BRATTLEBORO — As we begin a new year with the relief of midterm elections behind us, many Americans are enjoying a sense of comfort about our political future.
We saw a blue wave when a red one was predicted and a long-overdue increase in diversity among those elected to office at all levels of governance. We moved closer to holding accountable those who wished to do us harm, including a past president and his collaborators and insurrectionists.
So it may seem too early to be thinking about 2024, or even what the rest of 2023, will bring.
While the sense of relief was warranted, we’re still not out of the woods, and we mustn’t allow comfort to yield to complacency and chaos. Given the way autocracy has already crept into our lives, vigilance is still necessary.
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Americans have never experienced a true, full-blown autocracy, although we’ve come close. We have never had one single person hold absolute power over society, the military, the economy, and civil rights. We have not had to fear threats or punishment for lack of loyalty or disobedience, nor have we lived with hideous rules and regulations, demands, or orders.
We have no real idea of what it’s like to live in a country that has these rules and orders, where death or imprisonment looms large for ordinary people.
But we have seen alarming elements of autocracy creep into our lives over the past few years, and we can’t ignore them in the belief that it can’t happen here.
We may not have a Viktor Orbán or a Vladimir Putin at the helm yet, but we have experienced much of what occurs in autocracies.
We’ve seen voting rights eroded in 47 states and a politicized Supreme Court; an increase in domestic terrorism, political violence, and police brutality; an end to privacy; horrific repression for women; hateful acts against immigrants, Jews, and the LGBTQ community — all scapegoats who are the targets of fearmongering aimed at controlled political agendas and a planned landscape by right-wing zealots operating from a fascist playbook.
Let’s not forget that on Jan. 6, 2021, we also came perilously close to an overthrow of our government in a violent coup attempt.
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Autocracy often begins incrementally, so those not affected by early moves don’t notice the first steps. It becomes easy to take democracy for granted, unless you find that you are hassled by police, you find that graffiti appears on your synagogue or business, you need an abortion or birth control, or you find yourself watching what you say to whom and where you congregate with friends.
Soon, science is suppressed, books are banned, school curricula are controlled, and texts are revised while religious schools are funded. Environmental concerns are dismissed, and climate change is ignored.
All of these things have already occurred in our country. What’s next? The military ending protests or dissent?
As President Biden says, “Democracy doesn’t happen by accident. We have to defend it, fight for it, strengthen it, renew it.”
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Further, a troubling view held by a large segment of our electorate is also something we must keep in mind as we march toward one of the most crucial elections of our lifetimes.
Many Americans find false comfort in the notion that a centrist government is a safe government, but that assumption requires a deep understanding of what constitutes centrist positions and political priorities.
For the most part, centrist Democrats and their Republican colleagues fail to enact legislation that focuses on the human rights and basic needs of constituents whose lives are an anomaly for those who have the wealth and status to achieve political power.
Issues like livable wages, parental leave, child welfare, support for single mothers and working women, affordable housing, help for mentally ill people, community policing that includes opinion leaders and social workers from within the community, and other necessities promulgated by progressive leadership (like gun laws) hardly ever make it to the Congressional floor or meet defeat even when they manage to.
Those who like to call themselves progressive centrists often talk about moderation and reasonable social equality in balance with moderate authority and sensible order.
But who decides what is moderate or reasonable or what constitutes a fair balance between just law when all values are laden with interpretive views rather than fact-based, objective analysis?
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As George Lakoff has noted in an essay, “The ‘New Centrism’ and its Discontents”: “When a Democrat ‘moves to the center,’ he is adopting a conservative position — or the language of a conservative position. Even if only the language is adopted and not the policy, there is an important effect. Using conservative language activates the conservative view [...] which strengthens the conservative worldview in the brains of those listening.”
In addition, Public Citizen has pointed out periodically on Twitter that “everything that gets labeled ‘far-left’ in the U.S. is common sense policy in the rest of the industrialized world. Guaranteed health care. Paid family leave. Government drug price regulation. This stuff isn’t radical. We’re talking about the basics of a functioning society.”
Democrats (small and large D), whose pluralism often interferes with their solidarity, must keep autocracy and centrist governance high on their list of priorities when the next time to vote arrives.
As Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) told The Hill, “Winning elections is not about looking good. It’s about being good.”
“The path forward is to actually enact policies that address the pain people are feeling across the country, not pretend that pain doesn’t exist.”