Letter to the Editor: Democracy At Risk

Democracy is by definition “government by the whole population, usually through elected representatives,” but during the last 200+ years since the Constitution was written, Americans have developed some more specific expectations: that candidates will explain in detail what they intend to do in office, that the press will let voters know if there are reasons to be concerned about a candidate’s character or the viability of her/his plans, that citizens will be able to vote without being intimidated or hassled, that a wealthy citizen’s vote will not count more than any other, that elected officials will serve their constituency first (not their donors or their party bosses), and so on.

This election presents voters with problems in all of these areas. In the presidential race, for example, we have no idea exactly how a massive deportation of Mexican people would be managed. Mainstream media gave demonstrably unequal coverage to the major party candidates, and investigative reporting on one of them did not begin until September, while charges against the other were endlessly repeated even though they had been cleared. Because of contested voter ID laws and new restrictions on early voting, many students, pensioners and minority groups are likely to be turned away from the polls. Contributions will probably come from about one percent of the population, with the lion’s share from the top .01 percent. And we hear again that the current leadership of the Senate plans to subvert its role to “advise and consent” if the other side wins. None of this is good for democracy.

But the worst problem is the newest one: the role of internet trolls in shaping our votes (well-described by Andrew Marantz in the New Yorker, Oct. 31, pp. 42-47). Thus on the basis of a “tip” from “someone” on Twitter a troll says, “We’re going to make a whole new news cycle” about emails. He decides on the most sensational hashtag option and by the end of the day, more than 42,000 Tweets are posted and they have attracted the attention of two media outlets and a congressman. The troll claims that he is the new Fourth Estate. “Everyone has a voice now,” he says, but not all voices are responsibly democratic. Without Marantz’s research, we could not know from the message who has organized this “news” and what he wants for or from our country. It is a perfect tool for demagogues.

No political system is perfect, but I hope we can sort out the wheat from the chaff this year in time to keep democracy alive.


Estella Lauter

Fish Creek, Wis.

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