SAXTONS RIVER — The sigh of relief was heard resoundingly worldwide. After almost a week of nail-biting anxiety, a majority of Americans elected new leadership that we could trust to pull us back from the brink.
Suddenly, it no longer felt like the Earth had rolled off its axis and was tilting dangerously to the right.
As people gathered in front of the White House and in streets across the country, dancing, hooting, weeping, it became clear that individually and together we had not quite acknowledged to ourselves the depth of our despair - and our fear.
Once the election was called, we realized what had been tamped down for four years. Like the liberation of Europe from a terrifying Nazi regime at the end of World War II, Americans understood that we had barely crawled out from under the boot of our own homegrown mad dictator.
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Sadly, others are not so lucky. Across the globe, the Earth continues tilting right as autocratic regimes rise. Many people are living in fear and deprivation with little hope. Their futures look bleak as dictators become entrenched or rise anew.
In the Philippines, for example, the maniacal dictator Rodrigo Duterte sends a chilling reminder of what total control by a madman looks like. He has established death squads in the name of fighting a drug war, and he controls all of public administration, leaving no checks and balances in place.
The military, judicial, and legislative branches of government are fully in his control, and he recently shut down the major media outlet ABS-CBN, the largest and oldest broadcaster in southeast Asia, just when Filipinos need reliable information about COVID-19.
Hungary's dictatorial prime minister Viktor Orbán saw the country's rating downgraded to “partly free” by the nonprofit watchdog organization Freedom House, describing “sustained attacks on the country's democratic institutions.”
Over the past decade, the watchdog added, Orbán's party “has used its parliamentary supermajority to impose restrictions on or assert control over the opposition, the media, religious groups, academia, NGOs, the courts, asylum seekers, and the private sector.”
Another Eastern European country, Poland, is also seeing increasing autocratic leadership. The presidential election in July was decided by a slim margin that split the country in two when incumbent President Andrzej Duda won a narrow victory with the support of the Law and Justice party.
Duda is rabidly homophobic and misogynist. His campaign relied on religious animosities between the conservative Catholic Church and the coalition of more-liberal Catholics and secular Poles.
Recently, Poland's abortion laws, already some of the strictest in Europe, were further tightened, making abortion virtually unattainable. Polish women made international news when they took to the streets, forcing the government to delay implementing the court ruling.
Both Turkey and Egypt have experienced repressive regimes in recent years. Under emergency policies in Turkey promulgated by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, crackdowns on political opposition, academia, media, and civil society occur regularly.
In Egypt, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's autocratic style is reminiscent of longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak. Under Sisi's leadership, security services crack down on all forms of dissent, detaining and torturing political opponents in large numbers.
A new House of Representatives was seated in 2016 and promptly passed numerous laws restricting political activity and formalizing government control over protests, media, and certain organizations.
Brazil serves as an example of autocracy in South America. President Jair Bolsonaro has created a totally dystopian society.
“Since he took office at the start of 2019, he is doing everything he can to undermine the Brazilian Republic,” writes Ukrainian-Brazilian social scientist Karlus Tamara in The Globe Post.
“Bolsonaro is on a mission to destroy everything that he believes was built by the 'left.' That's why he aims to abolish every single Republican institution in the country. He undermines, defunds, or simply closes down any public agency that has been constituted to control the civic life and the norms that rule social life.”
Even in India, a longstanding democracy, the government has tried to stifle protests and preventive detention without trial is increasing.
The state can now unilaterally declare someone a terrorist and imprison them. Some human rights activists have been so incarcerated, and others have been warned to stop their activities. Muslim rights have been eroded, despite a long history of peaceful co-existence with Hindus.
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For people living in countries like these, the political pandemic is as dangerous and potentially deadly as the one we are facing in this public health crisis. As in the COVID-19 pandemic, survival is more likely if citizens are educated and take adequate precautions to prevent contamination.
With COVID-19, we need to mask. To avoid autocracy, we need to vote.
How lucky we are that Joe Biden's victory signaled a new “Morning in America.” But democracy is always fragile, and we clearly have “miles to go before we sleep.”
The challenges before us, the hard work to be done, the healing and revisioning of a humane and just future will not be easy. The work will never be altogether finished. We are unlikely to achieve total unity.
But in the dawning of a new day, we can breathe again. We can weep openly in gratitude, join hands in renewed hope, and be proud once more of who we are, individually and as an imperfect but ever-growing nation.
What a relief.