Republican lawmakers who publicly refute the 2020 election results that placed Joe Biden in the White House have some explaining to do if they are to be taken seriously and, more importantly, if they are to save the experiment of American democracy.
Democracy requires truth-telling. It operates on trust. There is a price to be paid in the absence of either.
For sure, politics is larded with lies and half-truths. We can, and have, put up with half-truths. Democratic politicians of every stripe in every era of our history have played this game. A wink here, a nod there. It’s not pretty and it’s regrettable when it happens, but it’s part of the process, part of the hokum of democratic politics.
As Winston Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
But the 2020 general election – because it goes to the essence of the democratic experience – is another thing altogether.
Those in positions of trust and authority in government have a special obligation to acknowledge the Biden victory. To do otherwise opens the door not just to distrust and division, but to the kind of rot that can bring down the whole structure. Our system of government works best when those in power wield not just legal authority but moral authority. Indeed, moral authority underpins the whole shebang.
Several weeks ago, state Rep. Matthew Dowling of Uniontown penned a newspaper commentary on two amendments to the state constitution that will be on the primary ballot in May.
The amendments deal with the governor’s ability to issue and sustain emergency declarations, and the role of the General Assembly in times of such dire need.
The amendments are not at issue here. What is at issue is Dowling’s moral authority as a public official.
Now, several things need to be noted. The first is that Dowling is exactly right: Pennsylvania voters are the final arbiters on all state constitutional amendments. The people – at least those who vote – rule. It says so in the state constitution.
Dowling was pretty vociferous on this matter. He sprinkled his commentary with phrases such as the “will of the people,” “the voice of the people,” and “simple majority.”
At one point, voicing why he favored the amendments, Dowling said he believed they “would restore the checks and balances that our government was built upon and give power back to the people who elect us to represent them. I voted yes (to place the amendments on the ballot) because you should have an opportunity to decide.”
The second thing that needs to be noted is that Dowling, along with fellow local Republican Reps. Ryan Warner and Bud Cook and state Sen. Pat Stefano joined a wide swath of Republican lawmakers from across the state who publicly stood – stand, is more like it – against the lawful certification of Biden’s statewide victory in the November 2020 election.
They did so in letters to members of Congress. Never recanted, the letters still speak to the false narrative of a stolen election. They are daggers aimed at the heart of democracy. They are pernicious. They are poisonous.
Because they are all these things they erode and undercut whatever moral authority Dowling and the others might otherwise enjoy on the topic of the amendments or on other matters – in fact, on all matters pertaining to state government.
Undoubtedly, considering the districts they represent in the state House and Senate, Dowling, Ryan, Cook, and Stefano remain popular. Defeat at the polls being only remotely possible, they might even imagine themselves as tribunes for the people they represent.
They are anything but. The Founding Fathers were bold yet practical men. They realized the government they were creating, being new and untried, was an experiment.
“Apprehension … pervaded Philadelphia in 1787,” writes the historian, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. “Not only was man vulnerable through his propensity to sin, but Republics were vulnerable through their propensity to corruption.”
That is why, as much as they valued divided government, separate branches of government, and the other provisions written into the national constitution, they valued public virtue even more.
And there is nothing more public virtuous than the recognition of an election fairly won.
As spun by Schlesinger, the Founders believed “Republics lived and died by virtue,” and that “in the fullness of time, power and luxury” bring “decay.”
Decay is upon us, unless men like Dowling hurry to repair a badly battered ship of state.
Richard Robbins lives in Uniontown. His latest book “JFK Rising,” is available on Amazon. He can be reached at email@example.com.