Mott: Not just Red States risk deep-sixing democracy

The more progressives fear conservatives, the more likely they are to shut opponents out of the political process

by Meg Mott

Fragile as a moth’s wing and vibrant as a sunset, democracy is a wonder of nature. When a nation is alive to its mysterious forces, when it allows various approaches to human flourishing and happiness, democracy feels as elemental as gravity. But when we stop believing in our capacity to handle complex issues from myriad points of view, then democracy dies. When we fear our political opponents more than we cherish democracy, we engage in behavior that undermines democratic rule.

Meg Mott

It’s easy to see this process in Red States. When Republican candidates deny the legitimacy of elections, when election officials are attacked for doing their job, or when patriotic Republicans are ostracized for valuing the nation more than the party, Democrats rightly call foul. Without trust in the electoral process, without a commitment to constitutional norms, our democracy will not survive.

But Blue States are also at risk of deep-sixing democracy. Instead of denying election results, a progressive, anti-democratic tactic is to shut down debate. This was most clear after Vermont voters overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment protecting reproductive rights. With seventy-seven percent of the population voting in favor of Article 22, one would think that the pro-choice leaders could have offered an olive branch. But they didn’t. 

When a pro-choice leader announced “our autonomy over our bodies is not up for discussion,”  it sent a clear signal: If you are pro-life in Vermont, your judgments do not matter. But that’s a big mistake. When we stop listening to the other side, we stop supporting democracy. When victors write their opponents out of the political process, then losers are left with nothing but the tragic option of burning down the house.

In fact, Article 22 still gives anti-abortion Vermonters a place at the table. Yes, the individual right to personal reproductive autonomy is constitutionally recognized, but so is the state’s “compelling interest” in regulating abortion using “the least restrictive means.” As was the case in the Roe decision, there comes a moment in pregnancy when a woman’s right to choose bumps up against a state’s interest in a potential citizen. Abortion rights in the United States have never been absolute.

Conservatives, therefore, still have a role to play in deciding what that compelling interest might look like and progressives would be wise to listen. For example, the conservative social program that provides support for families from pregnancy onwards, as provided in Senator Mitt Romney’s Family Security Act 2.0, does not threaten access to abortion. There are ways to support families that extend beyond reproductive choice.

Unfortunately, the more progressives fear conservatives, the more likely they are to shut their opponents out of the political process and the more likely we are to lose our democracy. That’s the conclusion of Rachel Kleinfeld, a Senior Fellow at the Democracy Conflict and Governance Center at the Carnegie Endowment, who recently published “Five Strategies to Support U.S. Democracy.” Democracies, she observes, “have primarily been dying at the hands of their own voters, who appreciate democracy but fear the other party so much that they will allow anti-democratic action to keep their side in power.” To support our democracy we have to be willing to be less afraid.

Instead of allowing fear to dictate our politics, Kleinfeld urges us to channel that energy into coalition-building. A winning strategy would be to build a “broad-based multistranded, prodemocracy movement around a positive vision concretized in local-rooted action.” This sort of coalition building helps us in two ways. First, when we use our “problem-solving muscles in actual situations,” we are forced to reckon with “the complexities of others’ lives and desires.” In the very tumult of heated deliberations, we stop seeing our enemies as caricatures of our fear-driven imaginations and start seeing them as the complex human beings they really are.

This leads us to the second benefit of building a multistranded movement: the displacement of stereotypes. Americans are increasingly bedeviled by misperceptions of their political opponents. The Perception Gap quiz, created by the non-partisan organization More in Common, has been tracking the growing misperceptions that one party has of the other. The more educated a partisan is the more likely they are to misperceive their opponent. When these same partisans actually work together, those imagined stereotypes fall by the wayside, especially if the project is broad enough to encompass lots of smaller battles. 

A prodemocracy movement that focused on improving support for Vermont families would naturally incorporate the perspectives of progressives, conservatives, and libertarians. By championing the benefits of equality in marriages and in child-rearing, progressives would remind us how democracy requires giving each person a sense of dignity. By championing the benefits of tradition, conservatives would remind us how democracy depends on some common understandings. And by championing the benefits of liberty, libertarians would remind us how democracies must always check the impulse to govern through coercion.

And through those ongoing disagreements we might learn something important about the abortion debate. Instead of winners and losers, there is a rich ecosystem of arguments, from pro-life progressives who critique the abortion industry to pro-choice Catholics who use transcendent values to argue for the dignity of discernment. There is much to learn from each other.

So rather than giving into our fears, which threatens the health of our democracy, let’s be more curious about the abortion debate. A first step would be for the proponents of Article 22 to make political space for those who lost the vote. Surely a super-majority affords enough confidence to hear the fears and resentments of those who wanted the Amendment to fail. But the big step is to trust each other enough to risk working together. Democracy requires us to believe in our capacity to live with great differences without succumbing to the impulse to dominate. We’ll only get better at it when we try.

The author is the Putney Town Moderator and a Constitution Wrangler

Categories: Commentary

4 replies »

  1. I would say this. When people deny the last several national (and probably countless local) elections have been stolen by various nefarious means, despite reams and reams of proof and countless depositions from people who saw it happen up close and personal, that’s when a nation dies. When people trade nationalism for globalism, that’s when a nation dies.

    And by the way, the United States is not a “Democracy”. It is a “Constitutional Republic”. And yes, there IS a world of difference. You’d do well to learn that difference, Ms Mott.

    • “The United States is a republic, not a democracy”. This makes it seem like a democracy and a republic are mutually exclusive. They usually aren’t; usually a republic is a type of representational democracy with some checks and balances enshrined in the constitution that safeguard the rights of minorities. A “pure” democracy would imply the rule of the majority in every sphere of life, without such safeguards.

  2. Meg Mott’s observation is quite insightful. And the penchant for the left trying to stifle input from the conservative elements of our state, go far beyond in her article. Case in point: the debacle in Barry, in which a member of the diversity committee was ostracized by the committee chair, and other members because of his conservative perspective. The chair even asserted that there was no place for him on the committee.

    As a conservative and a pro life bioethicist, I have experienced a similar reaction in other quarters where the mantra was to respect a diversity of opinion. The hypocrisy was telling. I remember hearing “you just can’t talk to those people” referring to people who have opposing perspectives.

    I personally endeavor to listen, to understand and to find any semblance of common ground. I try to see the the other person brings different insight into the problem at hand.

    I hope that I am able to build a shared understanding. Sometimes it even works.

  3. Proof propaganda and rhetoric work. Words matter as they like to crow. Swap out the word “democracy” and insert “corporation.” The opposition has implanted the phrase, “threat to our democracy.” The threat is to their “corporation” and criminal syndicate. We are a representative Republic, albeit currently with little to no representation. Remember the phrase “spreading freedom and democracy around the world?” They were spreading something for sure. It had very little to do with freedom and the “democracy” was the expansion of the “corporation.” Banksters, the Crown, the Vatican, and the wealthiest marauders around the globe, subverted and infiltrated our Republic long ago. What we have now is the end game of the fraud, the corruption, and giant ponzi scheme. We are in a war and the invisible enemy is becoming more visible each day. Mystery Babylon, no longer a mystery.

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