Are we witnessing the twilight of democracy in the United States? I try to rationalize “no,” that could never happen. But there is compelling evidence it really is “yes,” and it came close to happening on Jan. 6. Unsuccessful then, yes, but the drama continues without any support for an investigation. However, democracy will end with a whimper, not an insurrection.
I have lived through the last two terms of one president and all of the next 14 presidents, but only one has been effective in rendering his followers skeptical about democracy and elections. It’s happened before our eyes in the past five years.
Use a big megaphone (social media) and appeal to citizens who are uncertain and angry about the system. Delineate numerous scapegoats that explain why there are problems, be it immigration or those who do not fit the “Anglo-Saxon” mold by virtue of ethnicity, race or religion. Lambaste social programs as socialism and free-thinkers as erudite intellectuals.
Tell lies, big and small, again and again until they are perceived as truth. Court the very rich and convince them you can make everything “great again” by lowering their taxes. Strike fear in your followers so they will not turn on you.
Democracy dies slowly and only becomes autocracy when it is too late to do anything about it. It takes a populist leader who can subvert a political party to their persuasion, capitalizing on divisions that have long been fomenting. Although political parties have traditionally weeded out divergent extremists before they become a presidential nominee, that failed to happen in 2016.
A person of dubious morals, specious business practices and paucity of principles highjacked one of our political parties. And once elected, the competing party became the “enemy,” not the legitimate opponent. He stocked his cabinet with incompetents, “yes person” cronies and family. This extreme polarization created a tribal warfare that is raging far past the 2020 election. Although out of office, he continues to beat the drum.
Cooperation and bipartisanship have become the impossible dream. Winning at all costs has become the operative, whether it requires bribes, bullying or insurrection. We are living in that twilight zone now where most history is revisionist.
Both political parties have contributed to tribal mentality, whether it was two impeachments or appointments of Supreme Court justices in the last year of a presidency. Conspiracy theories have become the new political norm, whether looking for bamboo in the paper of the third-time audited ballots in a Phoenix, Ariz. stadium or bellowing that voting machines were rigged to change voters’ choice of president (although not the down-ballot).
“Kiss the ring” loyalty to a personality is more important than loyalty to a cause. And voter apathy, including voting on emotions and personal needs, not facts, has been a huge factor.
Voter suppression laws, approved in numerous red states, provide a portent of future elections. If you can’t win by voters’ choice, then simply choose your voters. And keeping the dethroned leader in the spotlight as we try to return to democratic values and ideals, as well as kinder and gentler times, does not offer much promise for the future.
His exit was not peaceful, and if he returns, the erosion of democracy will continue, not by forceful takeover but by chipping away at the fragile components that have held America together for 245 years. This includes controlling the media, elections, judicial appointments, education, labor unions as well as dissidents and opponents through public intimidation. The supporters with unfurled flags who call themselves patriots at Hitler-style rallies are part of this plan.
I know I won’t live through the tenure of 15 more presidents. If democracy fades into the history book as a noble experiment gone awry, there will be only one, appointed for life. I hope I’m wrong.
James P. O’Brien is a resident of Yachats.