Democracy is Imperfect and So Are We

By Gwyn Lurie   |   June 3, 2021

I rarely comment on the content in this newspaper, but in last week’s edition our staff ran an opinion piece before we could screen it for our normal standards of respectful political discourse; the piece I’m referring to included the use of gratuitous language that some find misogynistic, bigoted, and should have had no place within the Montecito Journal

There have always been boundaries around acceptable discourse, fluid as they may seem. And the media has long played a role in defining, enforcing, and even contesting these boundaries. Around some ideas consensus is assumed. Other ideas are considered universally repugnant, unworthy of a platform for consideration. And then there is the vast middle, where most of today’s opinion pieces land, labelled by media historian Daniel Hallin as “the sphere of legitimate controversy” — where journalism is expected to cover all sides.

Unfortunately, in his piece entitled “Hooey on the Hustings,” James Buckley, MJ’s former editor and owner, used trigger language such as “get your panties in a twist” and gratuitously pointing out that elections advocate Tiffany Muller is “herself gay,” which managed to not only alienate readers, but also eclipse his own interesting and innovative ideas regarding voting rights in America.

Our failure to flag the language used in this piece negated the journalistic standards we have set for ourselves and caused hurt and disappointment particularly amongst the targets of Buckley’s political attack. It seemed like Mr. Buckley mistook the challenge of healing our democracy with a competitive sport in which someone wins and someone else loses. But if we could figure out how to provide every eligible American with the chance to exercise their constitutional right to vote, then don’t we all win?

In our modern world of irrefutable block chain verifications, how hard can it be to come up with a system of voting that’s verified and fair? The problem seems to be that not everybody wants that system to be fair; or at the very least there is massive disagreement over the meaning of “fair.”

I began this journey with the MJ because I believe in the importance of local journalism, and I wanted to help build a platform that would foster respectful civil discourse. But in such complicated times, where one person’s political beliefs are another person’s lies, this endeavor is fraught with challenges, and it is simply not possible to bat 1.000. So occasionally — hopefully rarely — a mistake will be made; giving a platform to the incendiary language included in this piece was one such mistake. 

But it’s how a company corrects course when mistakes are made that matters most. For example, when The New York Times solicited and ran an editorial by Senator Tom Cotton during the protests after George Floyd’s murder, where Sen. Cotton (R, Arkansas) called for the government to use military troops to combat “rioters.” This caused massive internal and external problems for The Times, but compounding that injury was the reactive and then re-reactive way in which the company handled the fallout from their “mistake,” which only served to reinforce the belief that The Times had become a political weathervane — the winds being blown by Twitter, cancel culture, etc.

I have no interest in cancelling anyone nor placing anyone in the penalty box of political correctness. What I want is to provide a credible platform, for people near and far who love Montecito, to engage in respectful discourse that helps us to unpack the most important ideas in our community and of our time. 

It is in the interest of fixing our injury that I have offered members of Protecting Democracy Partners, the group that sponsored the voting rights event about which Mr. Buckley wrote, a shared Guest Editor’s Letter spot in this week’s paper in order to express their thoughts regarding his piece, and to articulate their group’s point of view on the current state of voting rights in America.

A Counter to James Buckley’s Opinion Piece
by Members of Protecting Democracy Partners

One of the advantages of the new editorial team at the Montecito Journal has been a widening of perspectives which we believe strengthens our community by including a greater variety of voices. These voices include James Buckley’s, whose column last week denounced the messages of two guest speakers who presented at a free, informational Zoom event entitled “Fighting Voter Suppression.”

The event was hosted by our 16-member local group, Protecting Our Democracy. Our featured speakers were Marc Elias, a well-known voting rights attorney and founder of Democracy Docket (an organization focused on voting rights and election litigation), and Tiffany Muller, president of End Citizens United / Let American Vote Action Fund (an organization dedicated to limiting the influence of money in politics and protecting the right to vote).

We invited Marc and Tiffany to speak on two subjects: the 404-plus voter suppression bills passed or pending across our nation at the state level; and the For the People Act (HR1/S1), which, if passed by the Senate, would establish uniform national minimum standards for elections, end partisan gerrymandering, and increase the transparency of donations to candidates and PACs. Most Americans agree that the fairer and more transparent elections are in this country, the better for our democracy and democratic ideals.

We welcome Mr. Buckley participating in the Zoom, as well as a vigorous debate on voting issues. In his opinion piece, Mr. Buckley suggests passing legislation that would create an “Election Weekend” for voting, which contributes to the debate. What we reject is Mr. Buckley’s continued use of offensive, divisive language and his mischaracterization of the motives of our speakers. Mr. Elias is described as an “expert in compiling votes for his candidates through the use of election chaos.” Yet, among his many legal successes over the years, Mr. Elias was instrumental in winning 64 of the 65 lawsuits filed by the Trump campaign during the 2020 election, proving Mr. Elias is an expert in winning cases, not in election chaos. Ms. Muller, an accomplished voting rights activist, is described by Mr. Buckley as “gay herself” as if that were in any way relevant to her credibility and credentials as an election advocate.

Unfortunately, Mr. Buckley’s repeated use of incendiary language and imagery — i.e., “Black Panthers” (for people of color) and “panties in a twist” (an expression widely accepted as misogynistic) — only serves to widen the division within our community and country. At a time when our nation is so divided, we need more constructive conversations between both parties rather than inflammatory rhetoric and continued insults.

We join the overwhelming majority of courts (Democrat and Republican appointed), every single state recount, a significant majority of independent voters, the legislators who voted to certify the election, and the Department of Homeland Security under President Trump — which declared the November 3, 2020, election to be the “most secure in American history” — in rejecting Mr. Buckley’s characterization that the election was rigged and stolen by Democrats. The insurrection of January 6 and ongoing voter suppression efforts illustrate the insidious dangers of these conspiracy theories to the well-being and survival of our democracy.

We also strongly disagree with Mr. Buckley’s statement that the passage of the For the People Act is part of “an orchestrated plan to seal into permanence the make-it-easier-to-cheat election components…” and stand firm in our belief that the For the People Act will be a major step in strengthening our election system, benefiting all Americans. We encourage readers to learn more about this landmark piece of legislation which, among other things, will:

•Make it easier to vote and counter voter suppression including by streamlining voter registration and expanding early voting and vote by mail;

•Reduce the influence of big money in politics so that politicians are beholden to voters, not special interests and corporations; 

•End partisan gerrymandering by ensuring that congressional district lines are drawn through a fair, nonpartisan process; 

•Replace antiquated voting hardware and infrastructure to protect against voter fraud, foreign cyber attacks, and machine malfunctions — so that Americans can have confidence in the integrity of our elections; and 

•Strengthen ethics rules aimed at curbing corruption in government. 

Fair, equal, and accessible opportunities to participate in our country’s democracy should not be a partisan issue, rather, it should be a cause that we all support. The right to vote should not only be safeguarded and preserved, but expanded to reach every eligible American citizen. We have engaged wholeheartedly in this fight, and we encourage others to join us in Protecting Our Democracy.

Signed by: Leslie Bhutani, Michele Cuttler, Ann Daniel, Deborah David, Jane Eagleton, Jill Finsten, Martha Gabbert, Beryl Kreisel, Dorothy Largay, Wayne Rosing, John Lewis, Ed McKinley, Susan Rose, Nancy Sheldon,and Merryl and Chuck Zegar

For more information about For the People Act, please go to: www.brennan


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