‘Democracy is on the ballot’

We need to organize and vote to win elections like never before because American democracy is under attack like never before, AFT President Randi Weingarten told members in a webinar on Oct. 13 sponsored by the AFT and the Albert Shanker Institute. The webinar, which drew participants from across the country, focused on the crisis American democracy faces and the key things citizens must do to make sure government by the people survives this election.

Saving Our Democracy town hall

“It’s no exaggeration to say American democracy is on the ballot this year,” Weingarten said. President Trump is doing everything he can to hoard power and stack the deck in his own favor, from his refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose the election to his insistence that he needs a ninth Supreme Court justice to throw out supposedly fraudulent ballots. “How many of these examples do we need to say and to see to believe that we have a five-alarm fire?” Weingarten asked.

Weingarten emphasized that the AFT is committed to four principles: every American must have the right to vote, by mail or early in person, safely and without attempts at voter suppression; every vote needs to be counted, including every mail-in ballot, before victors are declared; the results of the votes of “we the people” must be respected; and the AFT will not be intimidated by Trump or the far right and will defend voting and American democracy, including with peaceful protests and other direct action if necessary. “This is the most consequential election in our lifetime for America’s democracy,” Weingarten said.

During the webinar, Weingarten moderated a discussion with four authors from this fall’s “Saving Our Democracy” issue of American Educator. Former U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. discussed the voter suppression tactics that have systematically disenfranchised people of color and people with low incomes; Harvard professors and authors of How Democracies Die Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt explained how what’s happening in the United States parallels authoritarian takeovers in other countries; and Suzanne Nossel, CEO of the human rights and free expression organization PEN America, spoke about the importance of knowing our rights as protestors and defending our freedoms of expression and of the press.

The main focus of the conversation was the importance of understanding our current moment and how teachers can help students grasp not only the threats to democracy we are seeing now but also how we got here—and what we can do about it. Above all else, every eligible person must vote. Even if students are not old enough to vote, they can help their family and community members make plans for voting.

Holder described the fight for voting rights throughout American history, “a push and pull as we seek to secure the right to vote for more people.” The Fifteenth Amendment gave Black American men the right to vote in 1870, but a violent backlash and the widespread voter suppression tactics of the Jim Crow era endured through most of the next century, until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965.

Holder sees another backlash that has unfolded over the last decade as voting rights have been attacked around the country, bolstered by the decisions of the Supreme Court. But Holder is optimistic because progress in the United States has often been powered by regular people. “We can’t grow complacent or give into hopelessness,” Holder said. He encouraged listeners to “cast their ballots as quickly as they can.” He also asked listeners to pay attention to down-ballot races as much as to the presidential election, noting that state legislatures have the power to undo gerrymandering and create districts that “give power back to the people.”

In order for the American people to take their power back, they have to realize that they’re losing it, Weingarten observed. “Americans often have an insular view of our government, and don’t view what happens here as part of what is happening in the rest of the world,” she said, but there are important lessons Americans can learn from Turkey, Poland and Hungary—especially when it comes to what eroding democracy looks like.

Levitsky and Ziblatt, who have spent their careers studying governments around the world, agreed. Levitsky noted that democratic backsliding is more likely than violent coups: “Most democracies die in a much more subtle way in which elected leaders use the very institutions of democracy … to subvert [those] democratic processes.”

To counter this, Levitsky and Ziblatt recommended helping children develop democratic skills by learning to moderate discussions and building substantive knowledge about more than just the checks and balances of government. Many people don’t understand how politics work in their own communities, Ziblatt said, but if we allow children to see politics at a very local level, such as school board and town council meetings, they’ll witness the importance of democracy in action and better understand how to safeguard it. Participating in protests and movements to protect rights is another significant way young people can learn about democracy, Levitsky added.

Protecting the right to hold leaders accountable—through protest and other acts of free expression and through the press—is also crucial to safeguarding democracy, according to Nossel. She described “rampant infringements on protest rights by overly aggressive police” during the uprising that followed the death of George Floyd, in some cases at the request of Trump himself, and noted the “hundreds of violations of press freedom rights.” Nossel encouraged young people and all citizens to learn about their protest rights, “what constitutes police overreach” and how to protect themselves.

These rights are particularly important as we face an incumbent president who will do everything he can to stay in power, even if he loses the election. “It’s almost certain that Donald Trump cries fraud,” Levitsky said, and we need to be prepared for chaos and potential violence, but it’s essential that we “resist the temptation to freak out.” We also need to be ready to “take to the streets in a patriotic defense of democracy.” But, as Nossel pointed out, we can do our part to fight that chaos now: it’s true that this is an election unlike any other, but we have strong systems in place, voting by mail is safe and reliable, and we can get through this together.

Weingarten agreed: “We have to resist the cynicism that says my vote doesn’t matter, … and we have to resist the chaos.” Weingarten emphasized the AFT’s commitment to ensuring that the will of the people is respected this November and encouraged every person listening to vote, to help others to make voting plans and vote, and to be willing to peacefully protest to defend democracy alongside the AFT. The most important thing we can do now is to vote and support others in voting as much as we can, Weingarten said. “Only ‘we the people’ can save American democracy.”

[Sharone Carmona]