Excerpted from Edward J. Erler's new book.
What is “Our” Democracy?
When the Left claims something is theirs, they mean it.
A curious turn of phrase has slipped into discourse over the last few years. References to “our democracy” turn up all the time lately, and even though a computer search shows that the phrase has popped up now and then since at least the 1920s, its usage has increased a lot recently.
It’s something that many people probably haven’t noticed, and it’s certainly innocuous enough. “Our democracy” hardly seems fraught with controversy. After all, we all have a stake in the political system, and it sounds like a nice way to describe the republic—the “common thing”—we share.
On the other hand, it’s striking to notice who uses the phrase. It is said, almost exclusively, by Democrats. Reflecting on the January 6 riot in The Atlantic, Rep. Ilhan Omar wrote, “As I sat in my Capitol Hill office two weeks ago, watching a violent mob storm the symbol and seat of our democracy, I was reminded of my distant past.”
Omar, of course, was born and grew up in Somalia, and she is comparing the raucous events in Washington that afternoon to a full-scale civil war that killed half a million people, and displaced a million more, over the course of a decade. This hyperbole may just be rhetorical license, but it’s notable that she repeats “our democracy” six times in one short essay. She concludes, “Violent clashes and threats to our democracy are bound to repeat if we do not address the structural inequities underlying them.”
The phrase gained contemporary traction around the time of the 2016 presidential election, when the Hillary Clinton campaign laid the groundwork for contesting Trump’s victory by insisting that Russian meddling with the electoral system had compromised the integrity of the vote. President Obama, in his January 11 “farewell speech,” cautioned his anxious followers, “It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy.”
The idea that “our democracy” had been hijacked by foreign elements on behalf of their stooge and puppet Donald Trump animated the so-called “Resistance,” which set about undermining Trump’s presidency even before the election. Appeals to protect and defend “our democracy” from the threat of authoritarian, autocratic rule led to years of protest and fury, dominated media coverage, and resulted in legislative paralysis as the government submitted to a lengthy investigation into Trump’s alleged collusion with a plot that turned out never to have existed.
So after all that grousing, it’s hard to hear the words “our democracy” without noticing the stress on the possessive. Democrats seem not to be so worried about American democracy in general so much as their version of it, which is centered around an agenda of “equity”—meaning careful allocation of all society’s plums to favored demographic categories—open borders, the erasure of sex differences, and a globalized economy that subsidizes subsistence-level handouts for the dispossessed.
Consider a recent article in Time magazine that explains how a “shadow campaign saved the 2020 election.” According to the major piece, which was written with the cooperation of the organizers of the shadow campaign, “a loosely organized coalition of operatives scrambled to shore up America’s institutions as they came under simultaneous attack from a remorseless pandemic and an autocratically inclined President.” These plotters, according to reporter Molly Ball, included corporate executives, “non-partisan” civil society groups like Protect Democracy, and Norm Eisen, the former Obama administration official who umpired the first Trump impeachment.
That’s why the participants want the secret history of the 2020 election told, even though it sounds like a paranoid fever dream–a well-funded cabal of powerful people, ranging across industries and ideologies, working together behind the scenes to influence perceptions, change rules and laws, steer media coverage and control the flow of information. They were not rigging the election; they were fortifying it. And they believe the public needs to understand the system’s fragility in order to ensure that democracy in America endures.
“Democracy,” in this sense, where a handful of extremely wealthy and powerful insiders “change rules and laws,” and “control the flow of information,” may not resemble the democracy that you learned about in civics class but is a term of art reflecting uniparty control from above. “Democracy” is a system owned by the people who run the country’s major institutions—it’s not a playground for outsiders.
When we hear “our democracy,” then, we should hear it as a description of possession. They aren’t saying that it belongs to all of us. It is theirs, and they will do anything they can to defend it.