You may wonder what a democracy advocate and a kayaker have in common.
When a kayaker sees water plunging down a steep mountainside with rapid force, they inevitably start to look for ways to paddle it. Today democracy activists face a seemingly formidable challenge when finding a path to fight a global current pushing liberal democracy into the slippery slope of authoritarianism.
This week, we introduce Jeff Milchen, a kayaker, democracy activist, and a new columnist in a rescue mission. His article The Finishing Sprint in a Race to Protect Our Votes, an urgent call to pass federal voting rights legislation kickstarts his weekly column Sowing Justice in UU World.
After several years as an entrepreneur and outdoor education leader, Jeff shifted to work for systemic change to strengthen democracy, advance equity, and decentralize wealth and power. He founded and directed two nonprofit organizations: Reclaim Democracy! and the American Independent Business Alliance. In November 2021, Jeff joined the Unitarian Universalist Association team as Justice Communications Associate.
Milchen has written for dozens of publications in those roles, including The Washington Post, Business Week, High Country News, and The American Prospect.
A transplanted New Englander, Jeff lives in Bozeman, Montana, where he spends much of his leisure time exploring nearby mountains and rivers by bike, foot, and boat.
- The United States Democracy seems to be in peril. As a writer and activist, do you see yourself on a rescue mission?
- Well, if it’s a rescue mission, our first challenge is to convince a critical mass of people that our republic needs saving. It’s a challenge to convey how close we are to irrevocable harm without sounding alarmist to people unfamiliar with the demise of other democracies. After more than 150 years of stable government following our Civil War, it's not surprising, for example, that many people perceive the January 6 coup attempt as a threat we already survived.
- And haven't we?
- I’m afraid not. I see the insurrection as one prong of an ongoing strategy and, without new federal law to prevent future election sabotage, the coup may succeed.
- What about the electoral system itself?
- We have some unique vulnerabilities to correct. For example, the United States is among the only democracies to select a president through a counter-democratic process (the Electoral College). We enable two political parties to set election rules that deliberately exclude broader competition, and our system places the onus on citizens to register themselves to vote, among other distinctive features.
- We suffer from a bit of narcissism, American Exceptionalism, that’s prevented our learning from and emulating other nations in realms where many developed nations outperform whether we're talking about democracy, healthcare, or other measures.
- However, U.S. constitutional structure enabled more than two centuries of relative stability, and several Amendments made democracy more inclusive.
- Yes, but we cannot take survival for granted. As Yale University history professor Timothy Snyder said (CNN video) recently, "If we just think that America is automatically going to exist, and the institutions are automatically going to function…we can sleepwalk ourselves into trouble."
- A recent analysis found 15 Republicans currently running for secretary of state offices have either supported the lie that 2020 elections were rigged or claimed, without evidence, that the results were questionable.
- Yes, and those candidates are representative of countless schemes as, for the first time in U.S. history, a major party seeks to systemically transform election administration from a civic process to a partisan exercise of power. Getting the endorsement of de facto Republican Party leader Donald Trump for any race is contingent upon supporting his seditious "stolen election" claims.
- If you doubt these people would abuse their power to negate voters' will, recall, just hours after running for cover during the US Capitol invasion, two-thirds of Republican House members voted to reject Pennsylvania's electoral votes without a shred of credible evidence suggesting the results were compromised.
- So what is the remedy?
Democracy needs bolstering on several fronts, but my first column tackles the most immediate need: federal protection of our voting rights.