There is great and justifiable concern about the Russian efforts to influence the outcome of our recent presidential election. From hacking into servers containing Democratic National Committee e-mails and passing them on to WikiLeaks for distribution, to fake news stories and other efforts, our intelligence agencies have concluded that the Russians intended to influence the election in favor of Donald Trump.
This has been labeled a critical threat to our democratic system, the bedrock of which is free and fair elections. Is it our only, or even our major concern? Perhaps. But there are other very serious activities that threaten our democracy within our system itself.
For instance, there is the abdication of responsibility by the U.S. Senate to perform advice and consent on President Obama’s nomination for a vacant seat on the Supreme Court. This has prevented the court from making decisions on cases brought to it, which undermines its role in our system of checks and balances and, if used as a precedent, will undermine our democracy.
Now there are plans to proceed with hearings on the Cabinet nominations of President-elect Donald Trump before completion of the review of information on the nominees by the Office of Government Ethics, which by law is charged with that duty. As a result, the American people will not know the background of these nominees, many of whom have obvious potential conflicts of interest that should be evaluated. In similar circumstances in the Obama administration, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, then the minority leader, called for ethics reviews to be complete prior to hearings. Why should this be different now? Our democracy requires that our leaders be trustworthy to the greatest extent possible. We do not want a gang of robber barons in charge of the government. Is this a threat to our democracy?
In addition, the majority party in the Senate is scheduling hearings for several of the Cabinet nominees in a fashion to undermine the ability of the committees to fully evaluate the candidates, even if the ethics panel information were available. There are six hearings scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday — one on Tuesday and five on Wednesday — a day that is also scheduled for a process of nearly continual votes on the federal budget requiring attention by senators also involved in committee hearings. It seems likely that this will result in less than full and transparent vetting of the nominees. Is that the intent? Does this threaten our democracy?
But wait, there’s more. The day of five hearings and continuous voting in the Senate is the day of the president-elect’s first news conference since July last year. Think there is any effort on someone’s part to distract attention from the hearings and to have an adverse impact on the ability of the people to trust their government? How does such an effort impact our democracy? Not for the better.
For all of that, there is something even more fundamental threatening our democracy. That is the effort by Republican operatives and organizations over the last decade or so to gerrymander themselves into a near permanent majority in the House of Representatives and state legislative bodies. There has been such creative district line drawing that there are very few competitive districts anywhere in the country. This has had a profound effect on the impact of the vote of each of us. It has rigged our democracy in a way Russia could never accomplish. In fact, one could argue we no longer have a true democracy in which the people can select the government they want. Instead, we get the government that someone has planned using sophisticated computer mapping programs and political partisanship, exercised to the hilt. Concern for the health of our constitutional democracy was not a part of the process.
So, again, is Russia really the biggest threat to our democracy? Look long and hard into the mirror, Americans.
Gary Fifield, of St. Paul, is a retired pediatrician.