Democracy in danger: Slide toward plutocracy may not stop until we take our rights seriously

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As a refugee from a dictatorship, I have been deeply grateful to have immigrated into the United States more than 50 years ago and have greatly benefited from living in a democracy with strong institutions and generous people.

I vote and pay my taxes without complaints as both are investments amply returned in freedom and services. Consequently, it is with rising concern that I view recent laws passed by the democratically elected General Assembly. The new ruling class on Jones Street has the right to pass these laws. But having once experienced the erosion of democracy, I now see similar trends emerging here

Democracy is the best way to optimize individual freedom and happiness. Yet we must not forget that around the world several democratically elected leaders have engaged in determined and gruesome campaigns to limit opposition and to suppress contrary opinion. By both legal and illegal maneuvers, they managed to create systems of quasi-electoral processes that made certain they would be perpetually in power. I fear that current elected officials have begun a similar campaign that will result in giving them immeasurable advantage in retaining power forever.

Several initiatives point in that direction. Look at the so-called voting ID law. In reality, coming up with an ID should not be a major burden for the majority of voters. It is the other provisions in the law that are more worrisome. Although under litigation, additional language makes it much easier to challenge voters even by people who are not from same precinct as the voter and to make it difficult for college students to vote, while other provisions regarding same-day registration and early voting lean toward restricting voting access to those likely to vote as Democrats.

Other initiatives also help prevent equitable opportunity for the party out of power to have a competitive field. The perverse gerrymandering of voting districts has ensured, much more than ever, re-election by an overwhelming majority of Republicans. The argument that Democrats also did it is true, but to a lesser extent as they recently had not achieved such ironclad security in their districts.

Just as scary is the recent appropriation of $201,000 to place three political appointees (guess by whom) to be watchdogs over the previously theoretically independent State Board of Elections. Add to that the systematic weakening of the Justice Department by removing the SBI from it, cutting its appropriations and passing laws that for the first time permit the legislature to appeal rulings separately from the Justice Department. All bone-chilling to lovers of democracy.

According to the Board of Elections, the last nonpresidential election of 2010 saw only 44 percent of the registered Democrats voting while 50 percent of the registered Republicans did. Among the unaffiliated, a dismal 33 percent had sufficient energy to go to the polls.

As an exercise in participatory democracy, let’s assume that 80 percent of all registered voters had sufficient belief in the value of the ballot to inconvenience themselves and exercise this privilege. You would then have about 2.21 million (out of 2.76 million registered Democrats), 1.61 million (out of 2.01 million Republicans) and 1.43 million (out of 1.79 million unaffiliated) making their political choice count. This would represent about 2.03 million more non-Republicans votes than Republicans. Contrast this with the 2010 elections in which only 1.22 million Democrats, 981,000 Republicans and 482,000 unaffiliated voted, giving non-Republicans a 721,000 plurality. Greater participation would represent a net increase of about 1.31 million more non-Republicans voting. One can only speculate about the changes such a pattern would bring, but it would be nice to find out.

So, to those who disagree with the excesses of the new ruling class on Jones Street, do something. Citizens United has already loaded the die. Voter apathy aids and abets its intent. The slip and sliding slope toward the perpetual rule of a government plutocracy of the rich, by the rich and for the rich has commenced and may not stop until we take our democratic rights seriously enough.

The right to vote has been earned for us by many brave men and women. If an overwhelming number of registered voters voted this November, at least we could then believe that the outcome resulted from a genuine representative democracy.

Gustavo Fernandez of Raleigh is a retired state employee.