Democracy Is Fragile. Help Us Protect It.

Laurie Ristino

Dec. 8, 2020

Editor’s note: This post is part of the Center for Progressive Reform’s Policy for a Just America initiative. Learn more on CPR's website.

At long last, we’ve reached “safe harbor” day, when states must resolve election-related disputes. Under federal law, Congress must count votes from states that meet today’s deadline. Donald Trump is essentially out of time to steal a second term; our democracy, it appears, will survive, at least for now.

Like many of you, I’ve been thinking a lot about the election — and what Trump’s relentless efforts to undermine it mean for our country. I’ve been thinking about the last one, too, when Trump took the helm of our country after a campaign of lies and hate — even though he received nearly 3 million fewer votes than his opponent.

I’ve been reflecting on other moments when our democracy seemed in peril, historic events locked in time and place because they define time and place. These “flashbulb memories” remind me that democracy is not as secure as I wish it were.

In March of 1981, I was training with my high school track team. The weather was stormy, so, our coach improvised. He sent us hopping up our high school stairs and running down hallways to the sound of his whistle. It was brutal, but at least we had a boom box to keep us going.

Then the news cut in. We froze mid-drill as the DJ informed us that President Reagan had been shot in front of the Washington Hilton. I felt the disorientation that occurs when you realize the world isn’t safe.

On 9/11, I was pregnant with my son, my first child. He was my miracle — the child I, a gay woman, thought I would never have. I was an attorney for the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the time and had just returned from a prenatal checkup to my office on the National Mall. I was hungry, naturally, and went straight to the cafeteria, where a crowd had gathered around the TVs.

I squeezed in — and watched as airplanes careened into the Twin Towers and then, the Pentagon, not far from my home. Later that day, I drove past its smoldering wreckage as the city was evacuated. Suddenly, the security of home, of country, was stripped away.

In 2016, I was a law professor. I was scheduled to give a lecture the day after the election about the power of design to transform the law.

Instead, I scrapped my speech and spoke on the fly about what Trump’s victory would mean for America and the world. I was shocked — and frightened — but I assured the students that our system of checks and balances, a skilled, apolitical federal service corps, and good ol’ inertia would impede Trump’s efforts to dismantle the rule of law and undermine our leadership in the world.

Boy was I wrong.

I failed to predict how Trump’s subversion of the GOP would remove the two-party ballast that democracy needs to thrive. And I failed to appreciate how his ruthless use of executive authority, abuse of the regulatory process, and selection of sycophants and grifters as political appointees would eventually overwhelm the federal bureaucracy and deeply wound due process, science, and ethics.

These events taught me that democracy is fragile. The last four years in particular have been an urgent call to action to reclaim our democracy, to fix it, to reimagine it.

The good news is we can use the tools of democracy to do so.

The Center for Progressive Reform is launching Policy for a Just America, a major new initiative to repair and reimagine government. We’re developing a series of policy recommendations and other resources to advance justice and equity and create a sustainable future. We’re also using advocacy and media engagement tools to inform the public about the urgent need for reform and how to achieve it across all levels of government.

CPR is a leader in progressive governance — the antidote to the well-heeled conservative think tanks that have worked hard to undermine safeguards and use the power of government for the privileged few. Policy for a Just America is our platform to accelerate CPR’s impact and influence in the critical years of the Biden-Harris administration.

Please join us in supporting this initiative as we fight for a just America.

Together, we are the arc of justice, the rainbow that illuminates and embraces, and the bridge that takes us to our better selves. Together, we can shore up our democracy and create a government that lifts us all up in the generations to come.

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