Sens. Chris Murphy and Angus King walk through the Capitol building. Both men are wearing suits and face masks. At left, Sen. Murphy is wearing a light blue button down shirt and blue tie. Sen. King is wearing a white button down shirt and a dark blue tie.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., left, and Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, head to a Democratic policy meeting, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021. Credit: J. Scott Applewhite / AP

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The wrong Maine senator recently gave the right U.S. Senate speech.

Sen. Angus King, the independent who aligns with the Democrats, recently   argued strongly for a bill that would protect voting rights from efforts in many states to discourage voting or discard valid votes.

He showed that state laws supposedly to protect against election tampering were really attempts to suppress voting. He said that such laws were aimed at fixing election defects that do not exist.

States passing these laws are under Republican control, but the GOP fears losing its dominance. It wants to prevent Democrats from winning elections by reducing their valid votes. King saw their recent moves as endangering democracy itself.

As he noted, the American political system is an “experiment.” It tests whether government under the people, expressing their will through voting, works and can survive in a world where authoritarian rule has seemed to be the natural form of government.

Over the course of history, people have most often been under the control of either a single man or an elite group. They have lacked the weapons to overthrow authoritarian rule. In creating the American republic, the founders gave the people the necessary tool  – the vote.

Popular control of the government has spread around the world. The U.S. did not invent democracy, but it has played the leading role in its adoption.

Yet democracy contains the seeds of its own potential destruction. Voters may choose a government that then uses its legitimate power to curtail or eliminate democracy. In effect, the democratic system can die by suicide.

The simple reason why elected officials would endanger or destroy democracy is their desire to cling to power for their own ends. Their drive to make their control permanent, even if it means undermining democracy, proves the truth of the   famous assertion by a British leader: “All power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Sometimes they seek power for its own sake. Or they may use the power of government to enrich an elite group.

That threat is why the system of government under the U.S. Constitution is considered an experiment. It was endangered when a destructive mob of a few thousand people tried to seize the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 to reverse the results of an election decided by tens of millions of people.

Attempts to prevent majority rule, the central element of democracy, have gone on as long as the U.S. has existed. Yet the   Constitution has been repeatedly amended to extend democracy by guaranteeing voting to all 18 and older, regardless of race or sex. It provided for popular election of senators and abolished the poll tax used by some states to screen out black voters.

Increasingly, GOP-run states limit access to the polls, and some give Republican legislatures the right to overrule election results. They echo former President Donald Trump’s self-serving charge, made with no proof, that massive cheating had deprived him of victory in 2020.

Not one Republican senator voted in favor of a bill to prevent states from suppressing voting or overriding the popular vote.

King did not gain as much national recognition as Maine Sen. Margaret Chase Smith received for her “Declaration of Conscience” speech in 1950. Backed by a few other Republican senators, she condemned Wisconsin GOP Sen. Joseph McCarthy for his phony anti-Communist campaign, smearing hapless victims.

Smith gained fame because she took on a member of her own party. For her, principle did not conflict with her party. She said the GOP could defeat the Democrats without resorting to McCarthy’s tactics.

The difference between Smith and King was that he was defending democracy by opposing the other party, the Republicans, while she defended it by taking on her own party. His warning was laudable. Her declaration was both laudable and courageous.

Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican,   says that Smith is her political model. Having shown the courage to vote against the political impeachment of Bill Clinton and for the impeachment of Donald Trump because of his support of the Jan. 6 insurrection, she might have been expected to speak out against the GOP assault on democracy.

Collins would have been the right senator to express the sentiments in King’s speech.

When a thoughtful senator like Collins falls in line with the anti-democratic actions of her fellow Republicans, it reveals the depth of political division. The GOP’s policy boils down to crushing the Democrats, even if they represent a popular majority in a state or the country.

Compromise is now impossible, because there is no common ground. Unless the Democrats can find ways to win elections despite GOP voter suppression, fair elections could be lost. The real loser would not be either party, but the people.

Correction: Last week, I erroneously labeled the Ninth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as the Eighth.

Gordon Weil, Opinion contributor

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.