Madison Cawthorn's screed brings to light the dire predicament authoritarians pose for democracy

Madison Cawthorn's screed brings to light the dire predicament authoritarians pose for democracy

U.S. Congressman-elect Madison Cawthorn speaking with attendees at the 2020 Student Action Summit hosted by Turning Point USA at the Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Credit: Gage Skidmore

The covid pandemic should have revealed to us how hard it is doing democracy. The plague could be over by now had everyone agreed it's bad, had everyone agreed masks are good and had everyone agreed vaccines are the road of the righteous to liberation. While consensus is always difficult to achieve in any democracy, the radicalization of one of two major parties, such that it's more like a separatist movement than a legitimate bargaining partner, has meant consensus has become nearly impossible.

But the covid pandemic should have revealed something else, something related to how hard it is doing democracy. When one of two major parties is willing to hurt itself in order to achieve its objectives, that party is always going to have a political advantage over the other. Mutual benefit and trust are impossible when betrayal is optional. Put another way, having a political advantage over the other party is important enough that the Republicans will gladly hurt themselves. This is so important it will move heaven and earth so it does not appear to be suicidal but instead honorable—so self-harm doesn't look like masochism but instead freedom.

Consider recent remarks by Madison Cawthorn given during a speech on the floor of the United States House of Representatives during which he railed against new rules requiring members wear masks: "If I am to cowardly bend the knee here, like those on the left wish, then what is to stop you all from taking your tyranny to the rest of this country that I love," the North Carolina Congressman said. "How dare anyone in this institution attempt to dictate to the patriots on my staff how they may live their lives. … What makes this nation special is that here in this free land, the people are the royalty. So arrest us if you will, but I will not cower and I will not bend. You have come to take away our liberties, but Madam Speaker, in this country you are outnumbered."

Cawthorn is a carbuncle on the haunch of the Republican Party, but nevertheless he captures the democratic predicament I'm talking about. The more we ask these authoritarians to do the right thing—to get vaccinated for themselves and everyone they love—the more these authoritarians will recognize, because we keep asking so nicely, that they have an advantage over us. The more we ask them to do their part in the democratic exercise of collective problem-solving, the more they see the value in sabotage. Liberals often call them crazy, but they are not. They are making a rational choice. In order to continue this advantage, they continue refusing to "give in."

That the political advantage they imagine for themselves is fictional—you know, on account of they're dying from the covid—does not detract from democracy being made more difficult when one of the major parties is willing to hurt itself in order to maintain or gain a political advantage. Democracies can't live with authoritarians. Democracies can't live without them either. In any given democracy worldwide, there's always a sizable chunk of its population jim-dandy with the idea of liquidating their enemies. There's always a sizable chuck prepared to die for such "principles." Don't take my word for it, though. Here's Dr. Michelle Fiscus, a former health official fired by the state of Tennessee for doing her job too well. This is what she told CNN:

I think, you know, the other thing in Tennessee, and I think in a lot of our southern states what's happening is this ideology that if you get this vaccine, you're somehow placating the left part of the political spectrum. And so, what we're actually seeing is our most hesitant population in Tennessee is the white male rural conservative and that they are stating that they're not going to get the vaccine, really, out of spite, and are willing to put their own lives and the lives of people that they love at risk because they feel that if they get the vaccine, then they have, you know, placated the left or done what the Biden administration wants them to do. (The emphasis is mine.)

The result is a covid pandemic that should be over by now.

What can democracies do? I dunno. What can they do when sizable chunks of their populations are prepared to blow themselves up out of spite? While we can't prevent that in the absence of a federal mandate (I'll return to a mandate in a moment), we can prevent them from getting the respect they desperately crave. Make no mistake. Respect is the point of all those make-believe arguments, voiced by that carbuncle on the haunch of the Republican Party, about self-harm not really being self-harm but really being a principled fight for freedom. Noop. It's not. Suicide, yes. Liberty, no. Dying because the Biden administration wants you to live isn't brave. It's pathetic.

What the rest of us can do is point out that these authoritarians hurt themselves not out of principle but fear. They are deeply, deeply afraid. Of what? Not what they should be afraid of, like the covid, but of ordinary humiliation. Why do you think they talk to each other exclusively? It's because authoritarians inhabit lies, falsehoods and misrepresentations about themselves and the world around them that cannot exist "on the outside." They won't risk the humiliation that comes with engaging the "reality-based community" that the rest of us live in. They won't risk the humiliation of having to defer to the authority of facts—of the possibility of being wrong and not being as great as these authoritarians believe themselves to be. If they accepted as right and true the facts informing the "reality-based community," they'd be surrendering. They'd be accepting their "replacement." They'd rather replace by force the "reality-based community" with lies, falsehoods and misrepresentations about themselves and the world around them. Once that happens, then—only then—will they feel respected.

You can't ever let that happen. The democratic exercise of collective problem-solving—for instance, putting an end to this goddamn pandemic—demands loyalty to facts. It also demands humility. Humility, to the authoritarian, isn't humility as the rest of us understand it. It's humiliation, which is a source of pain, which is of their own making. It's humiliating when people on the outside don't believe lies believed true on the inside. It's humiliating when the rest of us don't believe their ridiculous claim to be fighting for their liberty. Long before they chose to hurt themselves during a plague in order to gain some kind of imaginary advantage over their imaginary enemies, they were already hurting. Pain is the simple result of encountering a modern, literate and technologically advanced society. If existence itself is painful, what's a little more, especially when the pain is seen as evidence of the rest of us being against them?

It may seem ironic to say this but a federally enforced vaccine mandate will probably put an end to all this. Sure, some will resist. Many will die before getting a shot. But most of the rest of these authoritarians will cave under the weight of government's authority. They won't admit to it, of course. They will convince themselves they are getting a shot out of their own free will. It's the right thing to do! Whatever works.

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