• Ideas

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: American Politicians Are A Greater Threat to Democracy Than ISIS

10 minute read
Abdul-Jabbar is a six-time NBA champion and league Most Valuable Player. He is the author of the new book, Writings on the Wall.

The upcoming mid-term elections should inspire a swell of patriotic pride in our hearts as we Americans dutifully cast our precious votes to reshape our national priorities and values. This is the American democratic ideal in action that we’ve been promoting around the world as a model for all oppressed nations to emulate. “Abandon your monarchies, overthrow your plutarchies, eliminate your dictatorships and join hands with us as we give power to the people,” we encourage. And we believe in that credo so much that we sometimes give guns and bombs to the people to help them take that power. After all, that’s how we did it back in 1775.

That’s why our election days should be an international advertisement for the glorious success of democracy. The aromatic sizzle that sells the hearty steak. The action-packed trailer that lures you to the blockbuster movie. But in reality it’s more like the aggressive perfume sprayers in department stores that deaden your senses with a cloud of acrid stench leaving you blinded and dazed.

The election season highlights not our dedicated patriots vying to improve the country, but the greedy villains who are subtly but devastatingly destroying the democratic process like a creeping and relentless rust. In addition to hunting those home-grown terrorists sneaking over to Syria to join ISIS, we should also be rooting out the saboteurs amongst us who are doing greater damage. While the culprits are pointing and shouting, “Hey, look over there! We’re under attack by Ebola and ISIS,” they are brutally clubbing the baby seal of the democratic principle.

This is the democratic ideal we so love: an informed population weighs the positions of those running for political office, then selects, through majority, the person they think will best represent them in government. It’s so beautiful in its simplicity and sincerity that it’s no wonder those hungry for freedom worldwide would want to embrace it. But here in America that ideal is facing the same fate as an extra in The Walking Dead who says, “I’m going to go on night patrol alone. Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.”

We can’t keep touting our political system as a model for the world while tolerating the worst kind of bad actors whose actions slowly grind away our system. We shouldn’t just shrug it off with cynical acceptance, “That’s politics.” It reminds me of that line from a Brenda Shaughnessy poem, “It’s like having a bad boyfriend in a good band.” The good band is the democratic system; the bad boyfriend is the abusive politician willing to compromise that system to satisfy his own lust for power.

The two most egregious examples of this betrayal are in misleading political ads and in partisan lawmaking that is meant to obstruct fair voting practices. The first attempts to misinform the public, inhibiting its ability to make an informed choice. The second attempts to obstruct eligible voters from casting their ballot because they might not vote the way those in power want them to vote.

There’s no shortage of examples of political ads that lie, but one of the most memorable came from the Mitt Romney presidential campaign in 2011 in which they showed a clip of Barack Obama in his 2008 campaign against McCain saying, “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.” The lie is that Romney’s people edited the original film which was Obama saying, “Senator McCain’s campaign actually said, and I quote, ‘If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.’” The second lie came when Romney defended the ad, saying that there was “no hidden effort” to mislead voters. What other purpose was there?

That spirit of lying to the public to undermine democracy continues in these midterm elections. The Democrats and Republicans have spent about $50 million dollars, with Democrats spending nearly twice that of Republicans, over the last nine months in ads that mention the dreaded “m” word—Medicare. The focus of the ads is to scare senior citizens by portraying Republicans as anxious to snatch away their Medicare benefits. Some Democratic ads accused Republicans of wanting to “end the Medicare guarantee,” or of causing prescription drugs for seniors to rise as much as $1,700. These claims are reactions to Rep. Paul Ryan’s plan to significantly change Medicare. And, while I may not agree with his plan, the Democrats have deliberately misrepresented it in order to scare seniors into voting Democrat.

A conservative advocacy group, Crossroads GPS, spent $3.5 million on ads falsely depicting Colorado Sen. Mark Udall as soft of ISIS (or ISIL). Their TV ads depict Udall as saying, “ISIL does not present an imminent threat to this nation.” Then they show a woman who is the mother of five and a Marine who says she’s worried about her children’s future and safety in light of this statement. No need to worry, because Udall’s complete quote included, “But if we don’t respond to the threat it represents, they will be a threat to this country.” So, if that’s what worried this Marine mother, no need. Udall actually agrees with you. We’ll await your correction.

