Speaking in Athens, Greece, yesterday, Pope Francis warned Americans, “We cannot avoid noting with concern how today, and not only in Europe, we are witnessing a retreat from democracy." He warned against politicians with "an obsessive quest for popularity, in a thirst for visibility, in a flurry of unrealistic promises,” and called for people around the world to turn away from authoritarianism, individualism, and indifference. Instead, they must rededicate themselves to the common good and strengthen democracy.
The pope’s public recognition of the rise of authoritarianism mirrored the increasing awareness here in the U.S. that our democracy is in crisis.
That dawning awareness seems to have been sparked by the December 1 oral arguments about abortion rights before the Supreme Court, when a majority of the current justices made it clear that the constitutional right to abortion many people believed was sacrosanct is likely to be taken away.
“They lied,” the Washington Post’s Paul Waldman wrote about the testimony of the Republican-appointed justices in their confirmation hearings. In those hearings, they indicated that they saw the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision protecting the right to abortion as settled law, no matter what their own personal preferences might be. “They lied to Congress and to the country…. It was all a lie, a scam, a con,” Waldman wrote, “the assurances that they were blank slates committed to ‘originalism’ and ‘textualism,’ that they wouldn’t ‘legislate from the bench,’ that they have no agenda but merely a ‘judicial philosophy.’”
Also in the Washington Post, Dr. Melissa Murray, a New York University law professor who clerked for Justice Sonia Sotomayor, noted that Sotomayor recognized that her colleagues were “embracing a cataclysmic reordering of the reproductive rights landscape.”
Seeing what her colleagues were going to do, Sotomayor turned to “the American people themselves…suggesting that the court need not have the last word on abortion.” She was, Murray said, “alerting the people to the imminent threat to abortion rights in the hopes that, hearing her alarm, we might mobilize. Not with a Jan. 6–style insurrection but with the sort of grass-roots energy that once fueled the civil rights movement and other progressive social causes.” “The court will not save our rights,” Murray wrote, “But maybe we can save them ourselves.”
In fact, the reactionaries in the current-day Republican Party are a minority of the country. As David Atkins points out in the Washington Monthly, Republicans are operating from a position of weakness. In the United States, Democratic counties produce more than 70% of the nation’s gross domestic product (the total market value of goods and services produced). Democratic states fund the Republican-dominated states that complain about “socialism.” Eighty-three percent of Americans now live in cities, which tend to vote Democratic, and young people are overwhelmingly progressive.
The problem is this: “Democrats…need to win every single election from here to prevent the destruction of democracy, while Republicans only need to win one. And the American system is set up so that Republicans will win sooner or later, whether fairly or by cheating.” Atkins urges the American people to “start thinking about and planning for what ‘Break glass in case of emergency’ measures look like—because it’s more likely a matter of when, not if. It not only can happen here; it probably will happen here. Conservatives are guaranteed to make every attempt to turn America into the next Russia or Hungary. It will take coordinated, overlapping solidarity among both regular people and elites across various institutions to stop it.”
Laura Thornton, the director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, lays out what American authoritarianism looks like and shows that it is already here. Focusing on Wisconsin, she deplores the statements of Senator Ron Johnson and Republican lawmakers who are openly demanding control over election management in the state.
“I spent more than two decades living and working overseas to advance democracy and credible elections—giving me plenty of opportunity to see the lengths to which autocrats will go to gain power,” Thornton writes. “Even so, the proposed Wisconsin power grab is shocking in its brazenness. If this occurred in any of the countries where the United States provides aid, it would immediately be called out as a threat to democracy. U.S. diplomats would be writing furious cables, and decision makers would be threatening to cut off the flow of assistance.”
How can we stop the march of authoritarianism? Thornton says that “it is up to us, the people. No party or leader will save us here. No foreign savior will shake us out of our stupor. Americans need to start caring about democracy enough to act on it…. Apathy is how democracies die. I’ve seen it.”
What does minority rule look like? It looks like individual liberty and violence to make others do what those in power want.
Representative Thomas Massie (R-KY) grabbed attention today with a family Christmas picture in which seven people are brandishing guns, ostensibly to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. His tweeted caption read: “Merry Christmas! Ps. Santa, please bring ammo.” This can only be taken as a message: on Tuesday, a 15-year-old killed four classmates and wounded several others with a gun he received as a Christmas gift.
Senate Republicans on Thursday blocked a move to proceed on a law expanding background checks for gun purchases, a bill the House passed in March. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) said the measure was “hostile toward lawful gun owners and lawful firearms transactions,” and he blocked it.
Last night, in Washington, D.C., about 100 members of the white supremacist group Patriot Front marched to “reclaim America.” Patriot Front was known as Vanguard America until a man affiliated with it killed Heather Heyer at the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. Such people want to remake our nation as a white supremacist haven and know that this is their last chance.
But while the white supremacists who joined together in Charlottesville marched openly, with their faces uncovered, those people joining the Patriot Front last night wore masks. This is important. When the Ku Klux Klan terrorized people after the Civil War, they hid their faces with white hoods designed to look like the ghosts of dead Confederate soldiers, knowing that if the federal government knew who they were, it would prosecute them. By the end of the nineteenth century, Euro-Americans did not hide their faces at public lynchings, knowing they represented the will of the moment. That the rioters from Charlottesville now cover their faces suggests that the white supremacy welcome among some circles in 2017 now needs to hide.
With the call of so many observers to defend American democracy from those who would replace it with authoritarianism, many are reaching backward to remember what things were like in the past, when politicians of different parties worked together for the nation. In the Philadelphia Inquirer today, Will Bunch reminded readers that before politicians fetishized guns and individualism, we used to rally around something called “the public good.”