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Threats to American Democracy

People ask me what I think about Clarence Thomas’ misbehavior. I think it’s important if it gets our eyes back on the prize, on the major threats to American democracy and our civilized way of life.

Political scientists tell us the greatest threat to democracy is the prevalence of guns.[1] Guns, especially powerful ones, make it possible to take democracy down. Once it’s possible, it often gets done. We focus on random murders without seeing the patterns, the growing literature left by the killers of their hatred for democratic government and other people’s rights.[2] The NRA has been led by people who regret the Confederacy’s loss in the Civil War. Gun manufacturers gain regardless of who the targets are. But we all lose.

Political scientists also tell us the growing disparity of wealth is a huge problem for democracy.[3] Fear of falling off the financial cliff makes people vulnerable and desperate. Inability to provide a decent life for oneself and one’s family makes people vulnerable to gangs, armed bands and self-styled militias. But far too few of us are willing to help the desperate or those who fear disaster. The results put us all at risk.

Other countries try to protect their people’s voting rights so great injustices can be cured at the ballot box.[4] But here, partisanship defeats caring for each other. We know how to define and prove gerrymandering but the Supreme Court blocks our ability to stop it.[5] We watch the Court support efforts to exclude voters from the polls.[6] We saw the Court unleash a flood of corporate funding into political campaigns[7] and the willingness of some to let foreign governments interfere in American political campaigns. So we have democracy of, by and for the richest. We can’t wall off own own communities – either we are all part of the solution or we are all victims.

Those were the three themes of my last book. And I only joined the chorus of people writing about them, adding only the Court’s contribution to the problem. I thought Americans would be concerned but I’m beginning to think myself naïve. As long as the problem is not in their own back yards right now, most Americans don’t care. And if most Americans don’t care, most politicians don’t care.

Refugees here from Sudan and elsewhere could tell us, if we’d listen, how problems that once seemed far away engulfed them and their families. We exclude fine, decent, honest foreign families but heaven forgive what we might learn from their experience. We’re convinced America is different. But America is as America does and if we don’t protect our system of government, we won’t keep it. NIMBY won’t protect us. The Court could do a lot, but the Roberts Court won’t.

[1] See Stathis N. Kalyvas, International System and Technologies of Rebellion: How the End of the Cold War Shaped Internal Conflict, 104 Amer. Pol. Sci. Rev. 415 (2010); James D. Fearon & David D. Laitin, Ethnicity, Insurgency, and Civil War, 97 Amer. Pol. Sci. Rev. 75, 85 (Feb. 2003); Gary King & Langche Zeng, Research Note: Improving Forecasts of State Failure, 53 World Pol. 623, 637, 652 (July 2001); and see Stephen E. Gottlieb, Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and the Breakdown of American Politics, 170-85 (New York: NYU Press 2016).

[2] See Gottlieb, The threat of white nationalist violence, WAMC Northeast Report, July 19, 2022.

[3] Gottlieb, Unfit for Democracy, 129-41.

[4] Gottlieb, Unfit for Democracy, 67-108.

[5] Gill v. Whitford, 585 U.S. ___ (2018).

[6] Crawford et al. v. Marion County Election Board, 553 US 181 (2008).

[7] Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 US 310 (2010).

Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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