A candidate’s stance on abortion is the easy litmus test for many voters. So, distorting an opponent’s position is a simple way to sway the vote. Some Democrats have been doing just that. Republican House candidate Barbara Comstock from Virginia has been accused in an ad by Democratic nominee John Foust of wanting to make abortion illegal, “even in cases of rape and incest.” But Comstock previously and publically announced her position: “I do support a life of the mother and rape and incest exception for abortion.” At least four other Democratic ads across the country also lie about opponents’ positions on abortion.

The recent push by the GOP in many states to force a form of voter ID as well as reduce voting hours has rightfully been described by many as a modern version of the poll tax, which was declared unconstitutional in 1966. The requirements for photo IDs are meant to create a hardship for the poor and minorities (of those eligible voters without IDs, 25 percent are black, 16 percent are Hispanic, and only 9 percent are white), who are mostly Democrats, because they would have to obtain documentation such as birth certificates that can cost as much as $75 for travel and paperwork. Student IDs are not accepted, so students would also have to pay to vote. Poll analyst Nate Silver determined that ID laws could reduce voter turnout by 2.4 percent, a margin that might sway close races toward Republicans. U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Posner, who was appointed by Ronald Reagan, said that such ID laws exist only to “discourage voting by persons likely to vote against the party responsible for imposing the burdens.”

The same problem exists when the voting hours are reduced because wage-workers and single parents have less time to vote. And that’s the point, however un-American and anti-democracy: to keep voters away who may vote against you. This deliberate act to sabotage the democratic election process is worse than anything ISIS could do and yet we not only permit it, we vote people who support it into positions of power.

Proponents of the voter ID law often admit that the studies prove voter fraud is extremely rare. So, they counter by saying, as did Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia Pat Mullins, and Secretary of State of New Mexico Dianna Duran, “One is too many.” Would they agree that “one is too many” when discussing innocents who might have been executed by the death penalty? Would they agree that “one is too many” when advocates of gun control site statistics of children accidentally killed by guns at home? Does “one is too many” only apply when restricting the votes of the poor and minorities?

Ironically, much of the battle over the Second Amendment right to bear arms is the fear that someone will take over the country, remove our freedoms, and we will not be able to fight back. But that’s what’s happening now. And we are already armed with the vote, which many don’t use. It’s more cinematic (and a lot easier) to wave a gun rather than read the speeches and voting records of candidates. But standing around with a gun won’t keep our freedoms as much as voting for someone who isn’t manipulating our passions with lies. I would like to blame us, the voting public, for not being more diligent, but it’s unreasonable for us to have to research every thing that every candidate says. And clearly, we can’t count on the candidates’ personal integrity.

We need to do two things to stabilize the listing ship of democracy. First, scrape off the barnacles. In this case, the barnacles are those who would pass laws deliberately restricting voters from voting. We have to join together on principle and vote out such sinister people, even if these voting restrictions benefit your party. Because this isn’t about giving your party more power, it’s about having a party that supports the democratic ideals of the Constitution. It reminds me of Joe and Theresa Giudice, cast members of The Real Housewives of New Jersey, who are both going to prison for fraud. They often proclaim “family is everything” and “we do everything for the family.” But their crimes hurt others, and others’ families, all so they could live in a mansion and buy expensive furs and jewelry. The family in politics should be the country, not the political party. Win because you’re right, not because you’re the better liar.

Sixteen states criminalize making false political statements. Only sixteen. Worse, a federal judge struck down Ohio’s law as an unconstitutional infringement on free speech. The judge felt having the government decide what was true or false might create a situation in which the government could harass critics. That decision very likely will cause a domino effect of removing those laws from other states, leaving Americans with no legal safeguards against, to echo Al Franken, “lies and the lying liars who tell them.”

What should be do to protect democracy against these saboteurs from within? We certainly shouldn’t be doing away with these laws against false political ads; we should be enacting more such laws and enforcing them more diligently. These laws should include punishments that range from assessing huge fines capable of crippling a campaign to prison. Do those punishments really seem too steep for someone destroying the democratic process?

Some may say my outrage shows political naiveté or hyperbole. But I don’t think it’s possible for a black man who has lived in America for 67 years to be politically naïve. Instead, of spouting grimly sophisticated cynicism of pundits, I still believe that the inherent goodness of the process can defeat the greed of the politically ambitious and ethically vacuous.

Maybe I’m just saying that even one lying political ad is “one too many.”

More Must-Reads From TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.