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JAMIL RAGLAND
JAMIL RAGLAND

In recent years, and especially since the coup attempt against the federal government on Jan. 6, the phrase “democratic backsliding” has been thrown about. The phrase usually refers to authoritarian attempts to undermine democratic processes, such as overturning elections and restricting voter access.

The shocking violence of the attempted coup on Jan. 6 is an acute example of attempts to thwart democracy. But the far more subtle and long-term trends of anti-democratic thinking and behavior also present major problems. This behavior is typified by the flat-out refusal of elected officials to carry out the will of the people.

One only need look at recent opinion polling on a number of major topics to see how the government continually works against the stated interests of its citizens. Several of the most important issues of our time have clear majorities signaling support for specific policy action, yet there has been little action taken to implement the public will. Just a few examples:

These are not razor-thin margins, and far outstrip the opposition in terms of support. And these are not opinions skewed by large, populous blue states. For example, in Republican strongholds such as Texas and Florida, a majority of people believe that climate change is real and causing damage to the environment. Neither are they sudden shifts in public opinion. Support for all of the positions above has grown steadily since 2010.

The reality is that these problems require national solutions. States resist taxing the super rich out of fear that they will relocate to other states with lower tax burdens. Similarly, local attempts to combat climate change are important, but run headlong into the fact that the United States as a nation is now the leading producer of fossil fuels in the world. The 19th-century nature of our federal system is not equipped to handle 21st-century problems.

While we might blame the disconnect between public opinion and elected leadership on the idiosyncrasies of our representative government, it is not only an American problem. One of the most prominent international examples is the recently concluded Olympic games. Nearly 70% of Japanese citizens polled felt that the Olympic games should have been canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. The games went on anyway.

The concentration of political power in the hands of a representative few is supposed to solve the practical problem regarding the difficulty of holding a public vote on every government issue that must be addressed. In reality though, this power is often wielded on behalf of the politically connected and wealthy, at the expense of the constituents who it is meant to serve.

It’s difficult to square the hand-wringing over democratic backsliding with the apparent refusal of elected officials to do what the people ask of them. What is the point of “free and fair” elections that then result in policies contrary to voters wishes?

As discussions of democratic backsliding move from policy think tanks into the general population, it’s critical that all aspects of the issue be discussed. Politicians need to be asked, again and again, why they continue to act against the interests of their constituencies. Democracy is not simply the act of choosing one’s representatives, but also of the people’s voice being heard and heeded. 

It requires leaders who reject the power of monied interests and who will take on difficult challenges with courage and humility, even if it costs them re-election. The perpetual drive of elected officials to stay in office to “get things done” is contradictory, because they are clearly not doing anything in order to stay. It’s going to be difficult to convince people to care about the preservation of democracy, if democracy doesn’t do anything for them.

Jamil Ragland writes and lives in East Hartford. You can read more of his writing at www.nutmeggerdaily.com.

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