Robert Burns

Robert Burns

I was honored to teach political science courses at SDSU for 38 years. I confess that during those years I was committed to indoctrinating our students, not with a leftist ideology or an intent to stir division, but with the goal of advancing the principles of representative democracy and the accompanying need to understand and defend those principles in a proactive manner when erosion of those principles occurs as a result of citizen neglect or deliberate citizen ploys. I did this because I am biased in believing that no other system of governance offers humanity a better opportunity for human “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

While democratic theorists might quibble a bit about the essential elements of an ideal representative democracy, there exists a general consensus that all of the following are essential to a true representative democracy: (1) adherence to the rule of law which includes the fair and equal administration of justice and exempts no one from the application of law, (2) adherence to the principle of simple majority rule versus minority or elitist rule , (3) periodic free elections to hold decision makers accountable to the people accompanied by a peaceful transfer of power, (4) political equality where all adult citizens enjoy an equal right to vote and have that vote counted and an equal right to seek and hold public office and (5) freedom of expression where persons have the right to criticize those who govern and express their personal secular and religious beliefs without fear of reprisal.

Not surprisingly, these essential elements of democracy did not suddenly appear with the signing of the Declaration of Independence or the making of the US Constitution. The elements have evolved over much time following difficult and sometimes violent struggles. Generally each new generation of Americans has enjoyed an improved but still imperfect form of democracy although it has been an ebb and flow form of progress.

Unfortunately, the current time is a period of retreat rather than progress as we witness serious erosion of these essential elements of democracy because of our citizen apathy and neglect and the very deliberate lay citizen and official ploys to undo representative democracy in the United States.

Each of the five essential elements of representative democracy is threatened today. The unequal and prejudicial application of law and the effort of high officials to assert themselves above the law; insistence on super versus simple majorities in ordinary law making at the state and national level; violent and prolonged resistance to fair election results; low income and minority voter suppression initiatives running amuck in over 40 states and new punitive political protest initiatives in 20 some states coupled with official calls for strict adherence to past orthodoxy in teaching US history and civics all constitute cause for alarm.

Democracy in the US is under attack by internal authoritarian minded persons and groups who apparently believe they can better achieve their “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” in an autocratic illiberal populist state as opposed to our representative democratic state. We can stand by and let it happen or we can actively and vehemently insist that our governing officials honor the tenents of the democracy that have been evolving in our nation since US sovereignty was achieved. Governmental officials who will not honor our essential elements of democracy by their actions or cowardly silence need to be held politically accountable for their failure to defend our system of governance.

Our democracy invites and can manage disagreement including sharp disagreement on a wide range of important issues but “We the People” ought not to tolerate those who seek the undoing of our representative democratic system of governance whether they be foreign or domestic in origin.

Robert Burns, Brookings, is a SDSU Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Political Science.

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