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  • Dan Connors

Is Democracy Dying?

Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America

“Authoritarians rise when economic, social, political, or religious change makes members of a formerly powerful group feel as if they have been left behind. Their frustration makes them vulnerable to leaders who promise to make them dominant again. A strongman downplays the real conditions that have created their problems and tells them that the only reason they have been dispossessed is that enemies have cheated them of power.” ― Heather Cox Richardson, Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America

"So this is how liberty dies...with thunderous applause." Padme Amidala- Star Wars Episode III

For most of human history, societies were ruled by authoritarian figures. These men used money, power, and God to claim divine right to rule, and their word was law. Democracy had an interesting trial period in Ancient Greece around 500 BC, but for the most part it didn't start catching on until the 19th century. Education was only for the elites, and slavery was common around the world, which allowed the superstitious masses to fall behind whatever monarch, emperor, or despot managed to grab power and hold onto it.

Democracy started rising for good in the late 18th century with the French Revolution of 1792 and the American Revolution of 1776. Kings were beaten for the first time in history and forced to relinquish their power by groups of people demanding a voice in how things were run. For the next 200 years democracy would have a rocky road, but mostly it would spread around the world to imperfect regimes where the elites still had a lot of influence, but not total control.

I find it odd that here in the 21st century people are still debating whether democracy can survive and whether certain "undesirable" people should have a voice at all. Gerrymandering, dark campaign money, social media algorithms, and difficult ballot access are threatening democracy increasingly. What does it all mean? Is democracy so fragile that a group of clever despots can destroy it forever?

These and more questions are addressed in Democracy Rising- Notes on the State of America by Heather Cox Richardson. Ms. Richardson is a popular historian and prolific writer, with ten books on history to her name.

The first section of her book is a recap of American history from the end of World War 2 to the Obama years. Cox Richardson delves into how the liberal consensus of the New Deal got gradually eroded by the Reagan and Bush administrations, laying the groundwork for what was to come.

The second part is a grim recap of the Donald Trump presidency, when authoritarianism was on the rise and democracy became more endangered than ever. The fact that a leader would claim without evidence that an election was rigged and invalid puts the entire concept of democracy in jeopardy. If we can't trust elections to choose our leaders, do we have to trust the loudest voices in the room to tell us what we can trust?

The third section of the book, Reclaiming Democracy, delves into the conflicting ideas that have followed the US since its founding. While the Declaration of Independence preached that:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness". Governments were supposed to be ruled by the consent of the governed, and not the whims of kings or elites. For the time, this was a radical proposition. At the same time the founders were writing about democracy, they were practicing something very different- slavery was condoned, women were subjugated and without rights, and white Christian men were dominant in all areas. This tension between reality and democracy has continued to this day, with the anti-democratic forces pointing to the divine right of certain people to be in charge and the inferior ones to submit.

Cox-Richardson goes back to the beginning of the nation for another history lesson on how these two forces kept at odds, leading to the civil war that eventually abolished slavery and made all natural born residents full citizens for the first time. By the time that women were granted the vote in the 1920's, the promises of the Declaration of Independence were becoming more real.

The New Deal lifted many Americans out of abject poverty from the Depression, but it specifically left out most minorities. According to the author, the rising demands that the people of color and women be included in this economic bonanza led to the undermining of democracy that started in the 1980's and continues today. The women's movement and civil rights movement made great strides in evening opportunities, and that scared the elites to the point where they felt they had to fight back.

Richard Nixon was one of the first to play to white resentment, but many politicians after him leaned into fear and scare tactics to get elected. Donald Trump is just the latest in a long line of race-baiting authoritarians who portrayed themselves as a white Christian savior who would hold the line against chaos and restore things back the way they used to be before gays, women, and minorities were so visible. The fact that birth rates and immigration have all but assured that whites will be in the minority by the 2030's has supercharged this fear to the point where embattled elites are considering abandoning democracy altogether to keep their status.

The author concludes, "A history that looks back to a mythologized past as the country's perfect time is a key tool of authoritarians. It allows them to characterize anyone who opposes them as an enemy of the country's great destiny.

But the true history of American democracy is that it is never finished. It is a story of people who have honored the idea that a nation can be based not in land or religion or race or hierarchies, but rather in the concept of human equality. That commitment, along with its corollary- that we have a right to consent of our government, which in turn should act in our interest- has brought us our powerful history of people working and sacrificing to bring those principles to life."

Democracy is messy, and doesn't always elevate the best leaders. Combined with a free press and free elections, it's the best system humanity has come up with. Authoritarianism has an appeal for many- it simplifies complex subjects, offers safety to some, and allows quick, decisive action. But authoritarians inevitably lose touch with reality, stop listening to those beneath them, and lead those who follow them into poor results. Democracy is the only system that uses the wisdom of the crowd to come up with the complex compromises that can move entire societies forward.

It's sad that in 2023 we are still debating about democracy. The multicultural future that we are headed towards frightens many who still yearn for simpler times, but the future will not be denied. We can either enter it in fear or in hope. I choose hope.

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