The Day Democracy Died: Listening to Washington and McLean
by Nicholas Johnson
published with permission
George Washington warned his “Friends and Fellow-Citizens” there could be days like this in his farewell address of September 19, 1796. Political parties could become “potent engines by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled . . . to usurp for themselves the reins of government.” [Photo credit: wikimedia commons; Gilbert Stuart painting.]
Individuals may then “seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction . . . turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation on the ruins of public liberty.”
“[L]et there be no change by usurpation; . . . it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed.”
Are you old enough to remember the lyrics to Don McLean’s song, “American Pie,” about “the day the music died”?
It will be nothing to sing about, but we’re headed toward “the day democracy died.” Some say it’s already dead. “The day democracy died” was January 6, 2021.
It’s more complicated than that.
Like preparing your garden soil in the spring, a democracy can only grow in a nation with, one, a civil society of non-governmental and non-business organizations – from Rotary Clubs to garden clubs, trade unions to Wordle groups. And, two, people who understand and reject authoritarian rule, and affirmatively seek democracy (as we discovered after 20 unsuccessful years in Afghanistan).
The first was found in America by de Tocqueville and published in 1835 in his “Democracy in America.”
The second was made clear by Thomas Jefferson in the 1776 Declaration of Independence, listing and charging the “King of Great Britain [with] a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny.“
Many components, properly assembled and maintained, can become a car. Similarly, a democracy only emerges with the assembly and maintenance of components. A non-political, respected judiciary. A trusted electoral system, expanding participants and easing voting.
Thomas Jefferson considered independent media so essential to democracy that choosing “government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
George Washington thought education a component. “In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.”
How to destroy a democracy? As the Nazi Hermann Goering explained, “it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship . . .. It works the same in any country.”
The authoritarian’s playbook isn’t complicated. You destroy the public’s trust in its democratic institutions. Promote divisiveness, fear and anger. Repeat “the big lie” until it’s believed by the faithful. Convince the public the media is “the enemy of the people.”
Or, as in Iowa currently, you attack the public education system, prescribe the books and subjects that can and can’t be taught, reduce the appropriations, demonize the teachers.
It works the same in any country. Including ours. Just like George Washington warned us.
Nicholas Johnson is best known as a former Commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission. He is the author of Columns of Democracy.
Blog: fromdc2iowa.blogspot.com Website: nicholasjohnson.org