Opinion: A referendum on democracy

In this May 28, 2020, file photo a voter casts her mail-in ballot at in a drop box in West Chester, Pa., prior to the primary election.

In this May 28, 2020, file photo a voter casts her mail-in ballot at in a drop box in West Chester, Pa., prior to the primary election. Matt Rourke/ AP file


Published: 12-02-2023 6:00 AM

Paul Levy lives in Concord.

You may know of this nation. Its constitution establishes three branches of government: executive, legislative, and judicial. It has an elected president with term limits, who is commander-in-chief of the military and presides over cabinet offices and the executive branch generally. It has an independent judiciary including a supreme court with justices that are nominated by the president, selected by the legislature’s upper house, and serve for life. It has an independent, bicameral legislature representing its many constituent states with powers reserved for these states. These arrangements establish a strong system of checks and balances against authoritarian power.

Its constitution also recognizes human rights and freedoms as inalienable and specifically guarantees many of these rights and freedoms. For example, it protects against double jeopardy (50), self-incrimination (51), and ex-post facto laws (54). It precludes the establishment of a state religion (14) and guarantees freedom of religion (28), freedom of thought, speech, and the press (29), freedom of assembly (31), due process of law (46-7) and equal protection (19).

By now, you’ve probably figured out that the nation I’m writing about is Russia. (The numbers in parentheses refer to articles in its constitution should you want to see them.)

The Russian Constitution is particularly strong on human rights, going far beyond the constitutional rights guaranteed, for example, by the American Constitution. It specifically guarantees equality for women in addition to banning discrimination on the basis of race, nationality, sex, language, and other categories (19). It establishes rights to privacy (23) and travel (27). It establishes rights to a home (40), health care (41), a favorable environment together with a duty to preserve that environment (42, 58), free universal education including pre-school and higher education for those who qualify (43), work in a safe and hygienic workplace (37), a minimum wage (37), and rights of workers to unionize (30) and strike (37).

It provides rights to social security, disability income, and assistance for dependents upon the loss of a breadwinner (39). It also prohibits propaganda or agitation that arouses social, racial, national or religious hatred as well as propaganda promoting social, racial, national, religious or linguistic supremacy (29), and it prohibits associations with armed units that might undermine security and instigate social, racial, national, and religious strife (13).

The Russian Constitution was adopted in 1993 in the wake of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika. Many people hoped it signaled Russia’s readiness to move forward with democracy, and there was movement in this direction at first. But that movement rapidly dissipated and reversed under the leadership of Vladimir Putin.

Words on paper, even when that paper is a constitution, aren’t enough to preserve a democracy. Constitutions are readily ignored, sidestepped, or overridden by leaders not committed to them. Strong men or their judicial and legislative devotees can construe them in most any expedient way. Emergency powers can be made permanent. Military forces can be used for all sorts of self-serving purposes. Private, armed zealots can easily be aimed and unleashed on “vermin” of all sorts. In a word, a democratic constitution provides little protection against dictators, particularly angry, vindictive ones surrounded by clever, cunning, and committed advisors.

Democracies depend on certain core human values and core processes. If leaders and citizens don’t value unity, equality, and mutual respect for one another, there is no justification for democratic power-sharing, for universal suffrage, one-person-one-vote, and majority decision-making. If decisions are based on personal power, rigid ideology, or misinformation rather than deliberation (analysis, debate, pragmatism…), collaboration (bipartisanship in our two-party system), and consensus or majority votes, democratic decision-making disappears.

Nonpartisan organizations like Freedom House (U.S.), Economic Intelligence Unit (England), and International IDEA (Sweden) assess the strength of democracies around the world. All see American democracy declining rapidly. Their conclusions are based largely on the evidence of increasing polarization, inequality, discrimination, hate crimes, misinformation, conspiracy theories, gridlock, a Big Lie, an insurrection, and growing fascination with strong men and minority rule. All of these shifts are apparent to all of us, and each undermines the human and process pillars of democracy named above.

Donald Trump and his GOP have made it very clear, through their words, actions, and threats that they are committed to authoritarianism rather than democracy. Jonathan Baird’s recent opinion piece (11/26) cited some of these declarations and actions, and there are many more. He and others, including many conservatives and distressed Republicans, are wisely urging all of us who value democracy to take these things literally, to see them as meaning exactly what they declare and exhibit.

The 2024 elections nationally and in many states and localities won’t be partisan politics as usual. They will be referendums on democracy — do we want to keep it or not?