Leonard Pitts: Democracy is worth the trouble every time

What we are seeing from so-called conservatives these days is less apathy toward democracy than full-fledged retreat from democracy.

(Cooper Neill | The New York Times) Cruz Majeno and Duane Schwingel pose for a photo with a cardboard cutout of former President Donald Trump, at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Dallas on Saturday, July 10, 2021.

It was, let us say, an interesting weekend for democracy.

Call it a tale of two cities. One is Dallas, where thousands of so-called “conservatives” — the word has less meaning by the day — gathered in support of Donald Trump and his ongoing efforts to delegitimize a free and fair election that he lost. The other is Havana where thousands of Cubans took to the streets to demand an end to a 62-year reign of communist repression.

The occasion in Dallas was the Conservative Political Action Conference’s summer gathering where people in funny hats and odd costumes roamed hotel hallways swapping conspiracy theories and bizarre schemes for returning Trump to the Oval Office. The occasion in Havana — and in dozens of other towns across Cuba — was an explosion of pent-up frustration as fed-up Cubans braved beatings and arrests to demand an end to a deadly dictatorship. “Libertad!” they cried. Which means “freedom.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but in Texas, they flipped off democracy. In Cuba, they reached for it with both hands. It was the embodiment of an old aphorism: One person’s trash is, indeed, another person’s treasure.

Not that the political right has some monopoly on failing to value democracy. No, the markers of American indifference are bipartisan and manifold, ranging from anemic voter turnout to periodic calls for censorship of troublesome speech.

But what we are seeing from so-called conservatives these days is less apathy toward democracy than full-fledged retreat from democracy — and growing hostility toward same. We are, sad to say, overstocked with examples. There is the January putsch at the U.S. Capitol. There is the recent rash of voter suppression laws. There is the decimation of the Voting Rights Act. There is that effort to delegitimize the 2020 election.

And there is this: a February poll by the American Enterprise Institute, which found that just under 40 percent of Republicans support the use of violence “if elected leaders will not protect America.” Only 17 percent of Democrats felt the same. In a sense, yes, the question is a setup — what does “will not protect America” even mean? Yet even taking that into account, it is telling that so-called conservatives are so much more willing to resort to violence.

In their insistence that the deposed, defrocked and disgraced former president is still president — and in their disregard for a democratic process which says otherwise — the right displays a chilling affinity for authoritarian rule. And never mind that, from Amin to Zedong, one is hard-pressed to recall a strong man government that did not stomp upon the rights and even the humanity of its people.

That’s certainly the legacy of the Castro brothers in Cuba. And why Cubans are ready to fight for what so many Americans are ready to discard.

One can only imagine the guts it takes to demand democracy in a dictatorship. But maintaining democracy takes guts, too: the courage to put forth your ideas and your candidates, allow them to be freely and fairly judged and willingly take your lumps if you lose.

That’s a species of courage conservatives no longer have, a process with which they have broken faith. In a sense, maybe that’s not hard to understand. After all, democracy is frustrating, sometimes, vexing, sometimes, disappointing, sometimes. But it is worth the trouble every time. Obviously the people in Dallas have forgotten this.

That’s a luxury the ones in Havana wish they had.

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. lpitts@miamiherald.com