Long before Abraham Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg, soldiers of the Union Army understood the war’s meaning, and articulated what was at stake in the conflict. As historian James McPherson has shown, we see their understanding in the letters they wrote to their loved ones back home. “I do feel that the liberty of the world is placed in our hands to defend,” wrote a private in the 33rd Massachusetts Regiment in 1862, “and if we are overcome then farewell to freedom.” A private in the 27th Connecticut affirmed that if “traitors” destroyed the Union that cost “our forefathers long years of blood” to establish, “all the hope and confidence in the capacity of men for self government will be lost.” In 1863 a private in the 2nd Ohio Cavalry wrote that he had not expected the war to last so long, but no matter how much longer it took, it must be fought “for the great principles of liberty and self government at stake, for should we fail, the onward march of liberty in the Old World will be retarded at least a century, and Monarchs, Kings and Aristocrats will be more powerful against their subjects than ever.” These letters could have been written in only one country on earth, and that is the United States of America.
In this country, democracy and patriotism are one and the same thing, although far too many Americans have forgotten this essential fact of our history. Most Americans, it is safe to say, would agree with the claim that the United States is the greatest country on Earth. It is also safe to say that many would have difficulty articulating exactly what constitutes our claim to greatness. If you listen to Donald Trump and his Republican allies, you might think that our greatness consists of the size of our economy and the deadliness of our military. And yes, we have every right to value our economic strength, and a duty to honor the brave men and women who serve us in uniform. But this Trumpian, Republican version of patriotism is as impoverished as it is misleading. And it reflects the degree to which the Republican Party has drifted away from the democratic values that are the proper essence of American patriotism.
We are great because our country was the birthplace of modern democracy, and because, since the Civil War if not before, we have been the world’s foremost champion of democracy. More than one million of our young men, in great wars and small, gave their lives for freedom and democracy. As McPherson has demonstrated, even Confederate soldiers saw themselves as the descendants of the founding fathers and as champions of democracy. Their understanding of democracy was perverted, because it included the “right” to enslave others, but in their own misguided minds they were fighting for American democratic patriotism.
And yes, at times our government has misused and cynically exploited the democratic patriotism of the American people. Our country has fought sordid, unjustifiable wars that were sold to the voters as wars for democracy. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon did this in Vietnam, just as George Bush and Dick Cheney did so in Iraq. But that is no excuse for abandoning the equivalence of democracy and patriotism which defines our nation and makes us unique among all the political communities, all the countries and empires of world history. Democracy has been our national mission, and it has given us a glorious history.
Today, our glorious history sometimes seems like no more than a fading memory, a reason for nostalgia rather than self-confident pride. For in the land of its birth, the democratic form of government is on the ropes and in very real danger of extinction. Part of the problem is how we finance our election campaigns. Across the last four decades, in a steady arms race between politicians, the cost of campaigning for public office has grown by leaps and bounds. More and more, politicians spend their time raising money, going on bended knee to millionaires and billionaires, “dialing for dollars” and holding fundraising dinners charging $5,000 or more per plate. Ill-considered decisions by the Supreme Court and federal appeals courts – especially Citizens United (2010) and Speech Now (2010) – have allowed individuals and corporations to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in “independent spending” favoring or opposing the candidates of their choice.
The corporations and wealthy individuals who give all this money expect something in return: they expect Presidents and the Congress, Governors and state legislators, to do their bidding – to lower their taxes, deregulate their industries, and allow them to pollute the environment and contribute to climate change. And in fact, these well-heeled donors get what they pay for. They get a rigged political system that enriches them and neglects the needs and wishes of ninety-nine percent of the American people. The donors get politicians who serve them instead of serving the public.
Not only has the flood of campaign cash produced bad and inefficient government. It has also made a joke of our democracy, and therefore of our patriotism. A central principle of democracy is political equality, the notion that every citizen should have a roughly equal voice in how the country is governed. This principle has often been summarized in the phrase “one-person-one-vote.” Today, instead, we have a system in which one billionaire controls the equivalent of a million votes or more, by choosing the candidates for whom the rest of us get to vote, and by narrowing the range of policies these candidates can embrace once they are in office. Instead of democracy, rule by the people, we have plutocracy, rule by the wealthy. And big money is not the only grave threat to our democracy, the only source of damage to our democratic ideals.
The decades-long erosion of our democracy by campaign cash has not affected the two major parties symmetrically. The Democrats, though complicit in the corrupt system of campaign finance, have still held on to democratic values. The Republicans, in contrast, have in substantial part turned their backs on democracy, and have sacrificed democratic principles to the goal of winning, of clinging to power and rewarding the wealthy donors who put them there. They pack the judiciary with radically conservative judges vetted by the Federalist Society. Stealing Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court seat was only the most conspicuous part of this process. Republican politicians actively strive to disenfranchise voters – by aggressive partisan gerrymandering and various measures designed to take the vote away from Americans who might not support them. They, and their allies on the Supreme Court, staunchly oppose all forms of campaign finance reform. They actively want the wealthiest Americans to dominate our politics. They also undermine democracy by lying to the voters. They lie about climate change. For decades, since Ronald Reagan, they have lied by claiming that tax cuts for the wealthy will pay for themselves with increased revenue. They lie by never speaking against their leader, President Trump, who, as of June 10 this year, had made over 10,700 false or misleading claims in the 869 days he had been in office. Finally, Mr. Trump has blatantly authoritarian leanings, bridles at all restraints on his power, and routinely violates the spirit of the Constitution, all without contradiction from within his party. All these Republican actions are destructive of democracy, and therefore unpatriotic in the deepest meaning of the term.
None of the foregoing is meant to imply that Republican politicians lack patriotism. Surely they love the United States as much as Democrats do. But they have forgotten the most important reason for loving our country, they have forgotten that in America, democracy and patriotism are one and the same thing. It is high time for Democrats to call Republicans out on the undemocratic, unpatriotic nature of their actions and policies.
Democrats champion campaign finance reform. They strive to end partisan gerrymandering. They want to make it easier for Americans to vote, not more difficult. And yes, like politicians everywhere, Democrats fudge, spin, and evade difficult questions from journalists. But by and large, they don’t tell outright lies. As their first step upon taking control of the House this past January, Democrats passed the aptly named For the People Act, a road map for restoring our democracy. The bill makes it much easier for Americans to vote, shuts down partisan gerrymandering, offers as much campaign finance reform as the Supreme Court will allow, and tightens regulations on lobbyists. Democratic politicians have become the champions of democracy in this country, while Republicans have become its enemies.
The 2020 election is about many issues. It is very much about health care reform. It is about economic inequality. Immigration will play a conspicuous role in the political discourse during the year ahead. So will climate change, though that topic has not gotten nearly the attention it deserves. And yet, compared to the ill health and vulnerability of our democracy, these are second-order issues. If we don’t protect and heal our democracy, we will not be able to solve any of these other problems. And democracy goes to the heart of who we are: it makes us Americans, and justifies the leadership that we could provide to the rest of the human species as the world navigates the perilous decades that lie ahead. Democrats should make this election, first and foremost, about restoring our badly wounded democracy. To do so would be to do justice to the urgency of the present moment. It would also be good politics. Not every American will favor single-payer health care or the Green New Deal. But all Americans – or so I hope – still believe in democracy, and every American is a patriot. American democracy faces a greater threat than at any time in our history since the Civil War. It is time for Democrats to step forward and say so.