What the chaos in Afghanistan can remind us about the importance of protecting democracy at home

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When I talk to people about my career — from my time overseas bringing the tools for literacy to the poorest parts of the world to my work here in the United States to stem the flow of corrupting influence money and stop voter suppression — I understand when people think I have lived two lives.

But, stay with me, because there’s a connection I think is important to make.

And it begins with Afghanistan.

I was working with a cutting-edge technology startup out of the MIT Media Lab called One Laptop per Child. Our mission was to develop and distribute affordable computing to millions of children in the poorest parts of the world so that they could have access to learning no matter where they lived.  In 2010, we were focused on bringing that technology to Afghanistan.

Working with the late Sen. John McCain — who I knew well from my days at Common Cause when we worked together to help pass historic campaign reform — I was able to meet with Gen. Stanley McChrystal in Kabul to talk about what access to education could mean to a generation of Afghan children. We discussed the enormously high illiteracy rate among Afghans, and how illiteracy and poverty led to increased levels of corruption in government. In fact, McChrystal told me, 100 percent of the Afghan soldiers they were training were illiterate.

McChrystal acknowledged the profound impact literacy would bring to Afghanistan. “My job is to help create peace,” he told me, “and this is one way to get there.”

Unfortunately, our progress in Afghanistan ended when General McChrystal was fired. 

Today, we must sort out what we as a nation could have done differently in Afghanistan that could have avoided the chaos, loss of life, and violent takeover by the Taliban this summer. 

The situation there in these past few weeks reminds me of two important things.

First, democracy and political stability are fragile. 

Instability shows itself in oppression and suppression. It can be seen in the oppression of women in Afghanistan, restrictions that bar Afghan girls from schools, and violent control of the country that threatens the freedom of Afghan citizens. 

But it can also be seen here in the United States, as state legislatures impose voter suppression laws that take us back to the days of Jim Crow and threaten our democracy. How can we as a nation be a voice for democracy and freedom, when our own democracy is being threatened? How can we rail against corruption when our political class depends on a flood of money from the country’s wealthiest donors?

Second, the situation in Afghanistan does not exist in a vacuum. The White House and Congress rarely have the luxury of dealing with “one crisis at a time.” 

And so, while they must deal with the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, when Congress returns in September, S. 1, the For the People Act, and H.R. 4, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — both already passed by the House — must be passed in the Senate.

These bills would ensure access to the ballot in federal elections for eligible citizens regardless of where they live or the color of their skin. S. 1 would override the voter suppression laws already passed in the states and help break the corrupting grip big money has over our elected officials which is at the heart of so much of our political dysfunction. H.R. 4 would help stop future voter suppression efforts. 

With so many crises requiring immediate attention, it would be easy for the White House and Congress to allow voting rights and anti-corruption measures to slip off the priority list. 

That would be a grievous mistake.

When I think about my years working with colleagues on the ground in Kabul and beyond — the extraordinarily brave men and women working together for a better future — I am struck by how deeply committed they were to build a country free from corruption. They never gave up the work to build a country where the voices of citizens could be heard and where people could trust that their leaders would not betray the public interest as a means to empower and profit themselves.

There is a lesson there for us here in the United States.

The late Rep. John Lewis, one of our greatest civil rights champions, wrote in his final essay: “The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.”

Today, we are at risk of losing it. As we witness the chaos, violence, and loss of freedom in Afghanistan, we must also recognize that democracy is not guaranteed here at home. 

There is much urgent work that needs to be done on so many fronts today.

Saving our democracy is one of them.

Matt Keller is vice president of Democracy 21.

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