Why American Democracy’s Remarkable Victory Matters
What a remarkable day for America. People, out on the streets, celebrating. It feels like a revolutionary moment, an historic turning point. That is because it is. Let me put what just happened in a little perspective.
American democracy just fought, against the odds, for its survival — and won. That is genuinely remarkable. Because all too often, when democracies are as imperilled as America’s was, they lose. What has happened in America over these last few days has been something truly astonishing to see. If you feel emotional — you should be. You are watching history in the making.
Why? To ask that question is to say: what did American democracy successfully fight off? A combination of the most dangerous and obscene things any society can encounter. That’s not to say the journey towards becoming a modern society for American ends here — far from it, it only begins here. But credit should be given for what has been accomplished already. Finally, that journey can begin. Let’s take what American democracy just successfully fought off, one by one.
Do you remember the jaw-dropping insanity of the last four years? The constant barrage of lies, hate, brutality, ignorance, stupidity, and fear-mongering, coming from…the White House? America’s Presidency had been captured by extremists. That is about as dangerous a situation as a society can find itself in.
What kind of extremists? The new President was an authoritarian. And soon enough he surrounded himself with a coterie of “advisors” who were even more reckless and ignorant than the usual Beltway insider crowd. Neoliberals? Ideologues? Equation-worshipping technocrats? Nope. These were bona fide fascists. And they were proud of it. There was the strange, sociopathic little bald man, who put kids in cages. There was the chest-beating one who railed on about “globalism.” And then there was the ringleader, Bannon — a man who recently called for beheading Dr Anthony Fauci.
The men in the White House — and the strange gaggle of peroxide-blonde women who surrounded them — all these white people…what were they, really? They were America’s ISIS. Its very own Taliban. And they had assumed control of the Presidency. Who else calls for beheading doctors? Calls those who are of the “wrong” blood “impure”? Boils everything down to violence and purity and blood and soil? Those of us who’ve survived such horrors recognised it for exactly what it was. America now had its own extremist movement — every bit as violent, stupid, barbaric, and brutal as ISIS or the Taliban — which had risen to the heights of power.
If you doubt me, by the way, ask yourself how about a quarter of a million Americans are dead of Covid already. Why? Because this administration rejects science. It lionises brutality and worships violence. The pandemic is seen as an ethnic cleanser and a social purification. It is all exactly what the Taliban and ISIS would have done. The result has been mass death. Needlessly so. If America had acted like South Korea or New Zealand, less than 10,000 people would have died. This was and is a catastrophe at a shocking, horrific scale — through the rejection of reason and the embrace of brutality and Nietzschean supermanism. What is mass death a hallmark of? Fascism.
America from 2016 to 2020 was having a fascist implosion. Not almost having one, not having an abstract one, but having a real one. Who else puts kids in cages, in concentration camps, hunts their parents, calls them subhumans, Who else lies about doing all that as a way to “Make America Great”? This was textbook fascism.
So the very first thing American democracy fought off was all this: a bona fide fascist movement, very much the real thing. That is a very, very big deal. Most societies that encounter such movements don’t survive them. Take a hard look at the Islamic world. Do you see many working societies? That is because a form of fascism swept it a few decades ago — and it has never recovered. All its democracies broke like twigs. The same is still true in many regions of the globe, from Eastern Europe, where such tendencies are now resurgent, to Russia, to parts of South America, like Chile, which has just finally made real progress after decades of fascist collapse.
(Yes, it’s even true that America helped install some of those fascist movements, like the Taliban, or those in South America. But an eye for an eye is not the logic of a thinking person. Maybe, having finally experienced fascism itself, America will stop installing right-wing dictators around the world at last.)
Let me continue my story. America was having a real fascist collapse. But America’s intellectual class and punditry didn’t say so. They were frightened, or ignorant, or complicit. Not once during those years, so far as I can remember, did they say the word fascism. The Chrises and Jakes and Ezras and so forth. I don’t think they’ve said fascism once to this day.
And yet, by the time of the election, there was a widespread awakening that had begun to happen. Yes, this really was fascism. Yes, this President and his administration were something very much like Nazis — who else orders Gestapos to beat and gas and disappear people? It’s true that maybe it took all that coming home, Trump’s violence finally hitting “real” Americans — but in the end, they seemed to get it. That if Americans didn’t stand up now, they would probably lose their democracy forever.
So the second thing American democracy overcame was it’s very own failed elites, institutions, and intellectual class. All the ones who failed to say fascism. Who failed to educate, inform, guide, orient people in disorienting, head-spinning times. Despite the fact that, for example, the New York Times was still failing to say this was a genuine social collapse, that CNN still wouldn’t say the word authoritarianism, and so forth, Americans, by the time of the election, had in large part concluded anyways: this was the real thing, and they needed to come together, and defeat it, in the millions, with a resounding and convincing “No. It will not happen here.”
