Denying a Creeping Autocracy

             Whenever anyone in this country talks about what is happening here and compares it to what happened in other democracies that fell to an autocratic leader, there is stern rebuke and criticism. Just as we deny our racism and sexism and the other “isms” that plague our lives, we are in denial now that there is a serious transformation happening in our government – and it isn’t good.

Our “democracy” is undergoing a radical change under the leadership of the current president, and while, in anticipation of the upcoming 2020 general election, the battle cry of “never socialism” is being tossed about more and more, in fact, there ought to be an equal groundswell, a counter-argument, where we  declare that we will never be a dictatorship.

In his book Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law, author James Q. Whitman writes that “the same aspects of American life that appealed to Nazis seventy-five years ago are with us again.” House Majority Whip James Clyburn D-SC) and said that the current president and his family are “one of the greatest threat to democracy” he has seen in his lifetime,  correctly noting that the German people elected Hitler to be chancellor. (https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/congress/clyburn-calls-trump-family-greatest-threats-democracy-my-lifetime-n985131)

Dr. Tom Snyder, in his book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century makes the same observation. The history of modern democracy, says Snyder, is one of “decline and fall,” and he notes how “European democracies collapsed into right-wing authoritarianism and fascism in the 1920s and 30s.” He says that both fascism and communism “were responses to globalization, and says that while Americans “might be tempted to think that our democratic heritage automatically protects us from such threats,” history shows that to be a dangerous way of thinking.

Our country has never been a pure democracy, not if one believes that in a democracy a basic foundational principle is “egalitarianism.” Frederick Douglass recognized that America’s founding documents, including its Constitution, were “flawed from the beginning” because they were not inclusive of all races, religions, and gender. From the beginning, the wonderful phrase “all men are created equal” was tainted by an underlying belief in white supremacy and all that that ideological system includes.

In spite of our stated belief in democracy, the fact is that democracies too often fall to authoritarian figures. Snyder notes that “most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given.” He calls it “anticipatory obedience,” and says that it is a political tragedy. It is not a new phenomenon, but I at least had hope that the American governmental structure, including checks and balances, would prevent our country from beginning its downward spiral to authoritarianism.

The fact of the matter is that up to this point, checks and balances have failed; the only arm of the federal government which seems serious in upholding the US Constitution on that principle is the US Congress, now dominated by Democrats. The Republican-led and controlled Congress were disappointingly sycophantic in their blind allegiance and support of the president.

The GOP lawmakers have been following along because such a large portion of the GOP base is in favor and is supportive of everything this president does, even if it adversely affects them and their lives, but nobody is really talking about that. Our media spends too much of its time talking about how despicable the president is. Too few people care.

When democracies have fallen in other countries, the masses who have supported them have often been surprised, saying that they never thought “it” could happen to them. Their surprise is reminiscent of those in whose neighborhoods there is a violent crime. Too many of us live in bubbles that are comfortable and which feel safe and we like to stay inside of them, closing our eyes and shutting our ears to what is happening around us. In so doing, we make ourselves vulnerable to attack and in the matter of government, a demolition of democracy. Dictatorships led by authoritarian leaders and a group of lackeys are not prone to helping the masses live better lives. Their concern is for their own accumulation of power and wealth.

America is in a bad place, but too many Americans will not own it and therefore are ill-equipped to fight it. I hope that this period of time passes with at least a smidgen of our democracy in place. Democracies rise and fall; that is a historical reality. My prayer is that our democracy can survive this assault and attack and that the American people – all of us – will still be able to claim this country as our own once this administration has run its course.

Mourning the Loss of a Democracy That Never Was

If there was one thing I took away from my high school civics class was that America was a democracy, brilliantly constructed by men who were determined that under no circumstances could this country become an autocracy or a monarchy.

The system of checks and balances was perfect in my mind. The three branches of government would check each other to keep the power on the highest level evenly distributed and applied. Given what I had read about monarchies and Nazism and Fascism and about tyrannical rulers, I was comforted. Even though I as an African American had real and specific concerns and complaints about this government, at least it had the blueprint to be fair to all of its people.

But if we define a democracy as a government which is ruled by the people, something has been wrong from the beginning. A formal definition of democracy is “a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.” A democracy, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is “government by the people, especially the rule of the majority.” That’s what I learned in high school; that’s what I thought I was being taught.

And I was …except that it was an erroneous lesson from the beginning. The Founding Fathers didn’t intend for this government to really  be “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” They wanted this to be a government where a few people – notably, white, wealthy, male, Protestant landowners, to rule the many. They didn’t include in their formation of this government any intention of ever including everyone. Some people were more worthy of governing and some’s place was to “be governed.”

