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  • Writer's pictureNorth Shore Democrats of Travis County

Guest editorial: Saving Democracy

(Editor’s note: The following guest editorial is based on a presentation Mr Stevens made at the June 15 NSD Meet & Greet, themed “Protecting Democracy.” At the June Texas State Democratic Convention in El Paso, Mr Stevens was elected a delegate from Congressional District 10 to the National Democratic Convention in Chicago during August. Hear Kerry Stevens’ full presentation: )

By Kerry L Stevens, vice chair, Travis County Democratic Party

Consider the following: 

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” 

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the definition of democracy. More specifically, a democratic republic. Of course, that came from our Declaration of Independence in 1776.

On the surface, “saving democracy” may seem like an odd topic to speak on. Why does democracy need saving? Isn’t it baked into the DNA of our country? Don’t we all want democracy?

It might feel that way, but in a recent The Texas Lyceum poll, only 37% of Texans polled strongly agreed with the idea that “Democracy is the best form of government.” 

Our democracy is frail

The truth is our democracy is fragile and always has been. However, we the people have the power to do something about it. I’ll share my ideas with you in a few moments.

But first, it’s valuable to see where we’ve come from to understand where we’re heading.

After years of debate in Constitutional Conventions at our country’s birth, our leaders were not of one mind. They wrestled with the structure of government and the roles of states vs a federal government. Even after settling on the constitution, they soon had to make amendments including the Bill of Rights. Nothing like it had ever been tried before. This idea of a democracy was even viewed as an experiment by some.

In a speech during a Constitutional Convention debate, Patrick Henry stated, “Who knows the dangers that this new system may produce? They are out of sight of the common people; they cannot foresee latent consequences. I dread the operation of it on the middling and lower classes of people; it is for them I fear the adoption of this system… Your president may easily become king. Your Senate is so imperfectly constructed that your dearest rights may be sacrificed to what may be a small minority.”

A republic — if you can keep it

There is a story, that upon exiting the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was approached by a group of citizens asking what sort of government the delegates had created. His answer was: "A republic, if you can keep it." 

What did he mean by that…if you can keep it? You see, our Constitution is neither a self-actuating nor a self-correcting document. It requires the constant attention and devotion of its citizens – we the people.

But flawed from the outset

From the outset, our form of government was flawed. It allowed slavery. It forbade women the right to vote. It allowed for the continued oppression of freed African Americans. Over time, those issues were addressed. But today, we still experience flaws up and down the ballot, if you will.

Let’s look at the Presidency. Article II of the Constitution describes the office in just a handful of paragraphs. To a remarkable extent, the presidency is shaped by unwritten traditions and expectations that historians and political scientists call “norms” or the “soft guardrails.” Former President Trump busted one norm after another, revealing the extent to which the whole system was built on the basic assumption that the President would stay within a range of reasonableness. 

Could Trump steer taxpayer money to his businesses? Could he call for the investigation of his political rivals? Could he fire people in oversight positions and replace them with loyalists? Yes, he could, and he did! What prevented past presidents from such behavior? Only presidential norms. It turns out that shamelessness is really empowering.

Norm breaking infected more than Trump

But this disease of breaking norms has infected more than the Presidency. Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, refused to entertain the appointment of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court in 2016, shamelessly citing that Obama had less than a year left in his term and didn’t deserve to appoint a Justice.

In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott recently issued a full pardon to the convicted killer of Garrett Foster, a Black Lives Matter protester, making a mockery of our justice system. And last month, the 2024 Texas Republican Party platform called for another swipe at our voting rights, requiring winners of statewide races to also win a majority of Texas’ 254 counties, most of which are deep Red. 

You can easily see where this is going… Sadly, I submit we’re moving toward an authoritarian form of government.

Authoritarianism on the way?

An authoritarian government has a concentration of power in the hands of a small group of people who act in ways that are not constitutionally accountable to the people they are meant to represent and serve.

