As a history professor, I often look for ways in which the past can inform the present. One belief that led me to my profession is that history imparts crucial lessons that can help us make sense of events unfolding in the here-and-now.
One part of the past that I find helpful for the present is the French Revolution. It marked one of the first attempts to enact the idea that the people are sovereign, meaning that the government’s authority derives from citizens alone. But the Revolution also fostered great repression. Thus while in some cases it accorded human rights, allowed for fair elections, and made politics more transparent, in other cases it did the exact opposite.
If I had to choose one lesson from the French Revolution and apply it now, it would be this: democracy is as fragile as it is complex. Like all things fragile, it must be protected and handled with care. Democracy’s complexity is found in its many interconnected parts, any one of which—when that part fails—can lead to a systemic collapse. Amid this complexity, however, democracy must have three core elements. It must accord individual rights to citizens, it must uphold the rule of law, which means that all are subject and accountable to the same law, and it must have state officials who heed the rights of the people, follow and enforce the law, and thus are answerable both to the law and to citizens.
All of this serves as prologue for what my profession might call a teachable moment in Macomb on February 26. Steve Wailand won the election for the second ward position on the city council over Kay Hill by one vote. We know this because in the United States—as many of us learn from a very early age—“the majority rules.” But the official responsible for certifying the election’s results, McDonough County Clerk Gretchen DeJaynes, claimed that the winner of the election had to have not only a minimum of fifty percent of the total votes cast, but also one vote beyond that percentage. Steve Wailand’s vote total did not qualify. Yet as some local news outlets have responsibly reported, such a requirement legally does not exist.
Given these facts, it is clear that the three core elements of democracy were violated in Macomb: the rights of voters in a free and fair election were ignored; the rule of law was neither followed nor enforced; and at least one official became unaccountable both to the law and to the people. In other words, it was a systemic collapse of democracy.
When such a collapse occurs, it is the duty of each and every citizen to hold into account those responsible. This is why—as one who reveres the right to vote, understands the vital role of the rule of law, and is historically aware of how fragile democracy is—I have called on the county clerk to step down from her position.
In calling for this, however, I am also bearing in mind democracy’s complex nature. At stake here is not merely one position on the city council or one mistake made by local officialdom. More broadly, democracy itself is cast into doubt. And if indeed the past is any guide, this will make citizens—including many of my students—more distrustful of government and more cynical about the democratic process.
As citizens, we must all stay mindful of how fragile and complex democracy is, as well as what happens whenever it is abused. So say lessons from the past. The only question is whether we in the present will take heed.
Ed Woell teaches history at Western Illinois University.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or Western Illinois University.