If you think democracy is in peril, take a breath and study U.S. history

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Editor’s note: Journalism professor Buck Ryan at the University of Kentucky and English lecturer Lei Jiao at Wuhan University of Technology in China team up again to offer a cross-cultural perspective on current events — this time, January 6th.

“Gerrymander, for the win!”

“Wait, Buck, that’s not a word. I never heard of it.”

“Aw, Lei, we’re not playing Words With Friends. This is a serious discussion about democracy.”

“Yes, serious like my mom, Buck. This year she’s voting for different levels of representatives, like the provincial, municipal, district levels, and representatives from business, industry, academy and agriculture.”

“Whoa, that’s a lot of candidates!”

“Yes, Buck, about 2,300 delegates will be chosen from 38 electoral units across the country for the 20th National Party Congress, which will convene in October. Those sessions happen every five years.”

“So I wonder why President Biden didn’t invite China to the Summit for Democracy in December?”

“Don’t get me started, Buck. The State Department was partying like it was 1949, playing the T-card.”

“Oh, you mean Taiwan, which was invited. I forgot, Lei, what does China call Taiwan?”

“China.”

“Oh, I see the rub.”

“Buck, history matters. It all goes back to 1972, President Nixon and the Shanghai Communique when the U.S. adopted the ‘One China’ policy, stating that Taiwan is a part of China.”

“I get it, Lei. Freedom House scored the State Department’s summit guest list of 100-plus countries as ‘free’ and ‘partly free’ democracies, and even ‘not free’ ones — Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Iraq.”

“Buck, I just got a knock on the door the other day asking me to vote in an upcoming election in Wuhan. Trying to divide the world into ‘democratic’ and ‘undemocratic’ camps will end badly for everyone.”

“The U.S. is ‘very democratic,’ Lei. Take gerrymandering, for example.”

“There’s that word again! Sounds like someone’s name.”

“Well actually, Lei, you got that half right. Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts is associated with twisting a new voting district map into the shape of a salamander in 1812 to favor his political party.”

“Oh, I get it now: gerry + mander. But that doesn’t sound fair.”

“Well, Lei, it’s part of a little something called ‘redistricting’ when the political party in power in state legislatures redraws districts so they can ‘pick their voters,’ as the saying goes.”

“What?! Buck, that sounds downright corrupt!”

“Lei, remember what Winston Churchill said: ‘Democracy is the worst form of government — except for all the others that have been tried.’”

“Buck, China riffs off that with its official position: ‘Democracy takes different forms, and there is no perfect system of democracy in the world, nor is there a political system that fits all countries.’”

“Well, Lei, I guess we can agree on one thing — Democracy is in peril!”

“Right, Buck. I heard your Vice President the other day liken January 6th, 2021, to Pearl Harbor, December 7th, 1941.”

“There you go, Lei. Democracy is in peril.”

“But, Buck, if I remember my history right, 2,403 Americans died at Pearl Harbor and that attack launched your country into a world war. Sounds to me like no comparison.”

“I see.”

“And after the January 6th riot, Congress got back to work and certified the election results, right?”

“Right. A victory for democracy.”

“And then she said January 6th was like September 11th. If I remember my history, Buck, nearly 3,000 people died and …”

“Stop right there, Lei. I know where you’re going.”

“Buck, January 6th was a bad look, but it was nothing like December 7th or September 11th. History matters and words matter.”

“I know, Lei. The January 6th riot was very outrageous and very sad, and I feel sorry for all those who suffered, or were traumatized, or who lost loved ones.”

“And there was one more casualty, Buck — America’s reputation. Here it played right into the hands of China’s pundits who want to portray the U.S. as an arrogant hypocrite. You know, the beacon of democracy and all that.”

“President Biden didn’t hold back, either, saying he fears ‘a dagger at the throat of democracy.’”

“So, Buck, is American democracy really in peril?”

“No, Lei, democracy itself is perilous. If it’s in peril, that’s nothing new. Let’s say we’re not in any more peril than in the War of 1812. And I don’t mean Gerry’s political one.”

“You mean when British soldiers burned Washington, D.C., including the White House and the Capitol building, and captured and occupied your capital in 1814.”

“Right again, Lei.”

“That 1814 occupation lasted about 26 hours, Buck. That compares with 14 hours on January 6th, when police declared a riot at 1:49 p.m.and Congress certified the Electoral College Vote at 3:41 a.m. on January 7th.”

“Wait, wait, Lei. You’re missing a big point.”

“What’s that, Buck?”

“The symbolism of a peaceful transfer of power. That was shattered.”

“Oh, yes, like the Election of 1876.”

