Ken Mayer begins his Introduction to American Government class by reminding his students that there are two fundamental components to a modern democracy: periodic free and fair elections, and what political theorist Robert Dahl called the “democratic bargain”—the notion that the parties and/or candidates who lose an election willingly and peacefully surrender power to the winners.

“Without those two components, you don’t have a democracy,” says Mayer. “And the part that is really under threat here is the bargain part.”

Mayer is referring to the 2020 presidential election in which the Democratic Party’s nominee, Joe Biden, was declared the winner, a result unacceptable to many in the opposing party. More than a year later, groups, including a Republican-led, taxpayer-financed investigation of Wisconsin’s election, continue to suggest that the election’s process and results are illegitimate. Throw in raging debates over gerrymandered voting districts designed to entrench party majorities and a spike in voter identification laws that many claim will discourage Black, Latino and low-income voters, and it’s easy to understand why many scholars and journalists are warning that the practice of democracy in the U.S. is in peril.

“If you go back to the beginning, the long arc of American history has been about expanding suffrage and adopting democratic values more fully,” says Barry Burden, Lyons Family Professor in the political science department and the director of UW’s Elections Research Center. “For most of us who have watched this stuff closely, the last few years have been shocking, because it’s taking things in a direction that we didn’t think was possible.”

However, 246 years is a long time, and it’s worth looking back at our growing, changing nation as it has struggled with its “grand political experiment” from the founding days to the present. Needless to say, the practice of democracy has never been smooth.

When the United States was founded, only a quarter of Americans — the ones who were white and male and who owned property — were eligible to vote. Over the last two centuries, suffrage has been extended to women, Blacks and citizens over the age of 18. In 2022, convicted felons are the only U.S. citizens excluded from the vote.

The 2020 presidential election’s result wasn’t the first one to be disputed. Mayer points to the election of 1800, when Thomas Jefferson, the Democrat-Republican candidate, narrowly beat John Adams, the sitting president from the Federalist Party. The election took weeks to resolve and was eventually decided in the House of Representatives.

“It was very, very controversial,” says Mayer. “There was actually some thought at the time that this was the end of the American experiment, that this proved that democracy doesn’t work—we had a good 12-year run, but it’s not going to work.”

1800: The presidential election between John Adams (left) and Thomas Jefferson was so closely contested that it took multiple votes to resolve, and was eventually decided in the House of Representatives.
1812: Former U.S. Vice President and Massachusetts Governor Eldridge Gerry was the man who first gave us tortured voting districts designed to keep himself and his political friends in power. The practice of “gerrymandering” remains a political flashpoint, in Wisconsin and elsewhere.
1920: It wasn’t until Congress ratified the 19th Amendment to the Constitution that American women were finally guaranteed the right to vote.
1964: For more than a century after the Civil War, Southern Democrats blocked Black people from voting or holding office. Alabama governor George Wallace, a noted opponent of the Civil Rights movement, helped spark what came to be known as “the Southern Strategy,” an effort by the Republican Party to appeal to white voters through racism against Black people.
‌2021: Today, partisan arguments continue to rage about voting rights, gerrymandered voting districts, election security and the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election.

But the experiment continued. Jefferson delivered his legendary “We are all Democrats, we are all Republicans” inaugural address to usher in a long, slow process of healing. Though his party held power for most of the next decade, it also found ways to work with the losing side to move forward.

Burden notes that the 1800s, just like today, were an era of close competition between the major political parties, as well as eras of deep polarization.

“Those two conditions foster a kind of scorched-earth governing approach,” he says. “And that can mean trampling on established democratic routines that are now inconvenient for the victorious side getting things done.”

The two major political parties have each taken their turn at obstructing the practice of true democracy. For example, for more than 100 years, from the close of the Civil War through the Jim Crow era, Southern Democrats held power by blocking Black voters from voting or holding office. Today, Republican-affiliated groups have challenged the results of what the courts have deemed a “free and fair election..”

The use of sophisticated mapping software has made gerrymandering almost frighteningly easy today, but the concept has been around since Governor Elbridge Gerry first configured maps to his advantage back in 1812. The practice of voter registration wasn’t part of America’s political process until the 1800s, implemented largely to prevent newly arrived immigrants from countries like Ireland and China from being part of the political process. Prior to that, individuals simply showed up on election day and asked for a ballot.

“These efforts are created in a way to try to prevent certain groups of people from being part of the system,”
says Burden.

In 2020, things like signature matching requirements and restrictions on the use of absentee ballots and drop boxes made voting more difficult in many states. In 2021, Montana became the first state to end same-day voter registration.

Unfortunately, it’s politically advantageous to mobilize people by saying, ‘You need to vote for me, or those other folks will take over, and our way of life, the things that we value, our sense of morality will be gone.’

Kathy Kramer

When she was working at UW-Madison’s Morgridge Center for Public Service, Kathy Cramer made a set of posters with a pointed warning reminiscent of the ones you used to see in your dentist’s office about caring for your teeth: Ignore your democracy and it will go away.

Cramer, a professor of political science and the Natalie C. Holton Chair of Letters & Science, is the author of The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness and the Rise of Scott Walker. She argues that the electorate is spending too much time hating the other side instead of recognizing that attacks on the other side are distracting us from key issues, like economic disparity.

“Unfortunately, it’s politically advantageous to mobilize people by saying, ‘You need to vote for me, or those other folks will take over, and our way of life, the things that we value, our sense of morality will be gone,’” says Cramer. “When we’re in this situation of talking about the other side being evil, we are more supportive of things, especially with respect to elections, that prevent those people from getting power, and that undercuts democracy.”

So, how do we practice democracy in a hyper-partisan age, when the rhetoric has grown so shrill that many of us just want to tune it out? Burden likens maintaining democracy to keeping a fire going—adding to it, watching it and monitoring it. That means remaining active in the electoral process, as well as staying engaged by paying attention to local newspapers and media. Burden also advises volunteering to work at the polls.

“Anyone who does it comes away with a new appreciation for it, how safe the system is and how mundane it is,” he says. “It’s a boring administrative process, and that’s exactly how it should be.”

The practice of democracy, it turns out, is just that: practice. It’s never perfect, and never finished. It will hold only as long as we all keep doing it—together.

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