The right to vote – I thought the right of all Americans to vote – was at the heart of what made this government different. One person, one vote became the ideal for fledgling democracies all over the world. But from the beginning of our existence as a nation, the right to vote has been compromised, messed with and messed over. The recent mid-term elections, with wide-spread voter suppression, is not a new thing – which says to me that while some of us are alarmed at what is going on in our federal government, the cry (my cry, specifically) that our democracy is in danger of failing, is not true.

We have celebrated a “democracy” that never was.

From our beginning, people in power – most specifically white men – have done all they could to keep the masses from voting. Ari Berman, in his excellent book, Give Us the Ballot, describes the brouhaha that developed after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It seems that many white folks were appalled at the notion that black people should have the same right to vote as did white people and they did all they could to keep that from happening – in spite of the VRA. President Lyndon B. Johnson, who pushed for the passage of the VRA in spite of the huge price he paid politically, said that “the vote is the most powerful instrument devised for breaking down injustice.” But if my reading of history is correct, a large contingency of white people in general, and white politicians in particular, had little to no interest in breaking down injustice, and in spite of claiming that they lived in a democracy, and in spite of taking oaths to defend, preserve and protect the United States Constitution, they had no intention of doing so.

I was always appalled at the tricks devised and carried out to keep black people from voting, but as I have learned more about the efforts to keep America’s power in the hands of white people, my anger has only increased. In Berman’s book, he describes black people going to the polls to vote – people who had previously voted – only to be told that they were no longer eligible. There were no more jars with jelly beans to count, and no more literacy tests, but the schemes to keep black people out of the “I am an American and I vote” club were there. In his chapter entitled “The Counterrevolution (II),” Berman recounts several of these instances, including that of one Willie Steen, an African American who was a Navy vet who served in Operation Desert Storm. He took his 10-year-old son with him, but when he got to his polling place to vote, he was told he could not vote because he was a convicted felon.

He was no such thing.

He tried to clear up the confusion to no avail. He left the polling place that day angry and embarrassed, concerned about how he would explain all of this to his son. It turns out that somehow, he had been confused with a convict named “Willie Osteen,” who committed a felony at the same time Willie Steen was serving in the Persian Gulf. Berman says that same type of thing was happening to African American voters throughout the state of Florida.

We all saw what happened in the midterms; we have all heard the charges of voter fraud levied against Democrats by some members of the GOP, in spite of there being no evidence of the same, while at the same time there is massive evidence of voter fraud in several locations, including North Carolina. (https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2018/07/north-carolina-early-voting-midterms-a-diabolical-new-republican-ploy-to-suppress-black-turnout.html)  Those who believe that African Americans and other members of other ethnic groups are not worthy of voting have continued to do all they can to make sure they keep things like they want them – which does not include people of color.

That being said, in a country where all its citizens are not encouraged or even permitted to vote, democracy has to be called a sham.

We have all been duped.

Some kind of way, however, we have to right the wrongs and try to make this country live into the words penned by the Founding Fathers – words which, ironically, not even they intended to apply to everyone.

We are in mourning some of us, for a democracy that never was.

A candid observation …

The Screeching Silence of GOP Lawmakers

I grew up believing in the American political system and was comforted by my civics lessons which taught me that our governmental structure protected our country from becoming a dictatorship.

The three branches of government, with the system of “checks and balances” built in, were put there by Founding Fathers, who had seen first-hand what tyranny looked like.

But what I see today is a complete breakdown of this government. The man who promised to “make America great again” and to “drain the swamp” is methodically and strategically breaking down the government as we have known it, and is filling the swamp with new sea monsters.

What is most disturbing is the silence of the GOP. There have been precious few who have criticized this president, few who have dared stand up and demand that he and the Congress honor their promise to “preserve and protect” the Constitution of the United States.

While there is ample evidence to show how this president began this openly virulent political season, his GOP friends refuse to call him on it. They follow him like hungry dogs follow anyone who might have food. They excuse and explain away his lies; they resort to pointing out the shortcomings of Democrats when confronted with the hateful rhetoric spewed by the president. They shuffle along and grin, looking like hapless, toothless sycophants. And it is disturbing to watch.

While in Germany this year, I read how the German people actually gave the government to Adolph Hitler. In 1933, German President Paul von Hindenburg named Hitler the chancellor of the Nazi Party, largely because he was intimidated by Hitler’s rise to power. He worked to make Germany a one-party state,  he expanded and increased the powers of the Gestapo, and worked to silence or eliminate any opposition. (https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/adolf-hitler-is-named-chancellor-of-germany) In 1934, von Hindenburg died, and Hitler declared himself “Fuhrer” as he combined the offices of chancellor and president. (https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/hitler-becomes-fuhrer) Hitler had run for president in 1932 and lost, but he was ushered into the political space when von Hindenburg appointed him chancellor. Once von Hindenburg died, Hitler had the capacity to take over the government, which he did.

