The writer was a 52nd District Court judge in Novi and assistant state attorney general. He's chief financial officer of the Justice Speakers Institute and a Deadline Detroit contributor.
By Brian MacKenzie
Brandon Griesemer, a part-time grocery clerk living with his parents in Novi, called the main telephone line at CNN 22 times Jan. 9 and 10.
Along with racist insults, he left threats: "Fake news. I'm coming to gun you all down. . . . I have more guns than you… . . . Your cast is about to get gunned down in a matter of hours. . . . I have a gun and I am coming to Georgia right now to go to the CNN headquarters to . . .gun every single last one of you."
He was arrested and charged with transmitting interstate communications with the intent to extort and threat to injure, for threatening to kill CNN employees over “fake news," crimes carrying up to five years in prison.
Griesemer's words are just the latest in a series of examples of an important, emerging trend in American political discourse, a trend that is beginning to threaten the very fabric of our democracy.
Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in a well-researched and detailed new book, "How Democracies Die," point out that failures of democratic societies occur mostly from elected officials' actions.
They point to Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, who actively subverted existing democratic institutions in order to create an authoritarian regime, to illustrate how modern democracies fail. Chavez didn't act alone; a large number of Venezuelans' activity supported his dictatorial efforts. They enabled him to subvert the country’s existing democratic structures.
Unwritten rules sustain a democracy, Levitsky and Ziblatt note. The most basic is the concept of legitimate opposition.
In a democracy, all political parties and their followers must fully accept the opposition’s fundamental right to exist.
Election results, in the absence of evidence of real subversion, must be accepted as legitimate. Political parties may disagree intensely, but they have to accept that their opponents are loyal Americans. Both sides must also accept that their opponents will win elections and then govern. Without such tolerance, democracy is threatened.
This idea of legitimate opposition was entrenched in the United States in our foundation. It was threatened for a time leading up to, and including the Civil War, then revived and strengthened in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.
Challenging Obama's Status
Levitsky and Ziblatt are concerned that this unwritten rule of legitimacy is once again being undermined. They cite, for example, the attempted delegitimization of former President Barrack Obama by the so-called birther movement, which denied his status as an American.
Throughout history would-be authoritarian leaders have led their supporters to believe opponents are disloyal traitors who pose a threat to a nation’s way of life. Because there is no single moment – no coup, no declaration of martial law, or suspension of the constitution – in which a society obviously “crosses the line” into dictatorship, it is often difficult to know when a leader is working to undermine the republic. Those who denounce a certain political leader may be dismissed as exaggerating or crying wolf. Democracy’s erosion is, for many, almost imperceptible.
The words used by Brandon Griesemer fit into a larger effort that Levitsky and Ziblatt argue is beginning to undermine our body politic. He did not come up with these ideas on his own. He was taught that those he disagreed with were making up facts. He learned they were enemies of the United States who spread "fake news" lies and should be treated like traitors.
The United States is still basically a healthy democracy, however, this rising tide of political delegitimization can, if left unchallenged, make the United States the next Venezuela. Norms of toleration and restraint which have served as the soft guardrails of American democracy, have helped this country avoid the kind of partisan fights that lead to the end of democracies elsewhere in the world.
They need to be protected and strengthened.
The authors of How Democracies Die wrote: “We must learn from other countries to see the warning signs – and recognize the false alarms. We must be aware of the fateful missteps that have wrecked other democracies. And we must see how citizens have risen to meet the great democratic crises of the past, overcoming their own deep-seated divisions to avert breakdown..”
And we must also learn from the words of Brandon Griesemer what not to think and say. Each American has a duty to protect the oldest democracy.