Our trust in democracy is under attack

This piece was originally published as an opinion in the Lawrence Journal-World on April 17, 2017.

Can we trust democratic institutions? To bring this home, think about a bank account. You deposit your paycheck; during the month there are automatic withdrawals, you use your bank card, write a few checks, and at the end of the month you get your online statement. You’ve actually seen few real green dollars. You balance it all out, hopefully, and start again the next month. We’re fine so long as the bank card works but are suddenly poor when it won’t. And when you’re standing in the checkout line at your local grocery store, who will the clerk believe, a person whose card won’t work or the bank on the other end of the computer? If you’ve ever had a credit card turned down you know the answer. The store believes the bank, so do the people standing in line behind you, and their belief is based upon trust in the checks and balances of the banking system.

How are votes counted? Like money in the bank, mostly by computers. We’re long past the day when a local election clerk, like an old-time bank teller who counted your green dollars and put them into a safe, actually counts the votes. Elections aren’t tallied by officials who know everyone in town and, after watching them vote, add it all up. So, it’s like bank accounts; we deposit votes into the computer, one by one, and then they’re spent by the candidates to get elected. But how do we know who actually got the most votes? How do we know it was all done honestly? The answer, again, is mostly trust. We trust the checks and balances of the voting system.

But trust itself is under attack; trust in science, the press, the legal system, academia, and trust in the democratic process. Before becoming President, candidate Trump questioned the integrity of the voting system. He told us the system was rigged. He’s not alone among politicians sowing distrust; some have been doing so for awhile, notably Kansas’ own Kris Kobach. Before the election, Trump, echoing Kobach and others, was telling us that we can’t trust voting because the system is riddled with fraud. And he’s kept on message. Even after winning he’s kept it up. Three million illegals, he says, voted for Hillary Clinton, thousands were trucked from one state into another state to vote for Clinton, cheating him of a popular vote win.

That Russian oligarchs, who have little use for democracy, have been working to make us doubt the integrity of elections is a story that continues to unfold. Reportedly they’ve been doing this for some time, influencing European elections. Last year their involvement in the Trump/Clinton contest was detected by the intelligence community. The New York Times reports that the internal debate within the national security establishment was whether the Russians’ goal was specifically to help Trump or generally to sow seeds of mistrust. The CIA thought the former, the FBI leaned toward the latter. An April 6 story in the NYT has congressional leaders sufficiently concerned by intelligence briefings that they sent a letter to local election boards warning “of unnamed ‘malefactors’ who might seek to disrupt the elections through online intrusion.”

Our legal system recognizes that conspirators rarely write agreements on paper. Rarely is there a document that says: “If you do this, I will do that.” So, criminal prosecutors routinely document the conduct and timing of suspected conspirators and correlate their words and actions. Actions that are synchronized can evidence a collusive agreement. Whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians is being investigated, and we’ll have to wait to learn what Congress and the FBI discover. Of course, ironically, at the end of the day we’ll be asked to trust the investigators, which is what the whole thing is about, because the FBI and Congress are themselves important democratic institutions, and it is trust in democracy itself that is under attack.

Distrust leads to disunity. What is clear is that we must resist siren songs of distrust, and fight against those who are determined to undercut the foundations of our democracy by spreading alternative facts as the seeds of doubt. Democracy is fragile and can easily be eroded by a fringe few who actively work against it. We are required to earn the power of decision every day by careful involvement — the only way of preserving trust in a democratic process.