Or will the center hold? Or neither? Or both?
Anne Applebaum sets the tone of her new book Twilight of Democracy by chronicling a party she and her politician husband threw in Poland on New Year’s Eve 1999. This party consisted of a range of Polish and international politicians, journalists, and others who occupied the political right—a group of what we would’ve called conservatives back then. Her descriptions of the party, which the couple threw at their refurbished castle, sound enchanting, with a great deal of bonhomie and the only real issue between the guests centering on what kind of music to play.
“Nearly two decades later”, Applebaum writes, “I would now cross the street to avoid some of the people who were at my New Year’s Eve party. They, in turn, would not only refuse to enter my house, they would be embarrassed to admit they had ever been there. In fact, about half the people who were at that party would no longer speak to the other half.”
The split amongst her party’s attendees becomes an apt microcosm of the split of conservatism worldwide over the past 20 years. On the one hand, McCain types such as Applebaum still abound, believing what they believe while still, in the end, supporting the basic concepts of democracy. On the other, there are those who support authoritarian populist movements such as the ones represented by Trump, Brexit, Putin, Duda, and the pursuit of one-party rule. Such a pursuit requires more elaborate rhetorical tools than we normally associate with democracy, most notably, lies amplified by any media to inflame the far-right base and make the rigorous political debate associated with liberal democracy all but impossible. The lie is key. If you’re willing to lie or willfully ignore the truth to advance your party’s cause, you might be an autocrat.
With a little digging, such lies are fairly easy to spot, for example, Trump’s multiple claims over several months of 2020 that the pandemic was “under control.” Not long ago, it was beyond my scope of thought that our president would dare to offer such obvious untruths. We’d catch them so easily. The lies perpetuated by authoritarian regimes happened somewhere else, to people from less fortunate countries. Applebaum writes in Twilight of Democracy, “Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all of our societies eventually will.”
According to Applebaum, lack of complexity is authoritarianism’s appeal. It transcends any party or affiliation. Hitler was an authoritarian, as was Stalin. When the other political party brings up uncomfortable truths, rather than deal with those truths by taking them into account in the formulation of new arguments and ideas, the authoritarian seeks to quash the uncomfortable political perspective. It’s a natural enough human instinct. Who hasn’t entertained the thought, once or twice, of wishing the other side of the argument would just go away?
In more sober moments, we concede points, respect that others in our communities believe differently from us, live with it. Why shouldn’t we do the same with modern authoritarians? Because they don’t disagree with our opinions, they want to annihilate any process by our society allows us to voice those opinions. It’s why famous American conservatives such as Mitt Romney and George Will are on the side of the left much of the time these days. They seem to understand that you’re either for Trump, or for democracy. Many have abandoned their lifelong membership to the Republican party in favor of the latter. Hopefully, on November 3rd, we’ll get to see how many—assuming our democracy is strong enough to hold a more or less fair election.
The good news is, the American democratic process still works when people come together.
After November 9, 2016, David Daley sought out contemporary stories of democracy in action, leading to Unrigged, his report on a dozen or so American political movements since January 2017 that led to the passing of common sense, bipartisan legislation for the good of neither party so much as the people.
“Bipartisan legislation?” Didn’t that go out with the dinosaurs, or at least the Clintons? If those are your feelings, you, like me, probably spend too much time mistaking politics on the internet for American political life. Daley chronicles the seemingly quixotic passing of legislation as unlikely as medicare expansion in Idaho with over 60 percent of the vote.
Yes, Idaho—as ruby red as states come—passed medicare expansion in November 2018. How on earth? It took a rag-tag group of Idahoans and a former state resident to come together, buy an RV, paint “Reclaim Idaho” on its side, and start knocking on doors. “Invent a structure you’ve never seen before,” Daley writes, “find all the passion and talents inside the community, and harness the work that people are willing to do.”
These crusaders drove back and forth across the potato state, talked to everyone, and weren’t surprised to find many folks fell into the insurance gap between the Affordable Care Act and their employer’s lack of a plan, which left them uninsured. If they personally didn’t fall into this gap, they knew someone who did. If Daley has one point, it’s that when you get away from the politics, people of all political stripes understand centrist issues and will vote for them so long as they’re voting for the respectful conversation they had with a person on the street and not against whatever political monster they’ve created—with the help of the media—in their heads.
Daley documents many stories in which people right political unbalance. Unrigged chronicles the efforts of the citizens of many states to defeat draconian redistricting schemes placed upon them by Republican legislatures that all but guaranteed incumbents win and democracy stagnates. It also details the fights won for former felons to get back their right to vote in states such as Louisiana and Florida, and the efforts in Maine to win a ranked choice voting system that allows its constituents to vote for the candidate they like without fear of splitting the vote.
“When voters are given a choice,” Daley writes, “fairness wins. Perhaps that’s why they’re not often given the option. Voters have to wrestle away a better future, themselves.” In these instances, it didn’t matter that the powers that be didn’t want fairer elections, more people voting, representatives chosen by the majority. Yes, it’s a shame we have to fight for it, but how awful would it be to fight and never win? Maybe it’s not the twilight of democracy after all.