The insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 reminded us of our nation’s vulnerability to the actions of citizens and leaders who do not respect or understand democracy. From the beginning of his term in the White House, Donald Trump made a practice of shunning democratic principles. His four years in office posed a real threat to our nation. But until he began a crass attempt to overturn the election there was relatively little reported on how his actions, as well as the actions of many of his followers, were undermining and damaging the very foundation of our country.
Democracy is an ethical concept and the way we adopt policy matters as much as the policy that is adopted. The late J. Roland Pennock defined democracy as “Government by the people, where liberty, equality, and fraternity are secured to the greatest possible degree and in which human capacities are developed to the utmost, by means including free and full discussion of common problems and interests.”
To live in democracy means to be a caretaker of democracy and we all share the responsibility of protecting the right of everyone to be heard and to be an equal participant in the governing process. Getting one’s way by any means and at any cost is not a democratic principle. Respectfully finding our way forward together is.
The process of governing must be respectful of all, even those with whom we disagree. It must also be fair and transparent. Our founding fathers felt so strongly about transparency that they included in Article I, Section 5 of the Constitution a requirement that both Houses of Congress must keep and publish a journal of their proceedings and in Article II, Section 3 a requirement that the President shall regularly give the Congress information on the state of the union.
Democracy rests on a foundation that mirrors the widely accepted pillars of character: trustworthiness, respect for others, responsibility, fairness, caring, and good citizenship. Unethical leadership or an unethical citizenry can undermine the democratic process and even democracy itself. The Trump Presidency and the attempted insurrection should make it clear that we must do more to protect our great democracy.
H.R. 1, the For The People Act, contains a number of provisions that would be a good start. Among them are the requirements for presidents and vice presidents to disclose their tax returns and to divest financial interests that pose a conflict of interest or disclose specific information about their business interests. Leaders at the highest levels of government must not have interests that conflict with the public’s interests.
We must have a way to keep a check on leaders who might give priority to those who can strengthen their personal financial position at a cost to the public good. This is especially so in a global economy where there must never be any doubt that the president’s foreign policy decisions are made in the best interest of our country.
H.R. 1 would also address the issue of dark money by requiring super PACS and other organizations that spend money to influence elections to disclose donors who contribute more than $10,000. To further address the problem of hiding the identity of contributors, the practice of transferring money between such organizations would be prohibited.
For democracy to work, the public needs to know who is funding political organizations and their activities.
Another provision would require states to adopt independent commissions for drawing congressional districts. Voter suppression of any kind is unjust and a threat to democracy. When districts are construed in ways that concentrate voters of one political party in a smaller number of districts than is representative of the actual number of voters in that party, it can result in one party receiving a larger share of seats than votes.
In an analysis of the 2016 congressional elections conducted at Brookings, Republican candidates running for the U.S. House received 49.9 percent of the votes cast, while Democratic candidates received 47.3 percent of the votes cast. But Republicans won 55.2 percent, and Democrats won 44.8 percent of the seats in the House. In other words, Republicans got a “seats bonus.” Such gerrymandering suppresses the voices of voters across the country and undercuts the most basic democratic principle of political equality.
Values-based leadership is essential to preserving and protecting democratic principles. I believe these provisions in H.R. 1 would help us restore the foundation of values that undergird our democracy.