American democracy is on the treadmill of doom: How do we get off?
America is in deep trouble — and I say that not out of hatred but out of love. James Baldwin once explained that he loved America "more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually."
With little fanfare, last Monday was World Freedom Day. President Biden offered an obligatory public statement, including the somewhat dubious claim that since the fall of the Berlin Wall 32 years ago, "we have seen great progress to advance human rights and fundamental freedoms as well as to build and consolidate democratic institutions across the formerly communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe and around the world." But democracy, the president admitted, "remains under threat" in many parts of the world where "we see aspiring autocrats trample the rule of law, attack freedom of the press, and undermine an independent judiciary."
Biden's proclamation continues:
Today, we reaffirm our commitment to the ideal that democracy — a Government of the people, by the people, and for the people — is how we best safeguard the rights, freedoms, and dignity that belong to every person. Together with other free nations, the United States remains committed to the vital work of strengthening our democratic institutions, defending civil society, advancing human rights, and holding those who commit abuses and foster corruption accountable.
It is a statement of what the United States wishes it were, not what it actually is, especially in this era of democracy crisis and ascendant neofascism. In total, there is something apprehensive and sad in this overly hopeful tribute, not to mention a hefty dose of denial. Biden's proclamation almost sounds like the words of a president who knows his country is losing a war, yet tells the public: "Victory is imminent! Do not despair!"
Many Americans can sense the country's inner turmoil and understand that something is very broken.
That despair and feeling of wrongness reflect a deep intuition, even if our language is often insufficient to capture it, that this American interregnum will resolve itself in a period of chaotic transformation and perhaps the defeat of multiracial democracy. But many millions of people remain in denial about America's escalating democracy crisis — or support the emerging fascist movement, mistaking it for "patriotism."
The democracy advocacy organization Freedom House reports that the "democracy score" of the United States has decreased by 11 points since 2010, placing it in a group of countries with the largest such declines by that measure. As Freedom House reported in March, the Trump administration worsened that trend significantly:
The final weeks of the Trump presidency featured unprecedented attacks on one of the world's most visible and influential democracies. After four years of condoning and indeed pardoning official malfeasance, ducking accountability for his own transgressions, and encouraging racist and right-wing extremists, the outgoing president openly strove to illegally overturn his loss at the polls, culminating in his incitement of an armed mob to disrupt Congress's certification of the results. ... Only a serious and sustained reform effort can repair the damage done during the Trump era to the perception and reality of basic rights and freedoms in the United States.
Groundbreaking research by the V-Dem institute at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden has found that the Republican Party has become so extreme that it more closely resembles openly right-wing authoritarian and fascist political parties in Europe and elsewhere than it does mainstream center-right parties like the Conservatives in Britain or the Christian Democratic Union in Germany.
As legal scholar Robert Kagan wrote in the Washington Post in September, "The United States is heading into its greatest political and constitutional crisis since the Civil War, with a reasonable chance over the next three to four years of incidents of mass violence, a breakdown of federal authority, and the division of the country into warring red and blue enclaves." He concluded:
We are already in a constitutional crisis. The destruction of democracy might not come until November 2024, but critical steps in that direction are happening now. In a little more than a year, it may become impossible to pass legislation to protect the electoral process in 2024. Now it is impossible only because anti-Trump Republicans, and even some Democrats, refuse to tinker with the filibuster. It is impossible because, despite all that has happened, some people still wish to be good Republicans even as they oppose Trump. These decisions will not wear well as the nation tumbles into full-blown crisis.
Social scientists, investigative journalists and other experts have shown that even before American neofascism's rise that the country's status as a "democracy" was already imperiled by the power of the richest Americans and corporate oligarchs to set the political agenda while the concerns of the average American are all but ignored by elected officials and other elites.
The meaning and spirit of Biden's World Freedom Day proclamation is further complicated by how much the world's self-described "greatest democracy" now resembles the failed or aspiring democracies who supposedly look to it for inspiration.
There are too many examples to list in full, beginning of course with the coup attempt and violent assault on the U.S. Capitol last January. That coup attempt was not decisively defeated. Republican fascists and their propaganda machine are using the Big Lie, claiming that the 2020 election was stolen and Biden's presidency is illegitimate to further discredit and undermine American democracy.
