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Columns

The Fall of Democracy

By Aysha L.J. Emmerson
Aysha L.J. Emmerson ’22, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a special concentrator in Resilience Studies in Kirkland House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

Red and blue campaign signs compete against the fading yellow and greens of Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, where Davis J. Tyler-Dudley ’21 and his blockmates are spending the semester. In between school work and extracurriculars, the group spends any free moment available participating in campaign and voter registration phone banks.

Immersed in this ever-present political scenery, most of them will be casting their ballots this fall in a swing state. Tyler-Dudley has observed “a lot of distrust” in both government and institutions more broadly.

“I think that no matter what way [the election] goes we're going to see a huge degree of skepticism towards the results of that election, which is very concerning to me as I think people's faith in the electoral process has been undermined,” Tyler-Dudley added, with the tone of a veteran diplomat. “And I think that's going to see very serious impacts on people's belief in the power of democracy in the United States.”

Tyler-Dudley’s personal experiences confirm a sentiment that, from my liberal haven in Cambridge, I’ve been feeling too: The fall of democracy is upon us.

Right now, we’re witnessing the erosion of trust in government, civic and human rights, and the shared premises that enable our collaboration and survival. Regardless of who you are and who you plan to vote for, the stakes in this election feel excruciatingly high.

Kate A. Gundersen ’23, who writes for the Harvard Political Review, painted a similarly bleak picture in an email: “I fear that the biggest threat to democracy is the constant manipulation of information, the dissemination of misinformation, and the President's attacks on the ‘Fake News.’”

Christopher Ong ’22 who applied to be a poll worker in Las Vegas after learning there was a shortage, expressed concern over lawsuits aiming to restrict access to the polls and make it easier for mail-in ballots to be rejected, disproportionately affecting Black Americans.

Democracy has, of course, progressed in the past two hundred years through the extension of voting rights to citizens other than white men. Still, the ability to vote does not amount to democracy as such, even if we often grant it that power in our political discourse. The systems that make each vote count are equally important.

I like so many other Americans see one particular outcome as unacceptable. If President Donald J. Trump wins this fall, it will be a sure sign of the further deterioration of American democracy. Trump’s impeachment but non-conviction, performance of law and order through his deployment of federal agents to quell protests, refusal to assure a peaceful transition of power, and insistence on confirming a supreme court justice eight days before the election are only a few reasons why.

Although a Biden-Harris victory would bring a spring burgeoning with new possibilities and cause for optimism, to say a Biden presidency would be proof of “democracy” would be a deceptive exaggeration.

The many failures of democracy throughout the Trump presidency aren’t the failures of one man, but intended outcomes of the American political system's design. America has always been far from achieving the true ideal of democracy. Systemic roadblocks include: gerrymandering, voter suppression, inconsistent voting rights for the incarcerated, corrupt campaign financing policies, and an electoral college system that led to the majority of voters in 2016 not having their choice become President.

But the fall of democracy takes on another meaning. This autumn, we’re digging in — across a divided nation, outside our bubble, we’re staging important fights. Civic duty and political participation are being taken up with unmatched energy, passion, and creativity. Dispersed across the globe, Harvard students have gained a more nuanced picture of the American politics and its varied stakes — from the Pocono Mountains to Vegas Strip.

“We tend to forget that Harvard is a bubble, a little progressive bubble,” Blake Barclay ‘22 said, calling me from Florida. He’s chair of the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum at the Harvard Institute of Politics, which gives him a particularly piercing view of this bubble.

“Where I live, Trump is exceedingly popular still,” he said. “The vast majority of people are voting for Trump, which is a far cry from when I was in Cambridge and New York where I'm not sure I could find a Trump supporter if I tried.”

Indeed, the Harvard bubble has burst. We’re living at the borders of America’s deepest divisions. However, as we watch democracy decay so clearly before our eyes, we’re coalescing around a shared democratic spirit.

Menat N. Bahnasy '22, president of the Harvard College Democrats, noted the new possibilities for political activism opened by the societal ruptures caused by COVID-19. “What's truly amazing about this virtual and digital era is the opportunity that it has given us to engage in democracy in even more ways than in-person,” she wrote in an email.

Likewise, Kevin L. Ballen ’22 and Amanda R. Powers ’21, co-chairs of the Harvard Votes Challenge, are heartened by the democratic processes surging across the nation. “We have already seen record numbers of people voting by mail and early at the polls,” they shared in a joint statement. “On our own campus, we have seen success in that thousands of students have made a plan to vote with us. With this record turnout, we hope to see elected leaders that reflect young people's hopes and desires.”

My friend Fariba Mahmud ’22 recently published an ongoing list of reasons not to re-elect Trump that she has been curating for the past four years. “I Voted” stickers stamp my social media feed. Months after the murder of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter protests and the fight for justice continue.

Though we’re feeling it acutely now, every fall is a fall of democracy. As we gear up for the election, democracy seems to be collapsing in on itself; disagreement tests us; atrocities come into focus. And every year we have to come together to hold it up. Such is the great paradox of democracy — that it’s always by nature vulnerable, that its integrity relies on its fragility.

I have faith in democracy because I have faith in my generation. We have learned, early on in our lives, that democracy is never achieved. Democracy must be continually worked for — and it can only be worked for together.

Aysha L.J. Emmerson ’22, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a special concentrator in Resilience Studies in Kirkland House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

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