Recent election results in the United States have spawned a lot of writing about how to protect democracy. Some have proposed concrete actions, such as marches or campaigns or specific organizations to join. Others have suggested multiple principles to keep in mind as citizens respond to the election of a man who may see democracy as his enemy. Others have begun to build new movements.
A quick overview of some specific tactics to trump tyranny will show that each tactic has its strengths and weaknesses. Each approach makes assumptions about democracy that not all accept. The election of a leader who has not demonstrated a strong public commitment to democracy has led some to question the democratic form that centers on elections. These questions are an opening into important reconsiderations of what democracy is all about.
One of the weakest points of democracy in the United States and many other electoral governments in the global north is the tendency to understand democracy in abstract terms. Rather than holding leaders accountable to equality in concrete outcomes or direct responsiveness to citizens’ demands, the turn towards the general allows leaders to divert governance towards their own narrow interests.
Many of the recent discussions of democracy in the United States have responded to the perceived threat of the election of Donald Trump as President by reviewing key principles of anti-authoritarian action. Historians, linguists, philosophers, and others have chosen to defend democracy by a turn towards general principles.
Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny (2017) draws its lessons from historical study of the rise of the Stalinist centralized one-party state in 1920s Soviet Union and the rise of fascism in Germany in the 1930s. Some of this history’s lessons are very general. Snyder calls for courage and for setting a good example for future generations in the years when citizens do not yet realize we are giving in to authoritarianism. Setting an example often takes simple forms for Snyder, like making new friends outside your familiar circles, making eye contact and small talk to break down social barriers, having personal exchanges face to face, keeping up friendships abroad. Setting an example also breaks the spell of the status quo, which takes on a vividly ominous cast in this analysis.
Snyder invites all of us to defend institutions by joining one you care about, a court or a law or a newspaper or a union. And he asks us to support the multi-party state by voting, since tyrants prefer to lead the only party around and work to ensure that a political life for their opponents will be first difficult and soon impossible. He suggests that it is particularly important for lawyers and doctors and business leaders and civil servants to maintain their professional standards and ethics, since tyrants require that norms and rules be bent and soon broken. Some of this history’s lessons are clearly cautionary, like ensuring your passport is renewed when needed, spending more time reading long articles to figure things out for yourself, and learning alternatives forms of the internet. And Snyder invites us to create our own ways of speaking and living, rather than repeating what many others are saying and doing, and to figure things out for ourselves.
He also recommends more openly political actions like subsidizing investigative journalism, learning about sites that investigate propaganda campaigns, and joining a couple organizations and supporting others that defend democracy. He warns against abandoning facts and against dangerous words, like “extremists” and “terrorists,” many of which are already commonplace in global discourse. He reminds us that some internet content is there to harm us. And he asks us to notice the signs of hate, the unofficial graffiti and the official swastikas, and to take them down rather than get used to them. Strong emotions like hate are what tyrants need, so interrupting these feelings is an important way to act.
Snyder advises us to be prepared to say no when the police and soldiers begin to do irregular things. When the unthinkable arrives, he also calls for calm in the face of the sudden disaster that seems to require the end of opposition parties, of checks and balances, of the right to a court trial, and all those other niceties that tyrants find inconvenient. And he warns that when paramilitary armed groups supporting a leader begin to collaborate with the police and soldiers, then the end of democracy has come. By then it is too late for defensive tactics.
While this frame for defending democracy has clear implications for the present day experience in the United States, the author also reminds us that the United States is not so different from other countries where democracy was threatened. So while those in the U.S. may feel they are facing unusual circumstances, history suggests that the problem is commonplace.
The linguist and activist George Lakoff also developed a list of abstract points for defending democracy, “Ten Points for Democracy Activists.” Released shortly after Trump took office in early 2017, Lakoff emphasizes the importance of propaganda and news media for the brain to focus on the public good rather than policies that benefit corporations and other narrow interests. Taking a strongly partisan approach criticizing the political party that took the presidency in the 2016 election, Lakoff emphasizes the power of the majority that in his view lost control of the electoral process. In his focus on mass media framing practices as the key to protecting democracy, he follows of the German theorist Jürgen Habermas’ belief that better communication will solve the problems democracy often seems to have.
Lakoff’s approach does little to confront the long history of covert and overt violence found in democratic societies, whether Democrats or Republicans or liberals or conservatives are in office. Women have still worked in inhumane conditions in low-wage sweatshops and slaughterhouses whichever political party is in the White House. Young Black and Latino and Native men have still been shot and killed by police with impunity under both white and black presidents. The violent destruction of indigenous structures for caring for the land that the founding fathers put in place and that threaten the health of the land and the water will continue whether President Trump stays in office or is forced out. The public sphere so central to Habermas’ notion of democracy still can’t resolve the electoral government production of unequal social relations. By ignoring the ways that language framing hides histories of violence, Lakoff’s general proposals and Habermasian theory do little to transform business as usual in electoral democracies.
These general approaches to political tactics claim to protect electoral democracy understood in a modern liberal frame. By centering politics on electoral practices that have demonstrated a weakness over centuries for structural violence and inequality, both Lakoff and Snyder support a form of government that entices citizens to submit to a nation-state that protects narrow interests.
Their generalized approach to democracy may work to prevent autocracy that benefits individual interests. However, it does little to promote the general interest over the narrow interests of the government experts and their corporate benefactors. When will democracy come to mean something besides persistent inequality?