Muftic: Why I am worried about American democracy’s future
July 31, 2018
Thirteen years after World War II ended I spent my university junior year abroad in Berlin. It was a heady time for a United States political science major wondering why what had happened. The wall had not yet been built. I had conversations with survivors of the Nazi regime that seized control of democratic government with populist support and violence and now it lay in ruins. I saw first-hand how the Soviets used propaganda and violence to consolidate control of their conquered once democratic eastern Europe. I married a medical student from Yugoslavia, then a communist country headed by dictator Tito who had both popular support and who used brute force. We settled in the United States, he became a United States citizen, a respected doctor in private practice, active in civic and political affairs, and never taking for granted the freedom to pursue his dreams. We first visited Yugoslavia and his family in 1972 when the country began to allow refugees to visit. We returned about every two years until mid-2015, when he passed away. I experienced Yugoslavia in their brutal Stalinist era, fear of a late-night knock at the door, their period of a more benign dictatorship that still forbade dissent, and their civil war for independence. Today, Croatia is democratic and a member of the EU and NATO.
I wish such painful histories on no one. Modern autocrats like Putin of Russia and Erdogan of Turkey have used some of the same techniques 20th century dictators used to turn democracies into dictatorships. President Donald Trump admires them and adopts and tolerates some of their media and election tactics.
Fair elections are the very foundation of American democracy. Media free both to criticize and to validate is one key. Security of election systems is another. An informed electorate that will and can listen to all sides of public debate, sorts truth from fiction, and then votes while trusting the integrity of election systems can nip wannabe despots in the bud, allowing democracy to survive.
Like his "strong men" idols, Donald Trump is no fan of freedom of the press or an advocate of elections secure from foreign manipulation. Instead he frequently denies Russians meddled on his behalf in 2016 and favors and consults with media who support his views. In October he threatened to yank NBC's broadcast licenses whose news reports also include news and data unfavorable to him. He calls media "enemies of the people," tags reports he dislikes as "dishonest," "fake," while fact checkers work overtime exposing his playing loose with facts. Just last week he told a VFW audience, "what you are seeing and what you are reading is not what's happening … Just stick with us." He banned a CNN reporter from the White House for asking tough questions, said he was yanking security clearances of former intelligence officials who criticized him, and initially left out of official Helsinki transcripts Putin admitting he wanted Trump to win in 2016.
We know from Mueller's indictment texts, Russians in 2016 used many media platforms to intensify racial and ideological divisions to help Trump. They hacked into state election systems and political party sites, showing an ability to manipulate future election outcomes.
So why am I worried about American democracy's future? So many do not care. A July 17 Atlantic/PRRI poll found only 22 percent of Republicans thought influence from foreign government in our elections was a major problem versus 68 percent Democrats; 40 percent independents and a subservient GOP House just voted down funding for hardening state elections systems' cybersecurity. Democracy is fragile, and its survival depends upon the dedicated support of the governed. That support is weak and fractured.
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