Word of the Year: Democracy

Image Credits: Tom de Boor, National Park Service, Adobe, Shutterstock

After a long and hard-fought campaign, it is now my honor to utter the four most powerful words in a democracy: “The people have spoken.” I have often said that a vote is a prayer for the world we desire for ourselves and our children.

Raphael Warnock, victory speech

…I don’t want any of you to stop dreaming. I don’t want any of you to stop believing in America. I want you to believe in America, and to continue to believe in the Constitution and believe in our elected officials most of all.

Herschel Walker concession speech

On December 7, WW-II (i.e., the runoff battle between Raphael Warnock (D) and Herschel Walker (R) for the U.S. Senate seat from Georgia) ended with Warnock winning. The other winner was democracy.

The manner in which this election was resolved reaffirmed the choice of democracy as our word of the year for 2022. We had chosen democracy after seeing that Merriam-Webster had selected “gaslighting” as its word for this year.

The Associated Press began its November 28 article on Merriam-Webster’s selection as follows,

“Gaslighting” — mind manipulation, grossly misleading, downright deceitful — is Merriam Webster’s word of the year.

Lookups for the word on merriam-webster.com increased 1,740% in 2022 over the year before. But something else happened. There wasn’t a single event that drove significant spikes in the curiosity, as it usually goes with a chosen word of the year.

The gaslighting was pervasive.

Former president Donald Trump was one of the drivers of that pervasiveness. As a practitioner of gaslighting, he popularized and gave birth to a bevy of conspiracy theorists and nonsense promoters aimed at mind control. Who knows where the gas he blows comes from?

What we do know is that Trump seems to want to replace Arnold Schwarzenegger as The Terminator. In a posting to Truth Social, Trump’s social media platform, he stated “…a massive fraud of this magnitude” should allow “the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution.”

What Trump really meant with his self-obsessed declaration is that he would like to terminate American democracy as we know it.

Herschel Walker was hand-picked by Trump to be the Republican candidate for Senate in Georgia. Although he didn’t say it directly in his dignified concession speech, Walker’s reference to the importance of the belief in the Constitution and election officials was a rejection of Trump’s recent constitutional comment and continuous election denialism.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) also spoke indirectly against Trump’s comment to terminate the Constitution. With other members of the minority leadership standing behind him, McConnell told reporters on Capitol Hill:

Anyone seeking the presidency who thinks that the Constitution could somehow be suspended or not followed, it seems to me would have a very hard time being sworn in as president of the United States.

Democracy has been under siege in the U.S. for some time. Trump, in collaboration with his most cult-like followers, has been a leader of that siege, both during his presidency and since leaving oval office.

Th results of this year’s midterm elections, with Trump-election denying and/or endorsed candidates losing in many races in swing states and districts throughout the country, indicates that Trump’s influence and impact has begun to wane. Because of this and other contributing factors, as we stated in our Thanksgiving blog, “the light of democracy still shines.”

The light of our democracy does still shine. But it flickers rather than being a strong and steady beam. This is attributable to the fact that we as a citizenry remain divided and more polarized than we were a decade or so ago.

Where we stand depends on where we sit (politically and/or geographically). What we see and hear depends on where we look and whom we listen to (on TV and in the social media).

That’s the conclusion that must be drawn, based upon reviewing the results of the most recent Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service Battleground Poll (Georgetown Poll or Poll) conducted a few weeks after the midterm elections.

The press release summarizing the Poll’s findings states, “…voters feel strongly that the country’s democracy is being threatened. While a lack of respect and civility in politics continues to remain an issue for voters, there’s not a lot of agreement on why Americans feel this way.”

There is a general agreement across party lines that:

There is considerable disagreement, though, by voters on other issues “driven by partisanship and where they get their information.”

For example, “Voter fraud causing stolen elections” is seen as a serious threat to democracy by: 71% of Republicans, 44% of Independents, and just 29% of Democrats. 70% of Fox News daily viewers, 43% of CNN daily viewers, and only 37% of MSNBC daily viewers.

Other issues on which there was considerable disagreement included;

The Georgetown Poll findings on these issues is not surprising and tend to cast the possibility of building a stronger democracy in the future into the shadows.

The Poll provides several glimmers of light, however, including:

Those glimmers and positive perspectives shared by the majority of we, the people, provide the potential for citizens uniting across personal, political, and geographic lines. This is essential for developing a “common good” platform for enhancing our American democracy moving forward.

The need for such a platform continues to grow in these polarized times due to numerous factors. Two of the primary ones are:

We have commented on the significance of states’ rights in several blogs this year, including: “The Island States of America,” posted in January, and “Is Our American Democracy Unfurling or Unraveling?” posted in October.

