Our discussion centered around publications by two colleagues at The Atlantic Magazine. They are among many who are warning about the possible collapse of democracy in our time.
Twilight of Democracy is a 2020 book by Anne Applebaum that chronicles her personal experience with fledgling democracies following the fall of the Soviet Union, beginning with Poland where she lived. Her book goes on to discuss the decline of numerous democracies.
“Trump’s Next Coup Has Already Begun” is an article in the December, 2021, edition of The Atlantic by Barton Gellman about how states dominated by the Republican Party are changing rules to ensure their victory in future elections despite the shift toward more Democratic voters.
Anne Applebaum was present near the dawn of democracy in Poland. She held a party at which many friends, some of them in government and most of them young, celebrated the good times they expected to come under the new government. But since then much has gone wrong with democracy in Poland and many other countries: “Poland is now one of the most polarized societies in Europe, and we have found ourselves on opposite sides of a profound divide, one that runs through not only what used to be the Polish right, but the old Hungarian right, the Spanish right, the French right, the Italian right, and with some differences, the British and American right. … Some of my friends now support a nativist party called Law and Justice. … Many of its supporters and promoters slowly came to embrace a different set of ideas, not just xenophobic and paranoid, but openly authoritarian.”
She goes on to state that among those who have succumbed to authoritarian views many “have been educated in the best universities.” She provides a view about what is happening in many countries: “Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy.”
She discusses how, of the US founders, Hamilton in particular “was one of the many in colonial America who read over and over again the history of Greece and Rome [places where democracy failed], trying to learn how to prevent a new democracy from becoming a tyranny.” She quotes Hannah Arendt’s description of how an “authoritarian personality … derives his sense of having a place in the world only from belonging to a movement. … Authoritarianism,” she tells us, “appeals to people who cannot tolerate complexity. … It is suspicious of people with different ideas. … Authoritarians need the people who will promote the riot or launch the coup. But they also need people who can use sophisticated legal language, people who can argue that breaking the constitution or twisting the law is the right thing to do.”
As to the future of democracy, particularly in the US? “Modern Americans have long been convinced that liberal democracy, one achieved, was impossible to reverse. The founders themselves were not so certain: Their beloved classical authors taught them that history was circular, that human nature was flawed, and that special measures were needed to prevent democracy from sliding back into tyranny. They sought to create a system, stuffed with checks and balances, that would encourage people to behave.”
Applebaum doesn’t have clear solutions to our democratic dilemma. What she offers is: “Because all authoritarians divide, polarize and separate people into warring camps, the fight against them requires new coalitions.”
Trump’s Next Coup Has Already Begun.
January 6 was practice. Donald Trump’s GOP is much better positioned to subvert the next election.
Some key quotes:
Our group discussed the importance of not becoming so cynical that we are unable to act. Our country has been through many crises, including the Civil War, the Second World War, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. In all of these situations it seemed that democracy, if not the world as we know it, could end. But we were able to eventually move past them, although their residue may still remain.
Some ideas that came up in the group:
Currently, about 40% of this country is dominated by the illusion that the 2020 election was stolen and thus that their world is threatened.
But democracy can be awakened. Once people allow autocracy to take place they often regret it as nearly everyone loses their freedoms. There are some countries where people have determined they no longer will accept a government that ignores their needs. There currently is a rebellion in Kazakhstan, and newly elected liberal leaders in Italy and Chile.
We want to hear from you about what you think the solutions to our democratic dilemma might be. If we are stuck in fear or blame we will be unable to identify a light on the horizon or move toward that light. Let us know your ideas about how we can focus our efforts to preserve democracy. This is a time when all hands are needed on deck.
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Steve Zolno is the author of the book The Future of Democracy and several related titles. He graduated from Shimer College with a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Sciences and holds a Master’s in Educational Psychology from Sonoma State University. He is a Management and Educational Consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area and has been conducting seminars on democracy since 2006.