The United States is an amazing and resilient country. We are a land of almost unfathomable wonder, built around the idea of equality, liberty and justice for every human being. America is wealthy in beauty and resources, and more importantly in a people who have burst through boundaries and overcome obstacles. But we are far from the “perfect union” envisioned in our Constitution’s preamble.
Through the centuries Americans have demonstrated their resilience, their willingness to look within, see their faults, acknowledge them and turn toward a path of redemption and restoration. When faced with difficult challenges we have more often than not come together and moved through debate and beyond discord to a sense of unity. But lately, our responses have not been unifying. Instead, partisan lines have been hardened and division has escalated.
For too long we were able to obscure our failures in the faux light of our successes, but today our nation’s failures lie in front of us as open wounds. Since we have allowed ourselves to divide into waring political/social/economic factions, some of us see the wounds as mere scratches and others see them as fatal. I am among those who see the potential of fatal danger to America without aggressive and thorough wound care.
Racism Rots in Our Soul
For instance, Americans have long turned a blind eye to the ugly wound of pervasive racism, and it rots in our soul. We have too often ignored less than equal justice, and have squandered too much of our natural environment in exchange for money. We have regularly forsaken a basic principal of the American idea: The rule of law is paramount, and no person is above the law.
We have failed to recognize and cherish the legacy of the land that we took from the continent’s first peoples, and we are fouling our natural environment with toxic smoke, chemicals and rampant development. We have allowed our education system to become grossly unequal, depriving millions of children the opportunity for a sound education. We created a world-leading economy that enriched the few but left too many of our fellow citizens in poverty.
There is no question that America has the brainpower, knowledge, ingenuity and financial resources to once again meet our deficiencies head on, to unite around an agenda of common good and restore the country to a position of great strength. But somewhere along the line we lost a couple of key ingredients: the humility to acknowledge and confront our weaknesses; and the strength to face down the creeping evil of authoritarianism that has wormed into the governance of our nation.
Blind Submission to Authority
According to the Webster-Merriam dictionary, authoritarians favor “blind submission to authority…” They demand absolute obedience to their whims and decrees and insist that all power is concentrated in their hands. They regard themselves as supreme and see efforts to check and balance them as treason. To the authoritarian ruler loyalty flows only one way, from the servants to the master.
The authoritarian’s view of a successful nation is one in which he (and it is usually a “he”) reigns supreme. He recognizes only two classes of citizens, those who serve him and those who oppose him. If people rebel, he mobilizes militias to beat them back. He defames the media, attacks and belittles his political opponents as enemies of the state and threatens them with jail. He replaces global cooperation and immigration with nationalism and ethnic purity.
Voting is the one weapon that can defeat an authoritarian, so he uses his uniliteral power to assault the sanctity of and confidence in the vote. He packs the courts with his followers and demands not the rule of law but the rule of his decree. He recruits followers based on grievances rather than hopes, encourages violence, and identifies with conspiracy movements.
In their book How Democracies Die, Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt spelled out the hallmarks of a dying democracy: democratic rules and norms are rejected or undercut; the legitimacy of political opponents is denied; civil liberties are stifled, and dissenters are often beaten and/or jailed; violence against protesters is tolerated and encouraged.
Offering a Better Vision
Levitsky and Ziblatt make the case that democracies don’t collapse in an instant or as the result of a catastrophic event. No, they fade away gradually as authoritarian regimes rise to take their place. It comes about first, they posit, through a slow, steady process of weakening and coopting vital institutions such as legislative bodies, the justice system, regulatory bodies and the press. Then it promulgates conspiracy theories that label the democratic state as corrupt.
We can’t beat the authoritarian by shouting louder, but with better ideas. There isn’t a vaccine or a ventilating machine that will cure and cleanse the nation. But I am hopeful because I believe that we can rid America and the world of the expanding autocratic pandemic by offering a better vision of this country… a vision that extols the very idea of America. That vision can take root at the polls on November 3, and if successful must then be followed by the hard work of nurturing and growing a movement of revitalization.
To be successful we cannot allow ourselves to devolve into warring factions. Our work of revitalization instead requires a commitment to seeking consensus solutions, solutions that lead to the restoration of a truly democratic country founded on the principles of equality, liberty and justice for all.
Bill Jamieson’s career has included leadership positions in business, government, and education. He was also an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church and his ministry centered around advocacy for low-income families and children.