Linda Chavez discusses rebuilding trust in U.S. democracy


When Linda Chavez was running for the U.S. Senate in Maryland in 1986, the campaign trail brought her to Cumberland, Maryland — a small city in the western part of the state — where she was meeting with local business leaders and her primary opponent, a CEO out of Baltimore who wore a pinstripe suit to the event. Chavez was also dressed in a “proper little suit,” but there was one problem: After a hiking trip, her family had taken her high heels home with them, leaving her nothing but the cowboy boots she’d worn the day prior.

Chavez, who has been honored by the Library of Congress as a Living Legend, opened her lecture Tuesday, July 26, in the Amphitheater with this anecdote, because history rhymed that day for her: After a 10-day trip to Europe she was again left without her heels, abandoned in an Albanian hotel. So, she took the Amp stage in her tennis shoes and hoped that, like the cowboy boots all those years ago, they would bring her luck.

A widely published opinion columnist, chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity, an advisory board member for Republicans For Voting Rights, former U.S. Expert to the U.N. Sub-commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, and staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Chavez joined the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week Five theme on “The Vote and Democracy” with a question: “How Do We Protect Democracy in a Divided America?”

Chavez first spoke at Chautauqua in 1996 on issues of media bias, and nearly 30 years later, those issues are still a problem — especially when one looks at polls she cited that show 70% of Republican voters still believe that the 2020 election was stolen.

“There’s a reason they believe that,” she said: President Donald Trump’s ability to convince his voters that he, simply, did not lose.

“But in a democracy, we have to actually believe that our elections are free and fair,” Chavez said. “Because if we don’t, then the whole house of cards collapses. … The reason I am so worried is that I think that we have, in fact, lost a measure of that trust, and it is absolutely vital that we begin to rebuild that.”

Chavez pointed to America’s many divides — self-segregation, differences both political and geographical, a decline in faith and worship and, perhaps most of all, the same issues she sounded the alarm on in 1996 from the same stage: media bias and echo chambers.

“The most important change that’s taken place is the change in where we get our information from,” she said. “We don’t read the same newspapers, if we read newspapers at all. We don’t watch the same television programs, either for entertainment or for news. We don’t get information necessarily from organized outlets like newspapers or television broadcasts or the radio. We get it often from the internet, and we get it filtered by algorithms that are set up to steer us to people with whom we agree, so that we never hear what people who disagree with us have to say in a respectful fashion. We have no common reference point.”

Chavez said she grew up in a time when the news was trusted. Walter Cronkite was a mainstay, and Americans had a “common body of information, a common set of facts.” Interpreting those facts could lead to disagreement, but, facts were facts.

Algorithms and a lack of fact-checkers online has led to an erosion of trust, Chavez said, and “the problem is that a democracy absolutely requires the trust of the people who are involved in that democracy to function.” 

The media landscape is at fault, too, with how Big Money has altered the way outlets operate. Chavez used the example of the Jan. 6 Committee hearings, some of which have aired in primetime on major networks as a public service, while Fox News opted instead to not broadcast the hearings.

“There’s a very good reason why: It’s not a money-maker for them,” Chavez said. “… Those primetime shows (on Fox) bring in big bucks. … People think, ‘Well, of course, it’s the politics of Fox News, and Rupert Murdoch,’ … but Murdoch also owns the New York Post, and The Wall Street Journal, and I think that they’ve been very hard-hitting not only in their coverage, but in their editorials against what happened in 2020.”

So, Chavez asked, what happened in 2020 that changed? The election was not close, but there was confusion because states were shifting how citizens could vote during the pandemic. Trump spent much of the election spreading mistrust over that confusion, Chavez said, but the biggest factor cementing distrust came after the votes were counted.

“For the very first time in U.S. history, a man who was defeated at the polls absolutely refused to concede,” she said. “This was very striking. … So we had a central lie that fomented the notion that the election had been stolen. Well, we saw what happened, what the result of that lie was.”

Chavez called the Jan. 6 insurrection “the most devastating moment of my political life,” as she watched “this symbol of American democracy, this symbol of freedom being physically attacked, with police officers being beaten, with the whole building being desecrated by a mob.”

It was a mob that Trump summoned, incited and sent, Chavez said, echoing the words of U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney. And by Jan. 6, Chavez had “had it with my party.” She changed her voter registration to “unaffiliated.”