That propaganda campaign has been highly effective: A large percentage if not majority of Republican voters believe that Trump is somehow still the real president, that the 2020 election was fraudulent, and the Democratic Party is an enemy of "real" Americans. Public opinion and other research has also shown that a large percentage of Republican voters and Trump supporters are willing to accept or condone political violence and other forms of terrorism in order to "protect" their "traditional way of life."
Across the country, Republicans and their anti-democracy operatives are enacting laws and other policies (such as partisan gerrymandering) aimed at preventing Black and brown people and other Democratic Party's constituencies from voting or otherwise receiving fair representation. Channeling the Jim Crow reign of terror, the Republicans are also using threats of violence and other forms of intimidation — including potentially armed "poll watchers" and "election police" — in an effort to suppress or restrict the votes of Black and brown people, among others.
In perhaps their greatest success, the Republican fascists, along with their propagandists and dream merchants, have also undermined the very idea of truth and empirical reality itself. Tens of millions of people exist in a right-wing echo chamber structured by conspiracy theory, anti-intellectualism, irrationality, hatred, and where authoritarianism is worshipped as a civic religion and personal identity.
Too many liberals or "moderates" have deluded themselves into believing that rational dialogue or factual evidence can somehow persuade the Republican fascists and other members of the right wing to abandon their alternate reality. But such appeals to logic and reason hold little power over the emotional pleasures to be found in fascism.
Democratic leaders, the Biden administration and the Department of Justice are not acting with the necessary urgency to investigate and punish Donald Trump and other collaborators for the crimes of Jan. 6 and their ongoing coup attempt. Without the rule of law and justice, democracy will die.
America's democracy crisis, when viewed in the context of the many other crises facing the country and the world, has led to the anxious coping behavior known as "doom-scrolling," in which each individual dreadful event is lost amid many others in a never-ending stream.
We might more accurately described how the American people — at least those who are paying attention and remain invested in saving democracy — are stuck on a "doom treadmill," which is creating a sense of physical, emotional, spiritual and intellectual exhaustion. The only way to escape is to run faster than the infernal machine forces those stuck on it — but most Americans lack the strength and endurance to do so.
What can be done?
Pro-democracy Americans must ally with others locally to find mutual aid and support in what will likely be a long struggle against American fascism. It's not enough to support Democratic candidates and other "mainstream" political figures or organizations. Normal politics, almost by definition, is insufficient to defeat fascism. Political pragmatism will be required to prevail in this struggle.
Collective action will also be necessary — strikes, protests and other forms of corporeal politics and direct action — to confront and cause substantive consequences for those political leaders, businesses and organizations who support the Republican fascists and their movement.
Americans who support democracy need to share information, knowledge and other resources, in order to help create an alternative public sphere as a counterbalance to the Republican-fascist assault on truth and reality. As survivors of authoritarian regimes in other times and places have suggested, keeping a private journal is a valuable way to document the changes in society as neofascism gains power. When reality is under siege it becomes the responsibility of individuals and small groups to maintain some form of documentary record.
Democracy is a noun and a verb. Doing the work necessary to defend and reinvigorate American democracy will not be easy and cannot be understood as a short-term endeavor. As we have seen in the U.S. and other countries, this is likely to be an intergenerational struggle.
In a recent essay, anti-racism educator and activist Tim Wise observed: "Maintaining democracy, a livable planet, or a functioning society is like any other job. If you don't work at it, it doesn't get done." Fascists, he noted, "are the only ones showing up and punching the clock. They don't "take a break from the news," and they don't "do nomadism, digital or otherwise. They show the fuck up."
Pro-democracy Americans must internalize the wisdom of others who have fought (and won) similar battles. That is certainly the best way to create solidarity and finding energy and inspiration for what will often be thankless or even dangerous political work.
The Italian philosopher and activist Antonio Gramsci famously spoke of the need for "pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will" in the battle against authoritarianism. That combination will surely be necessary — but then the fundamental question becomes: Do the American people want a real democracy — and are enough of them willing to work and sacrifice to reclaim that possibility as reality?
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