Author Tim Snyder, in his book, On Tyrannynoted that as democracies have fallen throughout the world, a key commonality is that they were elected to leadership positions. The people, often distraught by economic hardship, have voted these dictators in with the hope that they will make good on their promises to bring more prosperity to all people. They have seldom done that, but the power of their promise has been a need of people struggle to make ends meet.

A woman I spoke with in Germany asked me about America and its president. “What is going on?” she asked, and she added that what is happening here seems strangely similar to what happened in her own country.

What I am struggling with and am angry about is what I perceive as the failure of our elected leaders to protect this country. The president is talking to and firing up his “base,” because he understands their angst and anger. In spite of his claim that when attacked, he fights back, the truth of the matter is that he started these fights; he began and has perpetuated the name-calling and insults. He has given more respect to America’s known enemies; while attacking our allies, he has made dictators his best friends.

And the Congress has sat idly by.

If people do not vote in the mid-terms, the downward spiral of this democracy may not be able to be stopped. That is scary. Mussolini captured the hearts and spirits of his populace by knocking Italy’s government and promising that only he could fix it. It didn’t take long for his promise to ring hollow, just like Hitler’s government fell after 11 years in spite of his promise that his party would rule Germany forever.  I take that as evidence that the desire for freedom can eventually cause a despotic government to fail.

But this kind of scenario was not supposed to happen here, and I personally blame the GOP for remaining silent, for living in fear, and for putting their political ambitions above their mandate to protect this country.

People talk about impeaching the president, but in reality, maybe it’s the GOP Congress which should be impeached. Our country is in their hands, and they have not only dropped the ball but are watching it gain speed as it rolls down the hill of tyranny.

A candid observation …

The Spirit of America, Compromised

I am an African American woman who has studied the history of racism in this country, has watched the products of systemic racism ruin lives, from black and brown and poor children getting inferior educations, to the continued slaughter of unarmed black people by law enforcement officers, to qualified black people being passed over for good jobs.

American-flag-America

I have watched mothers of slain children find strength from somewhere to keep on walking and working. I have watched young African Americans weep in frustration and anger caused by the tormenting pain that racism causes. I have cringed over policies passed by local, state and federal government, including voter suppression laws, health care and the refusal to expand Medicaid, to slashes in regulations which were put in place to protect the environment and therefore, the people who are adversely affected by a polluted ecosystem.

I still feel outrage over the way Puerto Rico was treated after Hurricane Maria devasted that tiny island; the image of the president throwing paper towels to people who needed electricity, medicine, food and American support still evokes a reaction within my soul. I have watched the rise of white nationalism – which has never been gone but has merely remained below ground for the most part – arrogantly flouting its belief system and daring anyone to say anything about it.

I have watched the treatment of immigrants, called all kinds of names by this administration and supporters of it; I have listened to stories about lawmakers who have had the gall to criticize and put down young students who have decided they are tired of the specious argument that “good people with guns” can keep crime down,  even as madmen and women storm public spaces with semi-automatic weapons to literally mow people whom they do not know down, like they are pesky weeds in the garden of human life, unworthy of staying alive.

The name-calling, the blatant arrogance shown by government officials even as corruption is uncovered, the apparent devotion to protecting the “good ol’ boys” club – all of it – has been disturbing and troubling.

I have watched lawmakers –  Democrat and Republican alike – pass a tax bill which has made corporations smile, but which promises to do little to nothing to ease the plight and the pain of the poor in this country.

The America I knew is gone. With all of its faults, that America at least had lawmakers who respected the legacy of the country and the office of the presidency, but what I see now is a president who seemingly wants absolute power and an impotent Congress which is letting him do what he wants. They say it’s because they respect him. I think not. I think they are operating as they are because there is abject bullying in the White House and they are afraid.

The American electorate voted this president into office. In spite of what seems to be certain Russian meddling in the 2016 election, the Congress has seemed not to care. The president certainly seems unconcerned with the fact that this country underwent a cyber-attack by the Russians. The obsequiousness of this president to Vladimir Putin has been nothing short of disgusting; in all of his rants, Putin is the only one who has not been called an insulting name, even though plenty of American civil servants have been totally humiliated by the name-calling. Not only does this president call names, but he lies with abandon, and few of his supporters say anything about it, at least publicly.

Guided by words found in the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution, this country has felt like a democracy, even though in practice it really has not been. But leaders up to this point have seemingly respected the notion of democracy and have valued the structure of government put in place by the Founding Fathers that were supposed to insure that this nation would never descend into fascism.

That structure, whoever, is crumbling. This country’s spirit of freedom is being crushed by a lurking spirit of authoritarianism. According to Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, authors of How Democracies Die, there are four indicators off authoritarian behavior which appear when democracies are in trouble: 1) Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game; 2) denial of the legitimacy of political opponents, 3) toleration and/or encouragement of violent, and 4) a readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including the media. (pp. 23-24)

Though Mr. Trump’s behavior is troubling, his behavior is not as troubling as is the lack of “democratic” or “patriotic” response to what he is saying and doing.  A large swath of Americans are apparently fine with what he is doing; they seem to be unaware that the democracy we have all loved for so long is in mortal danger.