Here are a few attributes of authoritarianism pulled from the Commons Social Change Library:

  1. Rejecting democratic “rules of the game” or “norms”

  2. Spreading lies and conspiracies to undermine the public’s belief in truth

  3. Gutting or demonizing institutions to undermine the public’s trust in those actors that hold the state accountable

  4. Blaming minorities, immigrants, and “outsiders” for a country’s problems, promising to restore national glory

  5. Rewarding loyalists and punishing defectors

  6. Encouraging or condoning violence to advance political goals

Does any of this sound familiar? The good news is, there is Power in the People! We the people. Let’s look at two historical examples where this power was used. 

Power in the People!

Women got the right to vote in this country in 1920. What preceded that milestone was a lengthy and difficult struggle. It began as a local movement in Seneca Falls in 1848. Several generations of woman suffragettes lectured, wrote, marched, lobbied, and practiced civil disobedience. There were numerous state campaigns, court battles, and petitions to Congress. What many thought was impossible, ultimately led to the ratification of the 19th Amendment.

Second, let’s look at how Poland escaped its authoritarian rule. Poland has a complicated history, and after WWI, Poland became a Democratic Republic. But in the wake of WWII, Poland came under the rule of the Soviet communist regime. With subsequent rising prices in the late 1970’s, mass protests began. Workers began to strike, organized by "Solidarity" Independent Self-Governing Trade Union. Finally, after more than a decade of strikes and other organized resistance, the authorities agreed to hold democratic elections. The “Solidarity” trade-union-turned-Party won in a landslide, abolishing the former authoritarian rule.

Do you see a common theme in these two examples? I see an organized effort. I see a group of people collaborating to achieve a common goal, committed to doing the hard work, over time. That’s how social change happens. That’s how it happened in the past and that’s what’s needed to ensure it happens in the future. You see, there’s Power in the People!

So, what can we do to push back against Authoritarianism today? I’ll share four steps, adapted from the Commons Social Change Library.

Four steps to fight authoritarianism 

First, identify the issues. There are many to choose from: voters’ rights, gerrymandering, the lack of civics education in schools, campaign finance. Choose an issue that you feel most passionate about because passion is the fuel of longevity. And longevity is the backbone of success.

Second, form diverse coalitions or movements with a shared vision and strategy, and clear, concrete goals. Authoritarianism thrives on divisions and disorientation, a rhetoric of us versus them. So, the more diverse the coalition, the stronger it can become. Consider engaging members of community “pillars” like religious institutions, business groups, unions, professional associations, media institutions, and security forces in your pro-democracy movement, and of course, our Party. Listen to each other and communicate across your differences.

Third, do the hard work. Mount persuasion campaigns like letter-writing, testifying, or public speaking toward the people in power. Launch legal challenges. Raise public awareness to apply additional pressure through a range of nonviolent tactics like protests, rallies, and boycotts. Do what authoritarians don’t expect or want. Remember that small seeds can become big trees. Remember that change seldom happens overnight. But change does happen. Just a couple of years ago, Mothers Against Greg Abbott started as a small group of local Texas moms tired of Republican rule. Today, it’s a statewide organization with $1.5M in donations. 

Lastly, you’ve got to vote, and get your community to vote. Vote for the people who are willing to fight for democracy, from our school boards to our Governor’s Mansion. Vote for the change-makers. In Texas, we have enough potential Dem voters today to Turn Texas Blue. The challenge is getting them out to vote. The challenge is convincing them that change is possible.  But WE know that change is possible. The North Shores Dems Club and Super Precinct are doing just that. Through voter registration, door knocking, texting, and calling one person at a time, North Shore Dems are making a difference in Lago Vista and beyond. They’re getting out the vote. For that, I thank you, I thank you, I thank you, and encourage you to continue!

If you’re not engaged today, I invite you to get involved. At times, the work will not be easy. But it is rewarding. I can’t think of a better legacy to leave to your family than helping to Turn Texas Blue! There’s Power in the People!


Hear Kerry Stevens’ full presentation:

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