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The Pine Tree State has had leaders who have earned great respect. Now Maine’s junior U.S. senator, Angus King, has emerged as an eloquent voice on protecting our constitutional system.
Last week King gave a speech on the Senate floor that rang strong and true, as he pointed to the fragility of democracy.
King noted that the reality of a republic in which the people rule is rare across the millenia. As King explained, “The historical norm is just the opposite — kings, pharaohs, dictators, czars, warlords, emperors, and, more recently, presidents-for-life. Throughout most of human history — and right up to the present in many countries around the world — the people have little or no say in the decisions that determine their fate.”
In such systems, noted King, politics involves “pervasive corruption, the pursuit of power for its own sake, the crushing of dissent, sham elections, and the abuse or even elimination of anyone not sufficiently loyal, or useful, to the leader.”
Besides our constitutional system, with its separation of powers and checks and balances, tyrannical government is prevented by controls from the populace, exerted through regular elections in which the loser accepts the outcome. If the person who loses holds office, there is a peaceful transfer of power.
However, observed King, “two interrelated things are happening right now with regard to this system that are unprecedented in my lifetime and that are profoundly dangerous to our fragile republic; one is the breakdown of trust in the system itself, and the other is an overtly partisan attempt to use this loss of trust as a pretext to change the results of future elections by limiting the participation of voters deemed unworthy (although this is rarely said out loud) or unlikely to vote for your particular political party.”
Indeed, King is right that former President Donald Trump’s incessant and false claims of voter fraud were weaponized to undermine political trust and to push for and pass laws making it harder to vote.
And that is not all. As King pointed out, Trump’s pursuit of “narrow self-interest” had many destructive outcomes. Before Congress certified Joe Biden’s win, there was an attempted insurrection and Trump’s allies constructed, as King put it, “pseudo-legal arguments to justify the corruption of the counting of electoral votes and pressure the vice president to carry out the scheme.” We’ve also seen efforts in states “to give partisan legislatures the power to override election results they don’t like,” as well as “death threats to election officials of both parties across the country.”
All of these damage our republican spirit and undermine a shared sense of democratic legitimacy.
How can we counter these harms? King proposed two steps for elected officials: first “simply telling the truth, and then by enacting a set of basic protections of the sacred right to vote.”
Right now, however, doing what needs to be done — protecting voting rights, making sure vote counting is non-partisan and preventing gerrymandering — was blocked by the Senate.
Last week all Republicans refused to allow a debate on a voting rights bill developed by the most conservative Democratic senator, Joe Manchin. Republicans used a filibuster, a mechanism not in the Constitution that’s been changed many times — most recently in 2017, when Republican Mitch McConnell led the Senate and ended the filibuster for votes on Supreme Court nominees for a seat he held open after Justice Antonin Scalia died in February 2016.
The filibuster should be (at least) modified again, by requiring at least 40 senators be present to object to debate or that they hold the floor to voice objections or dropping it for matters involving the operation of democracy.
More information keeps emerging about planning by Trump-era White House and congressional staff, external allies and members of Congress to deny Biden the presidency after it was clear he won. It may now be time to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate.
The Jan. 6 insurrection cannot become a dress rehearsal for further violence or for thwarting the people’s choices. As King proclaimed, we should “recommit to the ideal of democracy, to keep faith with our history and inheritance.”