Will we give up on our democracy or try to fix it?

Community members headed to the polls earlier this year to vote on the Watertown City School District’s proposed budgets and school board nominees. Sydney Shaefer/Watertown Daily Times

SARANAC LAKE — Countless books and articles these days allege that democracies are dying worldwide (“Fascism is on the minds of book buyers — and publishers are taking notice,” Scott Timberg, May 3, Los Angeles Times).

We can have our pick of definitions, causes and culprits, but basically it seems many democracies are simply not solving social problems.

And so, dissatisfied populations turn to anti-establishment leaders who appeal to people’s fears and prejudices, who promise a return to some mythical majesty.

Then such “strongmen,” often with the self-serving help of legislative and judicial bodies, gather even more authority unto themselves.

History is full of the disastrous effects of a democratic people surrendering their freedoms to deceptive autocrats.

In retrospect, when and if they recover from whatever catastrophe their demagogue ultimately causes, citizens are likely to regret that they “never imagined what it would lead to” (“They thought they were free: The Germans 1933-45,” Milton Mayer, 1955).

History will mark Nov. 3, 2020, as the day when U.S. voters made a fateful decision about our own democracy.

On that day, we Americans — voting or not — will decide whether this democracy, with all its hypocrisies and injustices, is still worth the effort required to salvage it.

This election, more than any other in recent times, will determine whether we truly value our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of speech, of association, of the press or even the freedom to feel like our votes somehow still matter.

Those who bother to vote will enter the voting booth carrying the accumulation of all the promises, polls and predictions from an emotionally exhausting campaign season.

But this time there is so much more at stake than passionate opinions on policies or personalities, more at stake than we could have imagined four years ago.

This time when we fill in that tiny circle under the name of the person we want to serve as president, we will be making our choice between one of two starkly different futures for the United States:

One will be a future where our democratic principles will continue to degrade under an unapologetic admirer of dictators (“‘Maybe we’ll give that a shot’: Donald Trump praises Xi Jinping’s power grab,” Tom Phillips, March 3, 2018, The Guardian); the other will put citizens back in control of a democracy that, long perverted by greed, brought us to the brink of this existential crisis in the first place.

Yes, we all have drastically different opinions on the growing crises that threaten the country and the world:

Climate change, immigration, wealth inequality, health care, gun control, and on and on.

But the single over-arching issue that affects all present and future Americans — regardless of religion, political party, ethnicity, income or education — is how we choose to manage those differences from now on.

In the face of unprecedented social divisions, suicidal environmental degradation and incomprehensible national debt, do we prefer the hard work and personal responsibility that comes with our freedoms, or do we prefer to turn over these problems to wealthy authoritarians happy to dispense with the challenging inconveniences of democracy as they feather their own nests?

We don’t yet know which challenger(s) to President Donald Trump will promise to re-establish respect for the rule of law and to make the United States trusted again, but we do know how the incumbent governs.

We know he was born into wealth, has a reputation as an unethical businessman (“Trump University ‘playbooks’ offer glimpse of ruthless business practices,” Rupert Neate and Lauren Gambino, June 1, 2016, The Guardian) and will not make his tax returns public.

We know he admires other autocrats and, like so many of them, has installed family members in critical leadership positions.

We know he insists on unquestioned loyalty and ignores the warnings of experienced security professionals.

We know that, rather than honoring the democratic norms necessary to hold this democracy together, he publicly intimidates critics, calls a free press “the enemy of the people,” and threatens nations and individuals via impetuous, un-vetted tweets.

We know he has made a mockery of proven Russian interference in our voting.

He encourages racial divisions and has worked to build a dangerous level of mistrust among Americans.

We know that, even when victorious in the last election, he raised the specter of whether he would “accept the results,” leaving open the real possibility that he would be willing to do so again (“Trump says he may not accept election result,” Fox Business, Oct. 20, 2016).

Worst of all, we know that these classic authoritarian tactics (“Authoritarian Democracy: A Playbook,” Nick Robinson, Nov. 14, 2016, Dissent Magazine) are now subverting our “beacon of democracy” only because millions of Americans actually voted for him and that he governs with an impunity derived from knowledge that millions of them would support him even if he were to “stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody” (“Trump: I could ‘shoot somebody’ and not lose my supporters,” Fox News, Jan. 25, 2016).

Based on three years of experience, would it really be a surprise to see a continued governmental purge of anyone opposing him, or further entrenchment of his family dynasty, or even more brazen unilateral tweets endangering fragile international treaties and stock markets?

Sadly, none of these behaviors is surprising to anyone anymore:

Not by a cheering “base” whose idea of making America great again apparently means making America white again; not by an out-of-touch Republican Party so desperate to remain in power it is cowed into silence by its wrathful tweeter; and not by the rest of us who believe democracy will be in further jeopardy if he is elected again, who believe that, yes, fascism really could happen here (“It can’t happen here,” Sinclair Lewis, 1935).

There is plenty of blame to go around for how we devolved to this state, and we can point the finger wherever we want.

But as long as U.S. citizens can still vote, the old trope still applies:

“We have met the enemy, and they are ours.”

History will remember Nov. 3, 2020, as the day a majority of eligible voters, including those who couldn’t be bothered to vote, either gave up on democracy or decided to fix it.

John O’Neill is a Watertown native who lives in Saranac Lake.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1


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(2) comments

Dave Weissbard

John, I share your perspective and delivered a sermon on this at the UU Church in Watertown this morning. Please send me your email address. Rev. Dave Weissbard rockbard@aol.com


We are at a critical juncture, but I think that no matter how badly it goes the descent will not be quick like it has been in some countries. America has a lot of momentum and stable institutions and decentralization. It will take at least a generation.

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