We in America seem to feel that our democracy is fail-safe, but no democracy can claim that classification. Democracies have broken down (in favor of authoritarian regimes) in Argentina, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Ghana, Greece, Guatemala, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, Thailand, Turkey and Uruguay. The breakdown of democracy in those countries came about as a result of violent coups d’état.

But democracies in other countries broke down as the result of people voting autocratic leaders into power. That happened in Venezuela, Georgia, Hungary, Turkey, Ukraine, Poland Russia and Germany.

Both Levitsky and Ziblatt, and Professor Tom Snyder who wrote On Tyranny say that the breakdown of many Democracies begins at the ballot box.

It used to be that I and many others had confidence in the government put together by the Founding Fathers. In spite of flaws, that very structure was comforting. That we had “freedom of the press” was a godsend that many, including myself, never thought would be challenged.

But our freedoms, our capacity to be free are compromised and the trajectory of the attacks on basic American freedoms seems to be increasing in a negative direction, away from the guarantee of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” that our organizational documents tout as being a mainstay of American life and citizenship.

The lawmakers are quiet. The restless white nationalists are loud and getting louder, more arrogant and bolder in their attacks on everything that is not white. “We the people” live in perpetual anxiety about what this president will and will not do. This country does not feel safe; the underclasses seem less protected than ever before as the president and his minions are making America a laughing stock all over the world.

It is scary and troubling.

A candid observation…

Is America’s Democracy in Trouble?

The antics and behavior that are coming out of the White House are disturbing on many levels, but one of the most troubling is that it feels like this country is moving toward becoming an autocratic state.

A survivor of the Buchenwald concentration camp during the Holocaust, architect Stephen Jacobs, said in a recent interview that the “rise of Donald Trump is reminiscent of the years that led to the Nazi takeover of Germany.”  (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5596737/Holocaust-survivor-says-Trumps-America-reminds-years-lead-Nazi-takeover.html)

At the time that Hitler rose to power, Germany was experiencing economic, social and political unrest. Hitler seized the moment, telling Germans that he could restore their country to its former greatness. The people bought his argument, and the fall of civilized government resulted in the murders of over 6 million Jewish people.

What is astounding is not so much that the president is doing what he is doing, but that so many people seem not to care. From the Congress – representatives and senators alike – to Evangelical Christians, to masses of people who like it that he “tells it like it is,” there seem to be few people in power – politically or morally – who have the best interests of “the least of these” at heart.

These people turn a blind eye to the role of the Congress to check the raw ascent of power of the Executive branch of our government. Evangelical Christians, who have been known to be deeply judgmental of all kinds of people for behavior much less offensive and troubling than that of the president, are silent and acquiescent.

It has been amazing to listen to people defend this president at every turn; nothing, it seems, not even the cyber-attack of our voting system by a known enemy, has been enough to inspire people to do something to put the brakes on what seems like a train running downhill, spiraling out of control.

We thought that our government was immune to becoming autocratic. We thought that our Constitution and our professed love of “liberty and justice for all” were enough to incubate us from encroaching fascism. It appears that many Conservatives feel like there is no danger of our democracy falling into disrepair or ruination. But democracies, historically, have fallen, following a course much like the one on which America now finds itself.

What is worrying is that the only people who might seem to not have to worry are the very rich. This country has not been a “democracy” for some time; it has been a plutocracy, with a very few really wealthy people making policies for everyone else. But even that number of wealthy people, in control of the lives of the masses, is dwindling; we are more an oligarchy now than ever before.

Oligarchies do not care about the masses.

During the Holocaust, Hitler and his minions made decisions about who was worthy to live and who was not. The Jews were certainly deemed unworthy, but so were people with disabilities, people with mental illnesses, gay people, gypsies, twins, priests, and other groups, were murdered. It is estimated that 5 million non-Jews died under Hitler.

Germany, using the science developed in America that formed the foundation of the eugenics movement, made it its cause to eliminate those who were not the right kind of “white” person – i.e., those with Nordic features.

It feels like everyone, with the exception of that very small group of wealthy white people, are in danger from the way this administration is running the country, and none of the people who we might have thought would defend the masses from this kind of tyranny are stepping forward.

It is difficult to understand how “people of faith” can marginalize the directives given for how to create a “Beloved Community” by Jesus the Christ. Jesus is far removed from what is going on, it seems, and very few people are working to bring Jesus of Nazareth back to the center of who we are.

It feels like we are on a collision course with tragedy, and in this, the so-called “land of the free and home of the brave,” that ought not be the case.

A candid observation …