While most of us watch in horror as Russian president Vladimir Putin orders his armies to blatantly invade neighboring Ukraine, it’s difficult not to fear that the same sort of mentality that makes that crime possible is brewing right here in the U.S.
When a government is unable to agree on equal voting rights for all of its citizens, or that the rights of women’s bodies belong with the women and not lawmakers, or that books or ideas or even actual history are a threat to some (and therefore should be controlled by others), democracy is in fact in peril. And that peril causes fear. And that fear creates a sense of hopelessness and apathy.
Authoritarianism thrives in isolation and inertia. The COVID-19 pandemic has done nothing if it hasn’t created a sense of fear, inertia, and isolation. And former failed President Donald Trump did nothing if he didn’t stoke the fear and sense of separation, causing Americans to choose sides and making conversations happen in echo chambers.
We’ve all—at least the vast majority of us—chosen sides. Neither is open to listening to the other and most of us continue living completely inside our bubbles, believing the other side is our enemy.
Democracy relies on trust, and America is short on that when it comes to other.
According to reporting by The Editorial Board, 64% of Republicans and 75% of Democrats say the other is “close-minded.” And even more frightening, 55% of Republicans and 47% of Democrats claim the other is “immoral.”
We clearly witnessed how people responded to COVID-19 in their communities, and our ongoing different perspectives on climate change. In general, Americans have completely lost the ability to think about each other in the collective. Some people simply don’t care if wearing a mask or getting a vaccine helps the more vulnerable in their communities. They don’t like masks, they don’t believe in vaccines, and whether or not people die because of it just doesn’t matter to them. And when it comes to climate change, we have groups who don’t believe the science and those who want their gas-guzzling trucks, plastic water bottles, and beef more than they care about what happens to the generations to follow.
This country has a long history of having a kind of ‘every man for himself’ mentality and a worldwide pandemic, rising temperatures, devastating hurricanes, and even the deaths of nearly 1 million people to a virus have not changed that.
So, what can we do to help save our democracy? Because right now, at this very moment, while we’re inspired by the camaraderie and fight we see in the Ukrainian people, this nation is on the brink of losing it all, as we’re more divided and more closed off to one another than ever in our history.
1. We can start by stepping up and getting involved in local politics, and that means the down-ballot. As Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas wrote recently, “November will decide whether Republicans can stymie the rest of Joe Biden’s term while further eroding democratic norms across critical battleground states.” We need great candidates.
2. Next, think about what you’re tweeting, retweeting, posting, etc. The information we spread is important.
3. Support places where people and institutions connect—like libraries, schools, food banks, and parks.
4. Give your time and money to organizations and initiatives that support democracy. Go to protests and marches, and talk about democracy with those you agree with and those you don’t. As difficult as it is, it’s vital that we listen to one another, just as we ourselves want to be heard.
5. Don’t allow one-sided media brands to be your only source of information. Seek out outlets that tell the whole story, with all the warts and criticism. We must challenge our thinking and find openings for understanding.
6. Learn your state’s voting laws and make a plan. What do you need to do to register? Can you vote early or by mail? Do you need to be registered with a political party to vote in a primary election? What identification will you need at a polling place? Don’t get caught out without getting your civic duty on.
7. Lastly, remain hopeful and don’t give in to authoritarian leaders or ideas. That’s exactly how they win: by dividing and conquering people and playing on our cynicism.
As Jennifer Mercieca, a historian of American political rhetoric at Texas A&M University and the author of Demagogue for President The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump writes in her op-ed for The Editorial Board: “Democracy isn’t just defended with tanks. Democracy is a way of life as well as a method of politics.”
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