Jewish Community Relations Councilof San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin, Sonoma, Alameda and Contra Costa Counties

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A Threat to Democracy Itself

September 12, 2018
Posted by: Jeremy Russell, Director of Marketing and Communications

Last week, at his most recent rally, President Donald Trump railed against the “failing” New York Times because it published an anonymous op-ed written by a senior official on his staff. During his tirade he said, “…unelected deep state operatives who defy the voters to push their own secret agendas are truly a threat to democracy itself.” And he is far from alone in this observation. Across the political spectrum observers agree: In a healthy democracy, an anonymous, unelected individual would not be able to make a credible claim to be countering their chief elected’s agenda from within his own administration. The idea that there currently exists a salient threat to democracy is, by and large, uncontroversial.

In fact, the threats these days are so many that a bipartisan group calling itself Protect Democracy has launched a democracy ‘threat score’ – updated daily – so that we can track the health of our democracy in real time. “Our democracy is facing threats we haven’t seen in generations,” the group posts on its website. “Every day, we’re seeing new attacks, from at home and abroad, on our right to free, fair, and fully informed self-government. But together, armed with our Constitution and the rule of law, we can fight back and protect our democracy from those who would do it harm.” Today that threat index score stands at 40, “Substantial Erosion: Violations that signal significant erosion of democratic quality and warn of high potential for breakdown in future.”

Our previous President also gave a speech last week, one which excoriated our current chief executive, but ultimately concluded that the real threat to democracy was indifference. “It did not start with Donald Trump. He is a symptom, not the cause.”

Appealing to tribe, appealing to fear, pitting one group against another, telling people that order and security will be restored if it weren’t for those who don’t look like us or don’t sound like us or don’t pray like we do — that’s an old playbook. It’s as old as time. And in a healthy democracy, it doesn’t work. Our antibodies kick in and people of good will from across the political spectrum call out the bigots and the fear-mongers and work to compromise and get things done and promote the better angels of our nation.

Say what you will about his speech as a whole, it’s hard to dispute that this is an apt description of why and how the American Jewish community has benefitted from a healthy democracy: Our community has been protected when “people of good will from across the political spectrum call out the bigots and the fear-mongers” and the nation’s body politic then rejects their dangerous ploys and provocative antics.

Democracy, when it’s working, fosters a pluralistic society in which minority communities – whether racial, religious or ethnic – are shielded from discrimination. No system is perfect, but even a cursory glance at history demonstrates how democratic norms can serve to insulate against hate. That’s why it is no surprise that, as those norms come under duress or are rejected outright, we see increases in hate crimes, xenophobia and anti-Semitism.

These negative trends are why JCRC has launched a new nonpartisan democracy initiative and will be hosting Waging Democracy, a day-long forum that includes seminars, educational sessions and opportunities for action. For our forum, we’ve joined with more than 20 partner organizations to convene a gathering of people from across the civic, social and political spectrum to take a look at what’s happening to our democracy, why it appears to be sinking and what can be done to right the ship.

Whether it’s Trump or Obama speaking, the assessment is that a threat to democracy exists. But we shouldn’t leave it up to our leaders to sort this out for us. Ours is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people and it’s up to us – we the people – to figure out the causes and solutions, and then to implement change for the better.