File photo | Credit: Sean Rayford file photo

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail almost 60 years ago has lessons for American democracy today. He wrote, “We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was ‘illegal.’ It was ‘illegal’ to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany.”

As anti-abortion zealots in the South Carolina General Assembly ramp up yet another effort to take away rights of the state’s women, we need to critically examine continuing threats to our democracy and figure out ways to thwart authoritarian forces that want to weaken our freedoms. We need to start electing leaders who will shift toward the center, not the political extremes where the downward spiral of polarization spins faster and deeper with every election.

If we don’t want to lose freedoms and become more authoritarian, we must act collectively as citizens — and do not construe this as meaning like communists — to protect and defend our freedoms.

A 73-page eggheady paper by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace offers five bold strategies to support American democracy. America, writes academic Rachel Kleinfeld, is on anti-democratic path: 

“Since the end of the Cold War, most democratic failure globally has been caused by elected governments using legal methods, such as gerrymandering and technical rule changes, to derail democracy. Their destructions of their own democracies have been supported by pluralities or majorities of their citizenries, whose polarization leads them to back policies that harm democracy to ensure their side prevails.”

Kleinfeld’s five strategies (in bold) include:

Enable responsible conservatives to vote for democracy. For example, approve ranked-choice voting to reduce the importance of political primaries and offer platforms for pro-democracy conservatives to counter less moderate antidemocratic candidates. 

Reduce the social demand from the right for illiberal policies and politicians. Help to rebuild local news platforms, revive rural communities and promote more transparency and accountability.

Engage the left in defending democracy by making it deliver. Call out antidemocratic candidates who tell untruths and offer bad information. Encourage development of social justice initiatives. 

Build a broad-based, multi-stranded, pro-democracy movement around a positive vision concretized in locally rooted action. Find allies among unlikely sources. Build coalitions around pro-democracy issues. Engage and include more people in activism.

Strengthen accountability to reset norms on what behavior is legal and acceptable. Examples: Pursue lawsuits — criminal and civil — against antidemocratic activity. Strengthen election laws to protect election officials. Increase accountability for white-collar crime. 

Local and state nonprofits that want to protect our freedoms and thwart anti-democratic, authoritarian forces that grip power need to band together — sooner than later — to adopt an action-based, pro-democracy vision for South Carolina. Coordinate with local news organizations, which should be first in line to offer help. 

We encourage activist pro-democracy leaders of all stripes in all corners of the state to start having meetings to develop pro-democracy strategies and tactics to implement together to bring accountability to the Statehouse. The only price of admission — being united to thwart the authoritarianism that is too open today.

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