It’s true to say that America’s still a divided nation — maybe more so than ever. That’s OK. Defeating extremist movements takes time, and happens stepwise. It’s even true that the rejections I’m talking about were all led by minorities. That minorities gave American democracy the crucial votes it needed to survive. That minorities led the protests and civil disobedience movements. Yes, absolutely minorities deserve outsized credit. It’s not going too far to say they saved American democracy.
But American democracy was still able to be saved by minorities, too. And so we should take a moment to recognize just how remarkable it is that people were able to unite in their millions — even if society itself is still divided — enough so to resoundingly and convincingly reject fascism.
That brings me to the third thing America rejected. Hate. What was Donald Trump really peddling, all along? The Big Lie, as Hitler once called it. Fascism is ultimately based on a lie, and Trump understood all too well, and even understood that America’s political and leadership class wouldn’t call him out on it. The lie goes like this. A nation falls into poverty and ruin — that’s America, like Weimar Germany before it, becoming a poor country, one giant underclass rising. And a demagogue can then perform a clever sleight-of-hand: as anger, rage, and fury rise, he can point to already long hated minorities — and scapegoat and demonise them for the downward mobility of the majority.
In Nazi Germany it was Jews, in America, blacks, Latinos, Mexicans, Muslims. But the central logic was precisely one and the same. A demagogue scapegoating long-hated minorities for the problems of the majority, and demanding that only abusing and even annihilating and cleansing away said minorities would, therefore “make us great again.”
Hate, therefore, began to rule America in a way that staggered the rest of the world. Neo Nazis were lovingly profiled by major publications. Supremacists rose to high office. The nation’s discourse was poisoned and degraded, and the stupidity and ignorance of violence became everyday things to “debate.” America had entered a kind of extreme culture war, where anything went, from Nazis marching with torches before universities, to Trump administration members being given appointments at Harvard. Hate’s culture war seemed to be all there was — and it’s prime cheerleader was Donald Trump, who was omnipresent, leading the charge a hundred times a day, on Twitter, on CNN, on the news, on Facebook.
It’s not easy for a society to fight off hate. It is difficult, and it usually doesn’t happen. Just look at the Islamic World, which has never recovered from hate taking over a few decades ago. Once societies grow accustomed to hate’s values as cultures — to violence, ignorance, fear, stupidity, rage — they quickly grow addicted. It’s much easier to scapegoat, demonize, and vilify others for your problems that actually use logic, thinking, reason, and science to investigate them. That is why societies that plunge into this vicious cycle of hate usually end up destroyed — they lose their ability to think clearly, to trust, to cooperate, to work together and solve any real problems. They just lash out in a bitter, stupid cycle, and wonder why life never gets any better.
American democracy fought off hate, too. The larger idea that the values of hate — supremacism, intolerance, bigotry, cruelty, aggression, greed — were the best ways to organise a society. How remarkable: such moments are rare in history, and they should be rightly celebrated and cherished.
There’s one last thing American democracy fought off, too. If Trump was hate’s key cheerleader, who was his whole cheerleading squad? His kids were his seconds in command. The clear intent was to create a kind of authoritarian dynasty, like the Kims in North Korea — for Trump to hand power, which he’d consolidated for life, down to one of his weird, dead-eyed, sociopathic kids. Would it be Don Junior? Eric? Ivanka? Shudder.
So the final thing American democracy fought off was the rise of America’s very own authoritarian dynasty. America’s Kims or its Assads. That’s not to be taken lightly. It’s not easy fighting off authoritarian dynasties. Their side, their movement, tends to hero worship them, and just accept the fundamentally anti-democratic idea of inherited power. And a family working together is much more dangerous than a lone autocrat, because different members can master different areas, like maybe a boy band from hell. In this case, Ivanka was the “reasonable” one, Eric the “thoughtful” one, and Don Junior the “man’s man.” Just like boy bands have a member for everyone to adulate, so do authoritarian dynasties. And once they rise, they are almost impossible to fight off. Just take a hard look at North Korea or Syria. When democracies become dynastic autocracies, it is more often than not game over.
This is a genuinely remarkable moment for American democracy. Yes, I’m not the world’s biggest fan of America’s democracy. I think it’s badly obsolete and is in need of crucial repairs — constitutionally, institutionally, normatively. I think that the electoral college has to go, that the way its representational system works is out of date, and so forth. That is why — it’s true, this is the first step in a long journey, towards really updating American democracy for the 21st century.
But sometimes — maybe often — the first step is the hardest. When you’re trapped in quicksand. When you’re at the bottom of the abyss, and you can barely see any light. When you’re weary with exhaustion and drained with worry.
This was the hardest step of all for American democracy to take, for all these reasons. It fought off a fascist movement. It fought off extremists who had risen to the heights of power. It fought off the rise of an autocratic dynasty. More, probably, besides.
This is a historic and remarkable moment. The celebrations are both deserved and warranted. If you feel like you can breathe easily for the first time in a long time — you are not just being emotional. You are thinking well. This was a brutal, difficult, punishing test — of staying decent, civilized, humane, a democracy, at the most basic levels, of retaining the values of goodness, truth, courage, grace, and dignity — and America, against the odds, passed it.
– Umair Eand.co