“You’re too good, Lei! I know, that’s when Republican Rutherford B. Hayes lost the popular vote by 252,000 to Democrat Samuel Tilden, yet became president because of a compromised Electoral College vote of 185 to 184.”

“Don’t forget this part, Buck: There were charges of election fraud — 101% of eligible voters had their votes counted in South Carolina — and there was violence against Republican voters. One more thing: the winner of Florida was too close to call after the election.”

“Some things never change, Lei, and history does matter. As Peter Baker reported in the New York Times on January 5th, 2021:

“Allies of Mr. Trump, led by Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, have latched onto the resolution of the 1876 dispute as a model, proposing that Congress once again create a 15-member commission to decide the validity of various states’ electors. ‘We should follow that precedent,’ Mr. Cruz and 10 other new or returning Republican senators wrote in a joint statement over the weekend.”

“I guess you’re right, Buck. As Mark Twain put it: ‘History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.’”

“Yes, Lei, the antidote to hyperventilating about ‘democracy in peril’ is knowing your history and checking your facts. You can’t always take people at their word.”

“Buck, I hear some red states are passing new laws to restrict voting rights of minorities. Or as President Biden said, the new Georgia law is an atrocity akin to ‘Jim Crow in the 21st century.’”

“Yes, Lei, democracy is in peril again.”

“But, Buck, did you read Russell Berman‘s piece in The Atlantic in April? Get this, the Georgia law is less restrictive, with more options to vote before Election Day, than President Biden’s own state of Delaware. As Berman put it: ‘Few states have more limited voting options than Delaware … where one in three residents is Black or Latino.’”

“I think you are seeing through the fog, Lei.”

“You mean the fog of a political war?”

“That’s right, Lei. To the winners go the spoils. That’s why elections can be dirty street fights that open the door to fraud. There needs to be enough people with integrity — a critical mass of good citizens — to keep the grand experiment of democracy afloat.”

“Now you’re talking about THE BIG LIE!”

“No, Lei, the Stop the Steal people are going to keep believing whatever they want to believe, and candidates will raise money off of it. Facebook isn’t helping when its attorneys argue in court that its ‘fact-checks’ are really just opinions protected by the First Amendment.”

“Is there any hope, Buck?”

“Don’t despair, Lei. We survived a Civil War with a president who said: ‘You can fool all the people some of time and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.’”

“Ah, yes, Buck. Abraham Lincoln, whose assassination put democracy in peril.”

“Indeed it did, Lei.”

“So, Buck, what’s your point about election fraud?”

“It’s always been part of the game in American democracy. When The New York Times publishes headlines like this one — ‘The Times Called Officials in Every State: No Evidence of Voter Fraud’ — it just loses all credibility.”

“So, Buck, you mean the question is not IF there was fraud, but if there was ENOUGH fraud to make a difference.”

“You got it, Lei.”

“So how did you come around to your thinking about election fraud?”

“A book, ‘Deliver the Vote: A History of Election Fraud, an American Political Tradition — 1742-2004,’ published in 2006 by history professor Tracy Campbell.”

“Oh, interesting.”

“Here was the wake-up call, Lei.”

“If elections are the lifeblood of democracy, then the United States is a sorely ailing body politic. From ballot stuffing and intimidating voters to suppressing turnout, buying votes, and manipulating returns, Deliver the Vote is an intensive examination of the corrupt underbelly of American politics.

“Our elections are often held up as the model for the world’s budding democracies to emulate. But after two of the most bitterly contested presidential elections in American history, this book shows how our democratic house has never been in proper order.”

“Oh gee, Buck. And he was talking about the U.S. elections of 2000 and 2004.”

“History matters, Lei.”

“I’ve got an idea, Buck. It’s the very best way to keep democracy out of peril.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“I think everybody should subscribe to their local community newspaper. After all, they call journalism ‘history in a hurry,’ right?”

“Right, Lei. Or should I say, ‘Word!’”

About the authors: Buck Ryan, a University of Kentucky journalism professor, is doing a “participatory case study” of the News + Record, which he considers a model for community newspapers nationally. Lei Jiao, an English lecturer at Wuhan University of Technology, Hubei Province, China, began her collaboration with Ryan on News + Record articles to advance cross-cultural understanding with a March 6, 2020, story about her family’s lockdown in Wuhan during the pandemic and most recently with their tale of Spider-Man vs. China in a global box office battle. You can read those articles here:

https://www.chathamnewsrecord.com/stories/for-the-people-of-hubei-province-the-c-in-covid-19-stands-for-courage,4770

https://www.chathamnewsrecord.com/stories/2-blockbusters-fight-a-box-office-war-across-a-us-china-political-divide,11950

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