Follow-up: Democratic backsliding happens on both sides
If you really want to solve the problem, let's address it equally.
Welcome to the first in a new series, where I follow up on and expand upon my weekly column for the Portland Press Herald. You see, I only have a limited amount of space in a physical, print newspaper, while online I can expound upon my thoughts as much or as little as I might like. Occasionally I’ll do that here.
This week in my PPH column, I addressed how the term ‘democratic backsliding’ could well be applied to a local proposal by a Democratic state legislator to curtail recall elections in towns, except it’s never applied to left-leaning governments or ideas.
You see, ‘democratic backsliding’ is never applied to liberal proposals, just as the mainstream media is more than eager to use the term ‘far-right’ but never the term ‘far-left’. Both exist on the opposite end of the political spectrum; in the United States it’s more than easy for political partisans to portray politicians on either side as one or the other. Yet, if you do a search for both terms on Google, the largest, corporate-approved search engine in the world, you’ll find a stark difference in the outcome.
While both terms result in a similar number of overall results, the term ‘far-right’ results in a far greater number of recent news stories, opinion pieces, and blog posts. The term ‘far-left’, on the other hand, mainly leads to Wikipedia entries and academic articles. These results imply that the former is a pressing problem, while the latter is simply a term that people use.
The same can be said of the term ‘democratic backsliding’.
For instance, what if I told you that a democratically-elected government passed legislation that would allow it to filter content online based on whether it was produced domestically or not? That sounds as if it’s some nationalist, right-wing government, right, trying to censor overseas news critical of them, while simultaneously promoting their own domestic culture in the name of nationalism?
Nope, sorry, it’s not. It’s Canada, led by Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (you may have heard of his father, who once declared a sweeping state of emergency in response to terrorist attacks). This piece of legislation is so terrible that even a Canadian Senator appointed by Trudeau himself has denounced it (along with Elon Musk). Yet the New York Times Editorial Board is silent, and there’s nary a peep about it in the mainstream media anywhere. Here again, if you Google ‘Canadian censorship’, the primary results are dry academic studies. It’s hard to find out that Canada’s free speech is under attack from the current liberal government.
Here in the United States we find a similar bias, too. Although the New York Times did deign to cover a blatant move by New Jersey Democrats to kneecap good government and transparency, thereby enhancing their own ability to pad their pockets in a state that is notoriously corrupt, they didn’t exactly put it on the front page. That’s even though it’s in the state right next door, and the bill was clearly written solely to enable additional corruption.
Now, none of this is to say that democratic backsliding isn’t a real problem: It surely is. That’s also not to say that it’s a problem that is, at present, more of an issue on the right side of the spectrum than on the left; you ought to decide that on your own.
It is not, however, a problem that is solely present as a factor on the modern-day right.
As we have seen from the examples above - and there are umpteen others upon which I could draw - this is not an exclusive feature of one ideological stripe or another. Instead, it’s a tactic that the party in power will always use and abuse to maintain their power. That’s why it’s inevitably the minority party in any particular state that is in favor of things like non-partisan redistricting or term limits: In New York, redistricting was abused by Democrats, while in Florida, it was abused by Republicans. It’s simply a tool used by the party in power in any given region, state, or country.
This isn’t an endorsement of the tactics, or an excuse to ignore the problem. Instead, it’s a rallying cry for both sides of the aisle to call out the problem in equal, non-partisan terms for their own party as much as the other. If democratic backsliding is a real problem, it is so because - like with negative campaigning - each side of the aisle just lets it get worse and worse each cycle, rather than calling out their own party for it.
Democratic backsliding is a real problem, but so is partisan and ideologically-based bias. It’s important to know that if we want to truly address problems, we have to set aside our own biases and be willing to call out our own side when they’re wrong. I try to do that when I feel the need, and because I’m a writer, it’s usually publicly, but for you, dear reader, it’s just fine if you internalize that self-recognition and criticism of your own side.
The important part is that it exists at all, because all too often these days, we all act is if our side is righteous and pure while the other side is nothing but evil - and that’s not a reflection of the reality of modern American politics. In fact, it hardly ever is of politics anywhere - at least, not in a stable democracy.
You may follow Jim on Twitter or Facebook. He is also a weekly political columnist for the Portland Press Herald, Maine’s largest daily newspaper.