The Threats To U.S. Democracy Go Far Beyond Elections and the Courts

We need to do more than protect our elections. Getting money out of politics, repealing anti-dissent laws and ensuring more accountability from elected officials are equally important to democracy.

Basav Sen

Chicago police take pro-Palestinian demonstrators into custody during the protest against Israel's attacks on Gaza on April 15, 2024. (Photo by Jacek Boczarski/Anadolu via Getty Images)

The idea that U.S. democracy is in danger is now widely accepted among the U.S. political class and increasingly by the American public as well. Not since President Lincoln and the Civil War have freedom and democracy been under assault here at home as they are today,” President Biden said during his March 7 State of the Union address.

Much of the media attention on the threat has focused on our electoral system and courts. These procedural elements of democracy are of course critical. But there isn’t enough public discussion of threats to substantive democracy — the degree of government accountability to the public, as well as the protection of free speech and the right to dissent. 

There is a steadily worsening erosion of substantive democracy in the United States, but it isn’t widely understood as a pattern, even when individual components of it are known. But it’s critical to understand that all of these attacks on our democratic system pose a hazard to our rights. 

Defying public opinion

One of the most glaring examples of the Biden administration’s non-responsiveness to public opinion is the stubborn refusal to budge from its full-scale support for Israel’s assault on Gaza. Data from multiple sources shows that substantial majorities of the U.S. voting public, across political and religious affiliations, want the U.S. government to push for a permanent ceasefire and bring an end to the violence. 

It’s not just the polling data — the public outpouring of solidarity with Palestinians across the United States in recent months has been historic. Large numbers of people have marched, prayed, confronted public officials (including the president), blocked bridges, and petitioned their local governments to pass resolutions demanding the federal government call for a ceasefire, among other creative protest tactics. 

So far, their demands appear to be falling on deaf ears, with the leadership of our two establishment political parties united in unconditional support for Israel. The Biden administration continues to bypass Congress to provide weapons to Israel. House Republicans, for their part, tried to pass a bill to provide even more military aid to Israel than what the Biden administration originally asked for. 

The Israeli assault on Gaza has been found by the International Court of Justice to plausibly constitute genocide. Closer to home, it has also laid bare the deep democracy deficit in the United States.

The disappearing right to dissent

While protests against the horrific violence in Gaza have understandably received widespread attention, the movement to stop construction of a militarized police training facility on the outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia is not the national story it deserves to be. The government response to this movement offers some of the most chilling examples of the erosion of human rights in the U.S. today.

Some protesters against Cop City — as the facility is widely known — are being charged with domestic terrorism” simply for having muddy shoes or having legal support numbers written on their arms. Three activists are being charged with a felony for distributing flyers.

Most disturbingly, at least one activist in the movement against Cop City, Manuel Esteban Paez Terán (known in the movement as Tortuguita), was killed by police in what could be a targeted political assassination — or at best an intentional cover-up of a friendly fire incident between police officers, as indicated by the results of independent autopsies.

Georgia’s Republican Attorney General Christopher Carr has led the legal witch hunt against activists using Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) charges, which effectively criminalize collective planning of civil disobedience actions through overbroad allegations of conspiracy. His fellow Republican, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, has made inflammatory statements accusing members of the movement against Cop City of domestic terrorism.

Meanwhile, the administration of Atlanta’s Democratic Mayor Andre Dickens has used voter suppression tactics to obstruct organizers from being able to put the city’s funding for Cop City on the ballot. The state of Georgia and the city of Atlanta are acting in concert to block the public from being able to influence policy through legal channels such as ballot initiatives, and simultaneously, to criminalize civil disobedience. 

Large crowds have testified during Atlanta City Council hearings on Cop City, with the overwhelming majority in opposition.

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As with Israel’s attack on Gaza, there is similarly bipartisan consensus around an unpopular policy position, in this case accompanied by bipartisan support for anti-democratic measures to suppress the popular will and criminalize dissent.

Cop City is not merely a local Atlanta issue. Independent investigative journalist Renee Johnston has documented 69 militarized police training facilities, in various stages of planning and construction across 47 states and the District of Columbia. The government response to opposition to Cop City in Atlanta — and particularly the role of the federal Department of Homeland Security in aiding the crackdown on the movement in Atlanta — indicate the high likelihood of potential community opposition to these other facilities attracting similar state repression.

The resulting threat to our democracy is hard to understate. 

There are valid concerns that facilities such as Cop City will train law enforcement in militarized counterinsurgency tactics to use against people exercising their First Amendment rights. The facility will reportedly include tear gas and explosives testing areas, a Black Hawk helicopter landing pad, and a mock city which can be used to practice urban warfare. It was proposed shortly after major protests in Atlanta against the police killing of Rashad Brooks during the summer of 2020, when much of the country was in the midst of an uprising against police violence.

