It is unprecedented. The January 6th committee has laid out in compelling testimony the many ways in which Donald Trump and his allies sought to overturn the results of the 2020 election and how close we came to losing our constitutional democracy. But, as Congressman Jamie Raskin put it, what is most important now is “what all of us will do to fortify our democracy against coups, political violence, and campaigns to steal elections away from the people.”
At the League of Women Voters of Maine, we’ve heard from a lot of people who feel powerless, overwhelmed, scared, and demoralized by the events of the last few months. It’s understandable: mass shootings, relentless attacks on voting rights and civil rights in the states, and Supreme Court decisions at odds with the will of a majority of voters, most distressingly in the overturning of Roe v Wade. And all of this against the background of inflation, pandemics, and relentlessly advancing climate change. Faced with all of this bad news, where can one individual even begin to make a difference?
Earlier this summer, the Culture of Democracy summit brought together people from all across the country who are working to empower voters and preserve our democracy. It was inspiring to know that so many people are working within their own communities, companies, schools, and organizations to incorporate civic engagement into everyday life. The summit was also an opportunity to hear from scholars who have been tracing the causes of our broken system of government.
According to Ian Raskin from Protect Democracy, countries that fall into authoritarianism demonstrate the same symptoms: politicizing independent institutions, spreading disinformation, executive power grabs, quashing dissent, delegitimizing communities, and corrupting elections. With this knowledge of history, we must see attacks on the free press, the demonization of minorities and marginalized groups, the politicization of the courts, and the normalization of violence and mass shootings, not only as evils in and of themselves but also as part of the authoritarian playbook.
So, what can you do? We can make a difference when we pay attention and call out problems. We can make a difference when we support independent journalism, stand up for immigrants and LGBTQ people, and share accurate voter information in our communities.
This means asking Americans to shore up institutions at a time when trust in those institutions is at historic lows. The vast majority of Americans (85%) said that the U.S. political system either needs major changes (43%) or needs to be completely reformed (42%). Among U.S. adults who say they want significant political reform, 58% said they are not confident the system can change.
For many Americans, calls to vote simply aren’t enough because they don’t believe their votes matter. The painful truth is that sometimes they don’t matter as much as they should. We can name the reasons - the Electoral College, gerrymandering, and the influence of money in politics, all of which have roots in racism and are made worse by rising inequality.
But we can’t give up. With the current crisis still playing out, we can no longer put off fixing the root causes of our democratic decline. We must strengthen our democratic institutions or lose them. This work is urgent, and it is the work of generations. No one can tackle it all, and no one is off the hook for doing their part.
Here are some ideas. Volunteer as a poll worker or as an election observer. Learn about how elections work in your community, and spread accurate information in your networks. Support good journalism, subscribe to as many as you can afford. Volunteer and/or give money to organizations that are mobilizing voters, especially those who face greater barriers to engagement. Join an organization that is mobilizing around an issue that you care about, whatever that issue is. And keep doing the hard work to undo structural racism in all parts of our society.
We are fighting for an imperfect system because only by preserving our essential rights and freedoms do we have a hope of making a country that truly can be the multiracial democracy we need. None of us can save democracy on our own, but together, we are the only people who can.
Anna Kellar is the Executive Director and Jill Ward is the President of the League of Women Voters of Maine.