America at a crossroad – democracy or autocracy

President Reagan once described America as “a shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere.” He and his successors were fully committed to the freedom, but that started to diminish in 2020.

The series of hearings by the House Jan. 6 Committee has been a frightening reminder of just how fragile our fundamental rights are these days. Across America’s heartland, there are disturbing signs of efforts that are putting at risk the foundational pillars of democracy. The “MAGA tsunami” has every intention to undermine the transfer of power by replacing someone duly elected with a person resembling a despotic-type ruler.

Back in the 1970s and ’80s, South America’s three largest countries (Brazil, Argentina and Chile) were jolted with coups d’etat that replaced the elected governments with military dictatorships. The Nixon Administration (led by Henry Kissinger) encouraged the military juntas to replace the elected governments. The purpose was to contain the spread of Communism, thus placing a geopolitical strategy above protecting democracies?

I was chairman of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Organizations and Human Rights. I conducted hearings on democracies and human rights, highlighting what was going on in South America. My report emphasized the three pillars of democracy are (a) free and fair elections, (b) fact-based media reporting, (c) and independent judiciary.

Yet the 2020 presidential election prompted multiple claims that the election was flawed or stolen that led to numerous states enacting laws to limit voter turnout. It has gone beyond, setting up state and local regimes to ensure that newly installed election officials can oversee certifying results to ensure a partisan outcome. That puts into jeopardy the Electoral College, highlighted when Vice President Mike Pence was pressured to alter the certification of the electoral votes to change the outcome of who was elected president.

If it comes down to democracy vs. autocracy, the litmus test is the transfer of power. In 1864, President Lincoln, expecting defeat in an election, wrote these words: “It seems exceedingly probable that my administration will not be reelected. Then it will be my duty to so cooperate with the president-elect.” 156 years later, the incumbent did not accept the election results and vowed to do whatever was necessary to stay in office.

The Jan. 6 Committee has revealed how local election officials are being harassed based on false claims of election fraud. In some states, election deniers are being put in official positions as part of plot to overturn the will of the people. It goes beyond passing laws to limit voting. In polling places in Georgia and other states, militia types are showing up to intimidate those exercising their fundamental rights as American citizens.

How elections are conducted is vital to democracy. In our state, county auditors are tasked with conducting elections — set up polling stations, tabulate the ballots, report and certify election results. As Clark County auditor (1966-74) I would meet with the Republican and Democrat party chairpersons prior to an election. The sessions were collegial, working to ensure that we had bipartisan volunteers show up on election day. These were citizens who devoted the day to verify the voters, then count the ballots and report election results.

An unusual comparison is Kazakhstan, where I once served as an official election observer. The former Soviet Republic is an authoritarian regime yet I witnessed voters bringing their children and having an enjoyable time.

Who would imagine that America would be reaching a crossroad where we either commit to democracy or enter a pathway to authoritarian rule. We are seeing early signs of that playing out in Florida and Texas, where strong-willed governors resemble leaders in Bulgaria and Brazil. The MAGA movement is championing the causes that a dictator would embrace.

Shortly after the break-up of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, I was on a delegation tour of the 12 Soviet Republics. They were still under authoritarian rule. On the streets you could see and feel the suppression and fear of the people. Ukraine was one of those countries.

As Reagan’s beacon light is beginning to fade, today’s “shining city upon the hill” may be Kyiv, Ukraine. As a former Soviet Union Republic, it was Russia’s authoritarian rule that had no tolerance for freedom and rights. Fortunately, Ukraine has evolved into a democracy, marked by courageous leadership and now recognized globally for its courage to die to preserve democracy.

Don Bonker, D, of Bainbridge Island is a former US congressman.