03:04 - Source: CNN
Avlon: GOP senators defending Trump, not our democracy

Editor’s Note: Charlie Firestone is executive director of the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his solely own. View more opinion at CNN.

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Scholars say that the identification of crimes against humanity began in the late 18th century with cries against the slave trade or against atrocities such as those in the Belgian Congo. The concept was recognized formally in 1915 when the Allied Powers issued a declaration condemning the mass killing of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. And of course they were formally prosecuted in the Nuremberg Trials after World War II. These are heinous crimes, often genocides, against a set of targeted people, and prosecuted at an international level. These actions were arguably legal under the regimes in which they were carried out but not in the eyes of the world.

Charlie Firestone

On a much different scale, we should be thinking of crimes against democracy – actions perhaps legal in letter but not in fostering the basic concepts, values and processes of democracy, and particularly, American democracy.

If we look back in US history, we can see examples of this. Poll taxes, grandfather clauses and impossible literacy tests aimed at restricting former slaves from voting lasted in this country for almost a hundred years before the Supreme Court found them unconstitutional.

Newer forms of voter suppression may not all be unconstitutional but nevertheless fall within this definition of crimes against democracy.

Some crimes against democracy, like voter fraud and vote manipulation (e.g., changing the results reported via computer hack), are also actual crimes.

Certainly, voter manipulation from a foreign power, as was the case during the 2016 presidential election, would fit into this category .

When these types of crimes directly affect a vote, as the examples above do, they are easy to spot.

But it is harder when one thinks about how they might apply to actions of a legislative body.

We’ve seen how this unfolds when officials choose their party over democratic values and processes. For example, when the Republican-controlled North Carolina legislature, in a lame duck session after the election of a Democratic governor in 2016, significantly stripped the powers of the governorship, and Wisconsin did the same in 2018, that should be a crime against democracy – not prosecutable but an offense nevertheless.

When the Democratic senators in Wisconsin left the state borders in a 2011 boycott because they were outvoted by the Republican majority on an anti-union measure and wanted to deny a quorum, and Oregon Republican senators did the same in 2019 to avoid climate change legislation, shouldn’t those stunts constitute a crime against democracy?

Gerrymandering congressional districts in extreme contortions to serve clearly partisan ends, while beyond the reach of the courts to correct according to recent Supreme Court decisions (Rucho v. Common Cause and Lamone v. Benisek), are, in my opinion, crimes against democracy. Again these are actions that both Democratic (Maryland) and Republican (North Carolina) dominated legislatures have undertaken, but they are wrong and should be corrected.

What about the abject refusal to consider the nomination of a Supreme Court Justice for a full year? Or government officials calling those who constructively criticize the government or engage in peaceful dissent as “enemies”? Or directing racial hate against a sitting member of the legislature?

This country needs to take its democratic processes more seriously. I’ve argued before that democratically elected representatives should follow a Golden Rule of Democracy: ruling as if you will not be in charge one day – adopting laws and policies that will apply to you when you are no longer in the majority. Our political parties in the past few decades have not appeared to have considered that possibility.

But such “crimes” are not limited to elected officials or candidates. We, as citizen-sovereigns and the atomic elements of a democracy, have an obligation to do our part to serve the democratic process. That means voting and serving on juries when called. Should we think about one’s failure to do either as a kind of crime or misdemeanor against democracy?

In Australia and Brazil there are consequences for not voting. There may be good reasons not to vote, but it does hurt our democratic system that the voter turnout in the US is lower than in other developed countries.

Perhaps labeling such acts of apathy as a crime against democracy (here, no doubt a misdemeanor) is enough to point out the importance of participation, while not forcing it.

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    The US needs to take more seriously not just actual crimes, not just partisanship, but crimes against democracy itself. We need to take seriously, first, civic education, so people of all ages but particularly the young, emerging voters of the future understand what citizenship is. We need debate across socio-economic and cultural lines to work out political differences. And we need to demand more of our elected officials, as well as ourselves, in serving the over-arching principles of representative democracy that gave rise to the United States Constitution.