Opinion: A year later, U.S. democracy’s still in peril

Former GOP staffer: I once was wildly optimistic that America’s democracy would last centuries. I am now increasingly pessimistic.
The U.S. Capitol building is seen during the Congressional Remembrance Ceremony marking 20 years since 9/11 in Washington, D.C. on Monday, September 13, 2021. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

The U.S. Capitol building is seen during the Congressional Remembrance Ceremony marking 20 years since 9/11 in Washington, D.C. on Monday, September 13, 2021. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)

For 11 years, I taught American history and government to high school students in Atlanta, and after leaving the classroom, I worked for nearly 30 years for government officials at the local, state, and national level. At no time during those 40 years did I ever doubt that America’s 200-year-old-plus democracy would survive for at least several hundred years more.

Why would I have doubts? Our democracy had survived a civil war, several financial depressions, numerous international conflicts, civil rights and antiwar protests, political assassinations, fiercely fought elections with razor-thin margins, and a major terrorist attack and we had always come back stronger and more united.

Working with officials in both the legislative and executive branches, I had seen how our two-party system — often messily and chaotically — generally led to politicians with opposing political philosophies reaching compromise solutions on controversial issues. That was the way the writers of textbooks said democracy was supposed to work, and in general, that was the way I found that it did work.

Then came Jan. 6, 2021.

As I watched the initial assault on the Capitol, I could not believe my eyes. This is the United States of America, for Pete sakes. We write our elected officials and complain about what they have done or not done. We take to the streets in protest marches. And, yes, sometimes those marches even turn violent.

Lee Raudonis

Credit: contributed

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Credit: contributed

Likewise, when our candidate or party loses an election, we complain — often loudly — and we might even suggest in the heat of battle that the election was “stolen”, because we are passionate about our candidates and political parties. But never before — not in the 221 years since its opening — had any Americans violently attacked the very symbol of our democracy — the U.S. Capitol Building!

After getting over the initial shock of seeing armed Americans violently attacking law enforcement officers, breaking windows and doors, and calling for the vice president of the United States to be hanged, I felt certain that the President of the United States would surely take action to stop the horror show that was taking place. But he did nothing. For three hours, the president did nothing to stop a violent attempt to prevent the results of a valid election from being officially counted and announced.

Even after watching hours of the horrific images, I still naively clung to the belief that our democracy was so strong there would be a massive revulsion from political leaders and citizens of both political parties that would lead to a near-universal condemnation of President Donald Trump and anyone who had a role in the insurrection. “That is what would happen in a strong democracy,” I told myself, “and there is no democracy in the world as strong as our democracy in the United States of America.”

I was wrong — so very wrong. It has been a year since that awful day — a day I have come to believe was far more infamous — and dangerous — than the one to which Franklin Roosevelt referred in his address to Congress on Dec. 8, 1941, and even more dangerous than the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001. Rather than uniting the country and making our democracy stronger, Jan. 6, 2021, has further divided us and made our democracy weaker. But how could this have happened? What did I miss when I was teaching students about American democracy being the envy of the world — an example for all other countries to emulate? What signs did I not see when I was working in the Georgia Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives?

Upon reflection, I now realize that I have always overestimated the strength of our democracy, because I have overestimated how much Americans really understand and value our democratic-republican system of government. I have assumed that most Americans know enough about our constitution to understand that our government is one based on laws, not on people — and certainly not on a single man who refused to admit he lost an election.

I have always been confident that Americans are far too smart to believe lies told to them by con artists, especially after every court and every election official in the country has stated categorically that there was zero evidence of fraud.

And, I have assumed that virtually all Americans understand that democracy only works when citizens accept the results of elections that their candidates lose as well as those that they win.

Most significantly, and most depressing, I never suspected that prominent elected officials who have taken an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States would betray that oath and knowingly promote a Big Lie that the 2020 presidential election was conducted unfairly, and its results should be overturned. Nothing has undermined and weakened our democracy more than these cowardly politicians who clearly value their own elections more than the health of our democracy.

I once was wildly optimistic that America’s democracy would last centuries. I am now increasingly pessimistic. If a majority of one party’s voters can be so easily convinced by a Big Lie that a presidential election was rigged, our democracy is in danger. If that same majority can be convinced to support the president who began the Big Lie and started a violent insurrection to stay in power, is there any hope for our democracy?

After teaching high school American history and government for 11 years, Lee Raudonis worked with Republican Paul Coverdell in the Georgia Senate and with a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He also served briefly as the executive director of the Georgia Republican Party in 1989.