Meanwhile, law enforcement tactics against the Stop Cop City movement illustrate how the state is increasingly redefining routine acts of dissent as terrorism.” The proliferation of militarized police training facilities points to a chilling future where law enforcement is trained and equipped to target dissent with extreme violence and intimidation after our political establishment labels all such dissent to be terrorist or subversive.

Widening the war on protest

In a recent article for In These Times, Adam Federman lays out the barrage of anti-protest laws being pushed across the country which criminalize dissent and collective action, amounting to state-sponsored political repression. 

A recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to not review a Fifth Circuit decision now opens up the possibility of protest organizers facing civil liability, in addition to being criminalized by the anti-protest laws Federman describes. 

The lawsuit in question was filed by a police officer who was injured in a protest, holding a key protest organizer liable for his injury. Everyone (including the plaintiff) agrees that the organizer did not assault the officer, and did not directly incite others to do so either. The plaintiff argues that, by organizing the protest, the defendant created an environment that led to the assault. This line of argument can make any individual or organization who plans a mass protest vulnerable to financial liability for any act committed by any one of sometimes thousands of protest attendees, whose actions they have no control over.

Civil lawsuits can potentially lead to large financial liabilities that grassroots organizations and activists who plan protests can’t afford. Even if the protest organizers can defend themselves successfully from these lawsuits, the time, expense, and stress of having to fight legal battles can have a chilling effect on protests. 

This last point is especially critical. The lawsuit in question has not been decided yet. If, however, the court rules in favor of the plaintiff, a dangerous precedent will be set.

Corporations and other private actors with an anti-democratic agenda already have tools at their disposal to misuse the legal system to harass social movements. An adverse ruling in this case will give them yet another tool for legal harassment.

Democracy vs. oligarchy

Such brute force is only the most dramatic way our political and economic elites handle dissent. More often, simply plying our political system with cash is sufficient.

A landmark 2014 academic study found that the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy,” while economic elites and powerful interest groups (particularly big business) have outsized influence on policy outcomes. This isn’t merely the conclusion of a decade-old study — in a recent article, I documented how corruption funded by corporate cash is very much a feature of U.S. politics today, at both the federal and state levels, transcending party lines.

Resisting elite capture of government and defending the right to dissent must be core components of any pro-democracy movement in the United States, on par with issues such as voting rights and the courts.

This brings us back to the difference between procedural and substantive democracy. It is essential to preserve procedural democracy. But for elections and other forms of public decision making to have any meaning, they must substantively reflect the views, interests and input of the ordinary people who are impacted by those decisions. 

This means two things for progressive movements. First, resisting elite capture of government and defending the right to dissent must be core components of any pro-democracy movement in the United States, on par with issues such as voting rights and the courts. 

In practice, this means that the core demands of a pro-democracy movement must include far-reaching measures to root out corporate lobbying and big money from our political system. They must also include the repeal of anti-protest laws, and enacting legislation to protect the right to protest instead, a case that my former colleague Gabrielle Colchete and I have made in a 2020 report.

Second, we cannot rely on voting alone to preserve (let alone expand) our democratic rights. Elected officials from both mainstream political parties often show disdain for widely held public opinion, and may back repressive measures to protect elite interests. 

If we want to save our democracy, there is no substitute for an organized mass movement of people in the streets. 

Political and business elites are intolerant of dissent and use law enforcement to squash it. However, throughout history, in this country and elsewhere, social movements have challenged elite power — sometimes facing violence and repression — and won. If they hadn’t, Jim Crow segregation would still exist in the United States, the British Empire would still control South Asia, and South Africa would still be subject to apartheid. 

More recently, popular protests brought about a political transformation in Chile, and forced the authoritarian government of India to withdraw laws that would subject farmers to corporate control. The movements to dismantle these oppressive systems had to endure violence and intimidation, but they organized, they persisted, and they won. 

To rescue our democracy, we have to follow their example.

Help In These Times Celebrate & Have Your Gift Matched!

In These Times is proud to share that we were recently awarded the 16th Annual Izzy Award from the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College. The Izzy Award goes to an independent outlet, journalist or producer for contributions to culture, politics or journalism created outside traditional corporate structures.

Fellow 2024 Izzy awardees include Trina Reynolds-Tyler and Sarah Conway for their joint investigative series “Missing In Chicago," and journalists Mohammed El-Kurd and Lynzy Billing. The Izzy judges also gave special recognition to Democracy Now! for coverage that documented the destruction wreaked in Gaza and raised Palestinian voices to public awareness.

In These Times is proud to stand alongside our fellow awardees in accepting the 2024 Izzy Award. To help us continue producing award-winning journalism a generous donor has pledged to match any donation, dollar-for-dollar, up to $20,000.

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Basav Sen directs the Climate Policy Program at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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