President Joe Biden speaks outside Independence Hall, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022, in Philadelphia. Credit: Matt Slocum / AP

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There’s been a big misunderstanding. Or worse.

The debate over the meaning of one word may really be about the future of our government. The word is “democracy.”

President Joe Biden recently gave a   speech on the subject, though some complained that it was as much   about Democrats as democracy. He asserted that Americans all agree on historic democracy in this country.

Biden attacked “MAGA Republicans,” distinguishing them from mainstream or traditional Republicans, for attempting to replace American democracy with authoritarianism. His opponents believe that he and the Democrats want to replace democracy with socialism.

Here’s the misunderstanding. The two sides are using at least two different meanings of the word “democracy.” This difference is not simply a matter of a word. It represents the nation’s deep divide.

The U.S. is a democratic republic, a country where the people exercise majority rule through their freely elected representatives. The contrast is with direct democracy, like the Maine town meeting, where the people themselves make decisions. Or with authoritarian rule by one person and their supporters.

Making voting as widely accessible as possible might be considered to be democratic while keeping control to a small group or even one person would be more authoritarian.

Biden correctly pointed out that there are now efforts, mostly by Republicans, to limit democracy – popular control – in the American system. They may believe that, if some people can be kept from voting, the reduced number of voters will make it easier for the GOP to win elections. Anti-democratic efforts take several forms.

First, if registering to vote or actually voting is made more difficult by limiting times and locations and by imposing complex identification requirements, some people may not even make the effort to participate. Historically, this approach has been used to reduce   voting by African-Americans.

Second, if you can devise ways of counting votes that enable partisans running elections to discard ballots from certain voters, that boosts the value of the remaining votes. That’s what worries people this year in   Wisconsin and   Arizona.

Third, you can organize voting districts to pack almost all your opponents in the fewest districts, allowing you to pick up more seats. Republicans have been much better at it than Democrats. That’s gerrymandering and it’s being used by Republicans this year in   Ohio.

Fourth, you can undermine confidence in elections by claiming that unless you win, you were cheated by your opponents. That’s what Donald Trump and his advocates did after the 2020 elections despite there being a lack of proof.

Democracy is a process, not a policy. The   core Constitution, even before the Bill of Rights and other amendments, is essentially a procedural plan and contains little that would qualify as governmental policy. Voting is the essential element of democracy.

While Biden appropriately supported voting and opposed political violence, he also touted Democratic policies that have been adopted during his administration. His speech  implied that, if Americans adhere to democracy, they will be rewarded with Democratic policies. That’s where he went off track.

Democracy is a set of procedures to ensure popular control, but it does not guarantee results.  That means candidates will lose elections and they cannot simply blame their defeat on cheating.

Allowing for a decent respect for the minority, the majority must rule, whatever it decides and whoever it elects. Winston Churchill, a British prime minister, is   supposed to have said: “Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others.”

The misunderstanding arises when results are confused with the process itself. Democracy can legitimately produce demands for more government action. Better environmental protection, public safety, and health care are not “socialism,” an economic system in which government itself produces and provides products or services.

For many conservatives, when government assumes new responsibilities, it limits the scope of action by individuals. If people agree to cede some of their individual liberty to a common effort called government, that does not constitute replacing democracy with socialism. Of course, the people must always retain the power to change their minds later.

Biden asserts that all Americans share a commitment to democracy. Is he right? Much depends on how you define democracy or even if you think it has run its course and is no longer useful.

Some on the extreme right fear they will be “replaced” by the coming change in the make-up of the American electorate, when members of racial minorities become the majority of voters. That was the message of   Charlottesville and likely also of the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Anti-democratic strategies would allow them to grasp power and block change. They can discredit historic democracy by claiming it leads to socialism.  

Facing this challenge, American democracy, beginning with the right to vote, needs to be defended. Its survival requires more than pious speeches.

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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.