Huq speaks holding a mic in front of a sign that says "Waging Democracy"
Keynote speaker Aziz Huq, a professor at University of Chicago Law School and author of “How to Save a Constitutional Democracy.” (Photo/JCRC)

How to preserve democracy when old norms fail

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The executive director of the Protect Democracy project had just enumerated the many ways democracy is under attack in the U.S. and around the world, painting a bleak picture of current trends and offering dire warnings about the future. Then he looked out at the roomful of community members and leaders before him and said reassuringly, “This is what democracy looks like.”

Ian Bassin, an associate White House counsel during the Obama administration and founder of Protect Democracy, spoke at a daylong forum sponsored by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, and called “Waging Democracy” at the University of San Francisco.

Abby Porth, executive director of the JCRC, opened the Oct. 14 event by pointing out that Jews have always been safest when the societies in which they live have strong democratic norms. But she warned that fundamental protections such as voting rights and freedom of speech are threatened both in the U.S. and overseas.

“These are really troubling times we’re living in,” she said. “Never across the globe have we seen such a rise in authoritarianism.”

Bassin was among the speakers who warned that democracy is in retreat in part because of “extreme leaders” in major democracies such as the U.S. and India. And he said Brazil is about to elect Jair Bolsonaro, who has spoken approvingly of the country’s former military dictatorship and its repressive measures.

Bassin joined former Oklahoma Republican Rep. Mickey Edwards and Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice, on an opening panel that focused on the demise of democracy.

Bassin said “democracy was on the march” during the second half of the 20th century, but began to retreat around 2005 as countries in Eastern Europe, Asia and elsewhere saw the rise of populist, anti-democratic parties amid fears about issues such as job security and immigration. U.S. millennials, many of whose lives have been marked by economic insecurity and fears of terrorism, don’t have the same connection to democracy as do many of their parents and grandparents, he said.

“We are witnessing almost a perfect storm of things coming together to threaten our democracy,” he said. “[Millennials are] wondering if there’s another form of government that works better.”

Never across the globe have we seen such a rise in authoritarianism.

Edwards blamed the polarization in American culture on political parties, saying they’re focused on winning and on destroying their opponents instead of seeking processes that will make American democracy stronger. He predicted that political parties as they’re now constructed will no longer exist by the middle of this century, and told audience members they can be difference makers.

“Get off the sidelines, get involved — some of you should be running for office, or getting involved in campaigns,” he said. “All of you who watch Fox or MSNBC, turn it off. Get out of your silo. Talk to people who think differently, understand the people who think differently. We have got to get out of this tribalism.”

Weiser said the decline in U.S. democracy is part of a long-term move to restrict voting rights and to use gerrymandering to tilt elections.

“All of these trends are reflective of the deterioration of democracy,” she said. “Donald Trump is only a symptom of a broader set of problems that are ailing our democracy, and he may be taking advantage of some of these cracks we’re seeing in our armor.”

Keynote speaker Aziz Huq, a professor at the University of Chicago law school and author of the upcoming book “How to Save a Constitutional Democracy,” said there have been 52 instances since 1980 in which democracy has failed around the world, and only five have involved coups or the imposition of emergency powers. Most have happened from the inside, by eviscerating courts and other independent government bodies.

Massive reform to save U.S. democracy is not possible in today’s polarized society, Huq said, but incremental changes can be helpful.

Among those changes could be an improvement in civil discourse. One panel at the JCRC forum focused on how to become more civil in politics and on social media — starting perhaps with the language Americans use.

“Even terms like democracy are more complicated based on how we interpret those words,” said Kristen Cambell, executive director of Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement. “All these terms have become loaded terms. If we can’t talk about democracy, then that is a problem.”

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster z"l was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.