Protecting Our Democracy in a Dangerous Age

As Unitarian Universalists, we are committed to the use of the democratic process in society and to a free and responsible search for truth. In our country today, these fundamental values are under attack. Systematic lies are being used as a political weapon and politically-motivated violence puts our future as a stable, self-governing democracy in jeopardy.

The brutal January 6 assault on the US Capitol was intended to overthrow the results of a free and fair presidential election. Such brazen political violence could happen only because there is a deep and disturbing anti-democratic current in our country, one that causes grave concern going forward.

Some 74 million Americans voted to re-elect a president who fed the country more than 20,000 documented lies and false statements, was impeached for abuse of office, and claimed that the only way he could lose a second term is if the election were stolen from him.

Having lost by 7 million popular votes and by 306 to 232 electoral votes, that president incited the attack on the Capitol by relentlessly repeating a proven lie – that he “won” the election “in a landslide” – despite absolutely no evidence the results were in any way compromised. That lie was amplified through partisan media outlets and toxic social media algorithms that operate with little regard for truth. A total of 147 members of Congress – a majority of the members who serve in that president’s political party – validated his proven lie by voting to reject the results of an election that left no credible doubts about the winner.

As that vote demonstrates, even though we have a new president, the threat to our democracy persists. A disturbingly large segment of our country, including leaders of a major political party, no longer feels it needs to accept the results of valid elections and is willing to disregard or discredit the truth. These forces can hope to hold onto power because our political system has flaws that can allow minority rule – in this case, rule by a minority that is largely white.

One tool for securing that minority rule is gerrymandering – drawing skewed election district boundaries to favor the party in power. Another is voter suppression – imposing burdensome and unnecessary voting restrictions targeted at political opponents. A third is amassing dark money – secretive political funding from wealthy special interests – which is just one of many ways our system lets an elite minority buy enormous influence.

Efforts to change these anti-democratic aspects of our political system face daunting hurdles. All of them have been blessed by the US Supreme Court. In the US Senate, the filibuster – an archaic, routinely abused parliamentary tactic not mentioned in the US Constitution – means that a supermajority (60 of 100 senators) is now required to pass most types of legislation.

A healthy democracy gives diverse people a way to resolve differences peacefully while balancing competing interests. It is a system based on the rule of law. It requires free and fair elections in which every citizen can easily participate. The political majority that wins election has substantial latitude to make decisions, subject to limits designed to protect the rights of the political minority.

Our American version of democracy has always been imperfect. Though based on lofty democratic ideals like those expressed in the Declaration of Independence, our Constitution was written to give disproportionate power to slave states and gave all political power to an elite minority of white males. But many of the nation’s founders professed a more egalitarian vision, and during two-plus centuries, our country has made great strides toward a more inclusive representative democracy, one that would be true to the name.

Martin Luther King said that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” However, that progress has often provoked substantial backlash, as we see today. Our Unitarian Universalist values call on us to defend our imperfect democracy against today’s attacks, to insist on truth in public affairs, and to reform the many ways that our political system preserves the power of certain privileged groups at the expense of ordinary citizens. By standing up for the rights of minorities, immigrants and those who are downtrodden or powerless in society, we are living our faith and helping our nation evolve to become a more perfect union.

— Approved by the UCWC board of directors, Feb. 16, 2021