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Nicholas Johnson speaking at Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City

The Day Democracy Died: Listening to Washington and McLean

by Nicholas Johnson
published with permission

George Washington warned his “friends and fellow citizens” that there might be days like this in his farewell speech of September 19, 1796. Political parties might become “powerful engines through which shrewd, ambitious, and unscrupulous will be empowered. . . usurp the reins of government. [Photo credit: wikimedia commons; Gilbert Stuart painting.]

Individuals can then “seek security and rest in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the leader of a dominant faction. . . turns this provision for the ends of its own elevation on the ruins of public liberty.

“[L]and that there is no change by usurpation; . . . it is the usual weapon with which free governments are destroyed.

Are you old enough to remember the lyrics to Don McLean’s song, “American Pie,” about “The Day the Music Died”?

There won’t be much to sing about, but we’re heading towards “the day democracy died”. Some say he is already dead. “The day democracy died” was January 6, 2021.

It is more complicated than that.

Like preparing your garden soil in the spring, a democracy can only thrive in a nation with, first, a civil society of non-governmental, non-commercial organizations – from Rotary clubs to garden clubs, from trade unions to wordle groups. And, second, people who understand and reject authoritarian rule and affirmatively seek democracy (as we discovered after 20 unsuccessful years in Afghanistan).

The first was found in America by de Tocqueville and published in 1835 in his “Democracy in America”.

The second was specified by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence of 1776, listing and accusing the “King of Great Britain [with] a history of repeated insults and usurpations, all having as their direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny.“

Many components, properly assembled and maintained, can become a car. Likewise, a democracy emerges only with the assembly and maintenance of the components. Apolitical and respected justice. A reliable electoral system, broadening the participants and facilitating the vote.

Thomas Jefferson considered independent media to be so essential to democracy that in choosing “a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I would not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter”.

George Washington thought education was a component. “Insofar as the structure of a government gives strength to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion be enlightened.”

How to destroy a democracy? As the Nazi Hermann Goering explained, “It’s always easy to drag the people along, whether it’s a democracy or a fascist dictatorship. . .. It works the same in any country.

The bossy playbook is not complicated. You are destroying public confidence in its democratic institutions. Promote division, fear and anger. Repeat “the big lie” until it is believed by the faithful. Convince the public that the media is “the enemy of the people”.

Or, as in Iowa right now, you attack the public education system, prescribe what books and subjects can and cannot be taught, cut credits, demonize teachers.

It works the same in any country. Including ours. Just as George Washington warned us.
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Nicholas Johnson is best known as a former Commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission. He is the author of Columns of Democracy.
Blog: fromdc2iowa.blogspot.com Website: nicholasjohnson.org

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