Three Points About the Republican Convention and the Fate of American Democracy

Working people in unions are uniquely positioned to demand and defend democracy—government by all the people. Working people know that only in a democracy do we have a chance to be heard.

And so today, after the end of the Republican National Convention, what should people in unions, who above all care about the health of our democracy, make of this spectacle?

There are three things happening in Cleveland this week that call for real vigilance—ways of acting in politics that are not consistent with a democratic republic. The first dangerous development can be seen on TV—the crowds of delegates shouting “lock her up” about Hillary Clinton. When major parties seem to be criminalizing their opponents—then the stage is set for democracy to collapse. Why? Because if losing an election means that the winner is going to put the loser in jail, no one can afford to lose. Democracy—determining political power by majority vote, rather than by violence or the threat of violence, requires all sides to be willing to accept defeat. This is the deep truth underneath talk of decorum and civility. These are not just aesthetic values or good manners—this is what prevents democracy from turning into civil war.

The second dangerous development on display in Cleveland is the collapse of common standards of fact in political discourse. Does The Washington Post still hand out Pinocchios for political lies after this primary season? If it does, it appears to be a pointless exercise. The Donald Trump campaign, and the Republican Party it now controls, does not seem to care how many times journalists with a reputation for objectivity call Trump out for lying. It was always thought that while evasions and spin were the coin of the realm in politics, that bald-faced out and out lying would cause candidates to lose elections. If the various factions of the electorate are so isolated from each other and from sources of information that would cause them to question their views that each faction will never rethink its assumptions or question its leaders, then the fundamental mechanisms of debate and deliberation that allow disagreements and conflicts to be resolved cannot operate. All that is left is force.

The third dangerous development has really been revealed to be at the heart of the Trump phenomenon, and at the heart of the contemporary Republican Party. That is the idea that only a certain kind of American—white, male, Christian, straight—is a real American—and that only that kind of American should govern—regardless of what the actual majority of Americans want. This way of thinking is racist and sexist. And its more than that. In an America where the majority of children are children of color, this way of thinking is completely incompatible with the concepts at the heart of democracy—majority rule and one person, one vote.

The political style on display in Cleveland this week is a threat to our democracy and to our constitutional order, our democratic republic. Criminalizing opponents, ignoring facts and seeking to undo majority rule in the name of racial privilege is contrary to the core political ideas and institutions that have been built up in our country through generations of struggle. History shows that once introduced into the political mainstream, it is very hard to vanquish authoritarian political habits. This election we, the voters, have to defeat the threats to democracy emerging in Cleveland. We have to beat Trump and beat him badly. This is our task as a labor movement—to make sure that Donald Trump and his followers’ assault on fundamental democratic values fails at the polling place, and fails big, so big no one ever thinks of trying this type of politics again.

Damon Silvers is the director of policy at the AFL-CIO.