image: Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny
Here we are in November 2022, and the House, Senate, governors, and state houses are all up for grabs. An appalling number of GOP candidates have continued to spread lies about voter fraud in 2020 and have refused to commit to accepting the results of today’s election. (Remember that Donald Trump took exactly that position in a presidential debate with Hillary Clinton in 2016.) An untethered Christian Nationalist Supreme Court is in the middle of rewriting “settled law” in many key areas of our rights, including reproductive rights. And a visibly immature and narcissistic “richest man in the world” has taken ownership of one important piece of the public square and overnight imposed his loony conspiracy musings on the rest of us, as well as dismantling the moderation and verification tools the forum has used until now. It is not hyperbole to fear that our democracy is at terrible risk today and in the coming years.
It is worth reflecting on Timothy Snyder’s prescient and alarming 2017 book, On Tyranny, and its 2021 revised graphic edition. Snyder structures his book around twenty pieces of advice to us as citizens in an imperiled democracy — a kind of “what to do when catastrophe comes” for all of us. And many of the items are highly relevant in today’s United States. The illustration provided above is taken from the graphic edition.
Take the first three items together. “Defend institutions” is hugely important for us today, and it is hard. So many signs of erosion of democratic institutions are now visible — determined efforts at voter exclusion, subversion of the offices of secretary of state in numerous states, data-science weaponized gerrymandering, and deliberate discrediting of elections. And one-party rule is a growing risk, in large part because of these assaults on democratic institutions and practices. “Illiberal democracy” with a strongman, a lapdog dominant party, and pro-forma elections seem like very real possibilities on our horizon (link). So “Do not obey in advance” seems like a good note of caution. But so does item #6 — “Be wary of paramilitaries”.
Now think about several other items on the list that are relevant to our situation today — #10, #11, and #13. “Believing in truth” is all the more important today after years of lies about election fraud, “stolen elections”, idiotic conspiracy theories (e.g. Paul Pelosi), and crazy stuff about Democrats broadcast by wholly unscrupulous demagogues on Fox and other outlets. Respecting the truth and investigating the facts about various important events — for example, the January 6 insurrection — are all the more important today than ever. And “corporeal politics” — what is that? It is a willingness to stand out for one’s political convictions, to show up at rallies in support of reproductive rights, and to call out anti-democratic politicians and activists in visible ways. We have a model — the Civil Rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, jr., and other civil rights leaders.
And what about the final four items — “dangerous words”, “calm in the face of the unthinkable”, “patriotism”, and “courage”? These are the most reflective of Snyder’s snippets of advice. Dangerous words are “weak signals” for dangerous deeds — threats of violence, neo-Nazi slogans, racist and anti-Semitic memes. So it is crucial for us as citizens to hear those words and resist them. Being calm in the face of the unthinkable — this is crucial advice, because effective collective action requires good thinking and a calm willingness to work together in the face of adversity. Moreover, it is pretty clear that there is great power in collective action and solidarity, if we can achieve it. And “patriotism” is clearly a part of this picture, if by that we mean a strong commitment to the institutions and values of our constitutional democracy and a multi-cultural society of mutually accepting communities. That is patriotism — not the flag-waving of the MAGA movement (with an assault rifle over the shoulder), but a reflective commitment to the institutions that ensure liberty, equality, and wellbeing for all of us together.
The final point is humane and crucial: have as much courage as you are able. Defending our democracy does not demand Spartan heroism. Rather, each of us must muster our moral resources and do what we can. Our democracy is worth struggling for.
So let’s hope for the best today, and let’s hope that the leaders we elect will reflect deeply about their moral and political values and the good of our democracy, rather than the short-term opportunism that is evident on the right. Be a descendant of Lincoln rather than Father Coughlin!