Democracy Is Not All Right

Trump is out of the White House. That doesn't mean we're back to normal.

1It is a massive understatement to say that we are living in strange times. But of all the weirdness of the past four and a half years, this particular moment may be the most incongruous: We are celebrating the end of a pandemic when this year’s death toll is already higher than 2020’s; we are sliding back into the normal, boring machinations of politics even though we never really accounted for what happened during the Trump years — why so many Americans died unnecessarily of Covid, who exactly was responsible for the insurrection of Jan. 6th, 2021, what has to change so that a more competent authoritarian doesn’t take control next time.

Human beings are remarkably resilient, and it’s healthy to move forward. I’ve been struck, as Americans see our Covid rates plummet, by the number of people who want to hew to the strictest pandemic limitations and protocols even after they’re no longer necessary or proven totally useless, who seem to have found a sense of purpose and self-righteousness in their anxiety, who strike me as very attached to their idea of themselves as suffering (or as sacrificing). But on the flip side of that, when it comes to both the pandemic and the near-tanking of American democracy itself, are the hand-waving denialists who insist that there’s nothing to see here, that things were bad and now they’re fine, that getting back to normal means pretending the past doesn’t exist. The former are stressful. The latter are dangerous.

“If democracy were in jeopardy, I would want to protect it,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein told reporters on Thursday. But, she said, “I don’t see it being in jeopardy right now." Her comments were made in the context of Democratic discussions on ending the filibuster, which Republicans just used to block an inquiry into the Jan. 6th riots at the Capitol Building, and may use again to torpedo voting rights legislation. In other words, Republicans are using their filibuster power to subvert democracy. The GOP is refusing to even look into a deadly attack on the heart of America’s representational system and is working hard to cut off many Americans’ right to cast a ballot. And yet Feinstein thinks that Republicans aren’t jeopardizing the very basic democratic processes they are obviously, unabashedly trying to undermine.

It’s hard to fathom how she got there, but she isn’t alone. Sen. Joe Manchin is also imploring Americans to “have a little bit of faith” that the system is working because the occasional Republican will still vote across party lines and Manchin — unlike most Republicans — continues to equate bipartisanship at any cost with functional governance. It’s tough to have faith, though, when we watched a violent attack on the Capitol, and now Republicans are going out of their way to cover up what caused it.

Emboldened by a former president who claimed the 2020 election was stolen and a party that has supported and enabled his lies, Republicans in state legislatures have put forward hundreds of bills that would restrict the basic right of Americans to vote, the civic duty on which representative democracy hinges. The Americans whose rights are disproportionately impacted are Black voters, poor voters, and those presumed to vote for Democrats. The GOP believes that if elections are free and fair, and if every American can cast a ballot, they’ll win fewer elections. Instead of that realization being a moment for embarrassment, self-inquiry, and an incentive to change their policies and actions so they appeal to more people, they’ve concluded that they simply know what’s best and will muscle their way into power, even if it means undermining the basic values of the country they claim to love. It’s sad — it’s always pathetic when people could win if they were willing to work at it, but instead just choose to cheat of laziness and raw narcissism — and it’s terrifying that they’ve so primed their audience, and so effectively manipulated their opponents, that they are not in fact met with wholesale national outrage and rejection.

Consider this moment: One political party falsely claimed an election was stolen, even though they knew it wasn’t. Those claims fomented such rage among their base that their voters came to the capital and launched a violent attack — an effort to forcibly install their preferred candidate. Then, that same party uses the election lie that fomented the failed coup to push laws that make it harder for their opponents to vote. And then they block an independent inquiry into the attempted coup their party caused, and block legislation that would allow more Americans the right to vote.

Democracy is in jeopardy.

And that’s not even touching on the myriad other abuses of power, ethical violations, human rights offenses, and criminal activity of the Trump administration, most of which has gone unpunished, and much of which is being tossed in the dustbin of history as we collectively move on.

I’m worried that the past year has been so awful, and the lull of normalcy so sweet, that we are going to float right past all of the lessons we need to learn and the changes we need to make and find ourselves far worse off in a few short years. This isn’t any private citizen’s fault. The political day to day, now, is quieter and simpler. The Biden administration is low-drama, their bad behavior in the realm of normal and frustrating, not outrageous and shocking. Trump isn’t just out of the White House, he’s off of Twitter, and without his loudest megaphone he’s become rapidly irrelevant to the DC politicos and the journalist crowd. You can almost forget he was ever in charge, the memory of a president firing off all-caps grammar-challenged tweets only coming back occasionally and jarringly, like a stress dream. The threats to democracy no longer feel immediate and tangible; we elected Joe Biden, we ended the Trump presidency, isn’t that America proving herself good again? And as the weather warms up and Covid rates go down, we’re spending less time reading the news, watching TV, scrolling through social media, and obsessing over the ins and outs of today’s political events.

What came before was so bad. And we so badly want life to be, if not “back to normal,” then at least back to something that doesn’t feel like it’s going to give us an early coronary.

So when it comes to the lethargic response to Republican attempts to dismantle American democracy, I don’t blame people who have checked out after way too much time being terrified and trapped inside, with little else to do but stay compulsively and excessively plugged in. I do blame the people we have elected not just to represent us, but to carry forward this fragile idea of America.

Republicans have given up entirely on the promise of American democracy and even human decency, trading it in for sheer want of power, even if securing that power means lying, cheating, and devolving into a circus of conspiracy theorists, unhinged and heavily armed reactionaries, and unabashed racists. A lot of Democrats clearly see the writing on the wall, and know that this is a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency moment. But some don’t. And Democratic margins in Congress are too slim for the party to bulwark against attacks on democracy without all its member in line.

We’re in trouble. And if we don’t act now, we’re going to look back on this newfound normalcy as our last good days.

xx Jill

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