what can and should be done about it. Certainly, we cannot be complacent. This attack on American democracy could metastasize in the next few years into a bloodless coup d’état – quieter, more sophisticated, deadly cynical, and nonetheless devastating for all of us.

Some Democrats have mused about electoral reforms, like a Top 5 ranked-choice system, which perhaps could give GOP moderates a path to general election victories. In New York City, ranked-choice voting delivered mixed results: It did not propel an underdog mayoral candidate to victory, and it wasn’t the utterly confusing election disaster some feared. It’s still open for debate whether the advantages of ranked choice in New York City justify its drawbacks.

In any case, the forces pushing the national GOP in extreme directions are broad and likely unfazed by voting system tweaks. Republicans have a longtime practice of trying to distort the electorate, making it harder for certain voters (especially the young, poor, people of color and new citizens) to actually cast their ballots, giving the GOP a better shot at winning. 

How is democracy supposed to work? Generally, voters shift toward incumbents when things are going well and against them when they aren’t. Public policy evolves because voters, politicians and political parties agree on what appears broken and openly debate proposed fixes. Politicians anticipate criticisms and refine their plans — and that in turn helps produce good policy ideas, some of which actually are implemented.

The system goes to hell when there is a suspension of reality. At its root, the modern GOP’s attack on democracy – Donald Trump’s big election lie, rewriting history, disinformation and conservative media propaganda – undermines shared truths. Shared facts power civil debate and cooperation.

Shared lies fuel autocracy. That’s bad for everyone. It erodes the ability of our political system to muddle through in the way that has always been its hidden strength. 

The threat to democracy is not just a Trump reelection or stolen election or a Republican win without a majority of votes — any Republican victory at all is a threat, because of the scary policiesthat the GOP – whose ascendant leaders do not respect democracy – might enact the next time around.

The shame is that this is happening because the Make America Great Again crowd’s candidate lost the election. Now they feel threatened. 

And when white people who believe in whiteness as a power structure are afraid, they lash out. That means we’ll find ourfaces on money, but at the same time, be told that our hard-won voting rights might not be guaranteed.

As Black History Month 2022 ends, consider that more than ever, today we are one nation, divisible. We must push back against the comfort of some that threatens the freedom of everyone.

David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 175 years. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.

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