George Pyle: Another list of scholars speak out to preserve what they love

The ‘scholars of marriage’ were wrong. The scholars of democracy are right.

(National Archives via AP) This photo made available by the U.S. National Archives shows a portion of the first page of the United States Constitution.

A little more than six years ago, I was among the pundits and pontificators looking seriously askance at “The 100 Scholars of Marriage.”

That was a group of worthies from universities across the nation, rounded up to lend their Ph.D.s and LLDs to a last-ditch — and rightly futile — effort to stop the Supreme Court of the United States from ruling that lesbians and gay men were just as entitled as straight people to have their marriages recognized by every state in the union.

Today, we should all be among those looking much more hopefully at another group of the highly educated, also speaking up in the fear that something they very much love is in danger of going away.

This time, more than 100 professors, deans, fellows and directors who have issued a Statement of Concern, a title of extreme academic understatement, explaining how democracy itself is at risk in the United States.

Then, the anti-equality brief filed with the Supreme Court gathered a spate of media attention but was, for all we could tell, totally ignored by justices on both sides of the issue when it came time to make their ruling. No surprise, considering the brief was a load of poppycock warning that, in a marriage-equality world, single women would be doomed to spinsterhood, raising children alone or having lots of abortions.

Now, the statement issued to the public is gathering a fair amount of notice and, we should all very much hope, will be more influential than was the previous academic assemblage. Because these eggheads are right. Democracy is in danger of ebbing away in America and congressional action is necessary to head that off.

Then, it was sad to notice that Utah, a state that makes up less than 1% of the American population, provided 13 of the 100 scholars of marriage. Most of them, natch, were from Brigham Young University, but the University of Utah, Utah State, Southern Utah University and Utah Valley University were also represented.

The name that got the most attention at the time was that of Matthew Holland, then UVU president. That was a bit of a surprise, because he had earned a reputation as an educator who valued diversity and inclusion at the state’s largest, and highly diverse, university.

Or maybe it wasn’t. Holland is the son of LDS Church Apostle Jeffrey Holland, former BYU president. The younger Holland announced in 2017 that he was leaving UVU to answer a calling from the LDS Church, and has since been installed as a general authority of the church.

I’ve always wondered if Matthew Holland’s decision to leave UVU was caused, partly, by the blowback he got from a long list of UVU faculty members. Or by the realization that his attitude toward equality for LGBT people just wasn’t going to be a comfortable fit in a publicly funded institution, even one he clearly loved as much as UVU.

Now, Utah higher education has only two professors on the growing list of scholars of democracy. They are Laura Gamboa, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Utah, and Steffen Blings, an assistant professor of political science at Utah State University.

Gamboa, who hastens to point out that she is speaking for herself and not necessarily for her school, specializes in doing autopsies on democracies.

“Democratic backsliding is like a silent disease,” Gamboa told me in an email exchange. “It is hard to identify until it is too late to do something about it. Nowadays, democracies die slowly. We rarely see coups. Most likely what we see is incumbents that slowly undermine different parts of democratic institutions.

“Individually, these power grabs do not seem very serious. Together, over time, however, they have the potential to skew the electoral playing field to such an extent that it becomes almost impossible to defeat the incumbent transforming democracies into competitive authoritarian regimes (or worse).”

Individually and collectively, these experts are warning us that democracy is in danger of withering away in the United States.

Legislators (often chosen from highly gerrymandered districts) are moving to make it harder to vote and easier for the loud and the well-connected to challenge and overturn election results they don’t like. It is all done in the name of preserving the “purity” or “integrity” of the process, sentiments that would been fully at home in the Jim Crow south of poll taxes and literacy tests.

Add the widespread acceptance of Donald Trump’s Big Lie, the idea that he was cheated out of reelection, and you have the seeds of democracy’s end. It’s a lie supported by Utah Reps. Burgess Owens and Chris Stewart and, sort of, by Sen. Mike Lee, all of whom have proven themselves as worse than useless when it comes to the survival of democracy.

“Democratic institutions will not survive unless we stand by them,” Gamboa said. “Unless we defend them.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) George Pyle.

George Pyle, opinion editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, is looking to sign his name to a Supreme Court brief from 100 Hack Writers for Donuts.


Twitter, @debatestate