In his recent book, Laboratories Against Democracy: How National Parties Transformed State Policies (July, 2022), political scientist Jacob Grumbach uses a State Democracy Index (Index) he developed to compare policies across states on measures such as gerrymandering and ease of voting in the 21st century.

Grumbach’s analysis using his Index reveals that there was hardly any difference between the states in 2000, but by 2018 Republican-controlled states had fallen sharply on the Index to become more conservative, while Democratic and politically-divided states had become slightly more progressive.

If that was the case for the national condition of our American democracy in 2018, given the Republican states’ rewriting of laws to make them more restrictive after the 2020 national elections, it can be assumed that a current application of the Index would disclose an even greater separation between these “laboratories” And now the Supreme Court might add insult to injury in terms of increasing the threat to our American democracy.

On December 7, the Supreme Court heard arguments in the North Carolina case of Moore v. Harper. This case was brought based upon the “independent state legislature theory,” which asserts that legislatures are the ultimate — and can be the exclusive — decision-makers in election-related activities.

In a New York Times guest essay on December 5, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper (D) asserts that “If the court endorses this doctrine, it would give state legislatures sole power over voting laws, congressional redistricting, and potentially even the selection of presidential electors and the proper certification of election winners.” Cooper adds, “This view would leave no room for oversight by state courts and put the ability of governors to veto election-related legislation in doubt.”

Robert Reich, in his December 8 Substack article on this case, points out, “…Brett Kavanaugh, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Neil Gorsuch have all endorsed aspects of the theory. Notably, they didn’t disavow it in yesterday’s oral argument.”

In his column, Reich comments that even if the Supreme Court supports the independent state legislature doctrine in its decision, part of its impact could be eliminated by the Electoral Reform Act currently before the Congress. It that Act is passed, it would prevent the state legislatures from being able to appoint the electors for anyone other than the person who won the popular vote.

Time will tell whether that is possible in this lame duck session of Congress. If it is not, the Electoral Reform Act will die by the wayside and our democracy will be diminished even further.

Even if is diminished, however, it will not be destroyed because of what America is and who we are as Americans. Fareed Zakaria and George Packer provide useful frames of reference on this.

Near the end of his December 2 Washington Post article titled, “Let’s Talk About America’s Strengths,” Zakaria writes,

“They (The Founding Fathers) had failures in their first effort, the Articles of Confederation collapsed. In the end, however they concocted something stunning: a system that protected individual rights; allowed for regular changes in leadership, prevented religious hegemony, and created a structure flexible enough to adapt to massive changes.”

He goes on to observe in his concluding paragraph:

“Democracy is fragile in its own way, but this is a good moment to consider its strengths. This abstract idea of government largely created by the United States, borrowed over the years by countless other nations, refined and improved in various ways, has spread across the world in countries, rich and poor, European Asian, Latin American and African. It has stood the test of time for two and a half centuries…Winston Churchill has surely been vindicated in his belief that democracy is the worst form of government — except for all others.”

George Packer is a bit more equivocal, but still inspiring in his December article for The Atlantic, titled “America Can Still Lead.” In his concluding paragraph, he writes:

“Something similar (to Ukrainian nationhood) is true here in the U.S. Our national identity has always been rooted in democracy. Nothing else, not blood and soil, shared enthusiasm, common memories, or moneyed pursuits has ever really held America together — only what Walt Whitman called “the fervid and tremendous idea.” It’s as fragile as it is compelling and when it fails, we dissolve into hateful little tribes, and autocrats here and abroad smile and rub their hands. Don’t imagine that America can bring the light of freedom to the world but don’t think the world will be better off if we just stop trying.”

Packer nails it. We Americans must not stop trying to bring the light of freedom to the world.

We must also ensure that light shines fairly and equally upon all in our own democracy. It cannot be a candle in the wind nor simply a shining city on a hill. It must be a light that glows in multi-hued colors, reflecting who we are as a people and charting the path forward to a more perfect union.

That glowing light of truth in the American way can help extinguish the falsehoods of gaslighting. This is the challenge and opportunity and why democracy is our word of the year for 2022.

I believe that democracy is the political enactment of a spiritual idea. The notion that each of us has within us a spark of the divine…We all have value. And, if we have value, we ought to have a voice

— Raphael Warnock

Originally published by the Frank Islam Institute for 21st Century Citizenship. For more information on what 21st century citizenship entails, and to see exemplars from around the world, please visit our website.

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Frank Islam & Ed Crego

Frank Islam is an entrepreneur, investor and philanthropist. Ed Crego is a management consultant. Both are leaders of the 21st century citizenship movement.