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Don’t take American democracy for granted

A recent poll is a perfect illustration of the uneasiness so many Americans are clearly feeling these days about the state of our nation: Democracy — not inflation, or crime or those supposed “caravans” of migrants right-wing politicians like to trot out as a diversion and scare tactic — is now the top concern of registered voters.

Our nation is indeed facing a real crisis, Sun-Times readers told us in letters we’re publishing, along with this editorial, as part of Democracy Day, a nationwide media collaboration.

According to the August NBC News poll, 21% of respondents said “threats to democracy” are now the most important issue we face, a clear and sharp turn from earlier polls dating back to the spring, when respondents cared most about the cost of living .

Think about what happened in America in the months between those polls, and the reason for the change is evident:

  • Millions tuned in to watch a series of public hearings held by the House Select Committee on Jan. 6, which revealed more alarming details about the deadly Capitol insurrection and the role then-President Donald Trump and his supporters played in inciting — planning — the riots that day.
  • The US Supreme Court, now dominated by far-right jurists, overturned decades of precedent and stripped away women’s constitutional right to privacy and reproductive choice.
  • Conservative American leaders openly welcomed an authoritarian bigot, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, to their movement’s main annual gathering, the Conservative Political Action Conference.
  • “Patriots” who support Trump ginned up outrage over the FBI’s search of his Mar-a-Lago estate began once again threatening “civil war” if Trump were to be charged.
  • Across the country, dozens of election deniers ran in primaries for local and state election administration posts — eager to get elected to positions of power that will allow them to meddle in the results of the “free and fair” elections America prides itself on.

There are more warning signs, of course, including the pervasive “Big Lie” about the 2020 election, voting restrictions championed by many in the GOP and the corrosive influence of the Trump-led “Make American Great Again” movement. A Reuters/Ipsos poll this month found that 58% of Americans — including 25% of Republicans — consider MAGA a threat.

All of this is worth noting once again, as this editorial board has in the past, because democracy should not — must not — be taken for granted. So today, on Sept. 15, the International Day of Democracy, we’re reminding our readers of the challenges our country faces in these fraught times.

We’re doing so as part of the Democracy Day collaboration, in which news outlets nationwide are drawing attention to threats to democracy.

Our readers tell us they’re worried, too — and they’re urging Americans to take action.

“We can’t take democracy for granted,” as one reader wrote. “We can’t squander it. We have to nurture it, strengthen it and renew it for every new generation of Americans.”

what you can do

Voting is one of our most potent weapons in this fight. National Voter Registration Day is Sept. 20. Anyone who is not yet registered should take note and do so in time for the Nov. 8 midterm general election.

Another essential weapon: critical thinking. Political propaganda may be disguised as “news” — like those Chicago City Wire “newspapers” you may have seen in your mailbox, courtesy of right-wing Republican cash, as Greg Hinz recently reported in Crain’s Chicago Business — but voters should not be fooled .

Misinformation can come in a variety of forms, including negative campaign ads and pretend “newspapers” with “reporting” aimed at the opposing party’s candidates. Whatever its form, misinformation is a barrier to civic participation and thoughtful policy debate — and only critical thinking can thwart it.

As part of our pitch for more civic participation, we also want to urge more folks to serve as election judges. Cook County, like other jurisdictions across the country, is experiencing a shortage of election judges, a spokesperson for Cook County Clerk Karen A. Yarbrough told us recently.

To recruit more judges the clerk’s office last spring began a pilot program with several community colleges to offer a curriculum for students to become election judges and earn college credit as well as payment. The students participate in classes on civics and cybersecurity as part of their curriculum. The clerk’s office plans to expand the program for the November election. (For more information, go to www.cookcountyclerkil.gov/elections/work-election-day )

America is a deeply divided nation right now. Some of us are blind to the threats to our institutions, our rights and our self-governance. Others see the threat, or are part of it.

Preserving democracy starts with opening our eyes and seeing the truth.

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