Does democracy face a full-blown crisis today in Florida? Led by Judge Fred Lauten as moderator, a panel of experts responded at our January 11 Hot Topics, as Leaguers and guests packed the Winter Park Events Center, ready to roll up our sleeves for the fight ahead.
Talli Dippold, CEO of the Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center of Florida, began with a brief overview of the rise of Nazism in Germany, citing conditions that pave the way for autocracy. People turn to extremes when they feel desperate, she noted, adding that many Americans don’t vote because they don’t feel they can affect change.
To protect democracy, retired Florida Supreme Court Justice Charles T. Wells underscored the importance of a written constitution that affirms individual rights. In Florida, the pressure of merit retention for appellate judges helps ensure that those rights are upheld, he said.
Investigative journalist Jason Garcia turned to the role of the media, noting that small newspapers especially have been under concerted attacks from some in
power who are intent on weakening them. “We have a problem in Florida of propaganda masquerading as legitimate sites,” Garcia said—a confusion
“deliberately coordinated by folks in power.” The constant static and outrage that gets covered makes it hard to distinguish real issues, he said.
Income inequality also works against democracy, noted Dr. Fernando I. Rivera, professor of sociology and director of the Puerto Rico Research Hub at the
University of Central Florida. Florida is one of the worst states for income inequality, fueled by consumption taxes that hit poorer people hardest and by tax avoidance by the super-rich.
Rivera sees such social and income inequality as the greatest threat to democracy, while, for Wells, complacency is most worrisome. Folks have a feeling “that there’s someone out there who’s going to protect us,” Wells said. Also, “we have to protect the right of people to have access to casting a ballot,” he said.
Panelists covered other vital issues, including the importance of being civil to one another, along with an ability to distinguish free speech from hate speech.
When one group is attacked, “it’s critical for other minority groups to stand up and say ‘we don’t tolerate that,’ ” Dippold noted.
Asked to compare the present with the past, including the Civil War, in terms of political divisiveness, panelists noted that today is not the worst time
Americans have faced, but some do foresee things getting worse before they get better. Part of the challenge now, Garcia noted, is “that we are seeing people using
their power in ways we haven’t seen in the past.”
In sum, we live in challenging times. Democracy is fragile, and we must be vigilant in supporting it. Efforts by the League and other groups are essential,
Wells noted. It’s vital to get out the vote, to find new ways to appeal to young people to vote, and to increase civic education. Onward.
Judge Frederick J. Lauten, moderator
Justice Charles T. Wells, former justice of Florida Supreme Court (1994-
2009), chief justice July 1, 2000 – June 30, 2002
Talli Dippold, CEO of the Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education
Center of Florida (HMREC)
Jason Garcia, investigative journalist
Dr. Fernando I. Rivera, professor of sociology and director of the Puerto
Rico Research Hub, University of Central Florida