As of Tuesday, the Jan. 6 Committee had held eight hearings, and Chavez said she had watched “every single minute of it.” An informal poll of her Chautauqua audience indicated that most had watched all, or most, of the hearings. That impressed her.

“We are not the majority. Sixty-two percent of Americans aren’t watching and haven’t watched at all,” she said. “And even those who are watching, at least part time, only 11% say they have watched most or all of those hearings. Only 25% of nominal Republicans have bothered to watch at all.”

Chavez said she wanted to focus on these numbers because the hearings have outlined “a long, complicated conspiracy to commit a coup — a conspiracy that has taken place on multiple fronts,” including the state courts and governments. As she listed developments on these various fronts, Chavez recounted voting fraud investigations in Georgia, considerations in the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice to seize voting machines, and cases of fraudulent votes cast for Trump.

“What does all that mean for the future?” she asked. “… The fact is, we can survive this, but it won’t be easy.”

Chavez sees a bright spot in the bipartisan effort to reform the Electoral Count Act of 1887, and the contemplation among congresspeople to require one-fifth of the chamber vote to object to the counting and certifying of votes before holding any discussion of a debate on merits. That is an extremely important change, she said, but she worries about other Republican efforts to change the vote counting system, and to place individuals in election offices who believe that the 2020 vote was stolen.

Also worrisome for her is the emphasis on access in HR1, the For the People Act.

“I want every person who’s eligible to vote to be able to vote and cast that vote in a safe and secure way,” Chavez said. “But the problem is not so much the casting of votes. It is, as I say, the counting of those votes and what role that secretaries of state or other election officials will have in determining whether or not the votes in various jurisdictions are going to be counted.”

With Jan. 6 Committee hearings extending to the end of summer 2022, and possibly beyond, Chavez noted that “we don’t know yet exactly what’s going to happen.” She pointed to the length of the hearings indicating the involvement of people with integrity — not household names like Rudy Giuliani, but the Cassidy Hutchinsons of the world from the previous administration who are “upstanding members of the Republican Party” and now have the opportunity for their voices to be heard.

Chavez does think criminal indictments will be handed down as a result of the Jan. 6 Committee report, when it does come. She just doesn’t think it will be of Trump — but of what she called “phony electors appointed in the aftermath of the election” certifying the vote had gone to Trump, and of White House administrators who conceived of a stolen election to begin with.

The true challenge, after all of this: How do we restore trust in a democracy?

“It is by civic engagement, it is by going back to your communities (and) getting involved that we’re going to see this change. It’s by talking to your neighbors. Don’t just talk to your neighbors who you agree with. Reach out to people that you maybe haven’t agreed with in the last five years,” Chavez said. “We have to learn to trust each other again. We have to learn to try to convince people with words, not by bullying, … not by name calling. We have to convince people with the power of our ideas.”

One day, Chavez said, she looks forward to rejoining the Republican Party. She still identifies with many of the party’s issues and policies, and knows that democracy depends on a two-party system. 

“I would love to be able to vote for a Republican in 2024, but I’m not going to vote for Donald Trump, and I’m not going to vote for a whole lot of others who seem to be rushing to embrace him,” she said. 

She voted for Joe Biden in 2020 — the first time she’d voted Democrat in a presidential election since casting her first-ever vote for Hubert Humphrey. But she wants a two-party system, and “one in which my values can be represented by someone who also believes in the importance of democracy.”

Until that point, it’s going to be a struggle, she said, and Americans mustn’t take for granted that the United States is the oldest democracy in the world, or that that democracy will be around forever. 

“Are we the biggest? The strongest? The most successful? The most economically successful country in the history of the world?” she said. “We are, but it doesn’t mean we will be so forever. If we lose our democracy, if we lose the ability to trust in our institutions and to ensure that those institutions function as our Constitution envisioned, then we won’t be any longer. But I’m here to tell you, I’m sure that you’re not going to let that happen, and I’m going to do my best not to let it happen, as well.”

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The author Sara Toth

Sara Toth is entering her fifth summer as editor of The Chautauquan Daily and works year-round in Chautauqua Institution’s Department of Education. Previously, she served four years as the Daily’s assistant and then managing editor. An alum of the Daily internship program, she is a native of Pittsburgh(ish), attended Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania, and worked for nearly four years as a reporter in the Baltimore Sun Media Group. She lives in Jamestown with her husband, a photographer, and her Lilac, a cat.