Insurrectionists loyal to then-President Donald Trump lay siege to the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
Tyler Merbler/Creative Commons (BY) license
Insurrectionists loyal to then-President Donald Trump lay siege to the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

We must be prepared to save our democracy

In the 2024 election, we must focus on our country at stake as we head to local, state, and national polls


Elayne Clift ( has written this column about women, politics, and social issues from the earliest days of this newspaper.

Let's get real about the most vital issue Americans face as we slowly march toward our dubious future as a nation.

It's not about President Biden's age, which is - annoyingly - center stage. After all, Donald Trump is only three years younger than the president, morbidly obese, and an obvious psychopath.

The 2024 race is about one issue and one issue only, and that is whether we survive as a democracy and what will happen if not.

So far in this threatening time, President Biden is the only viable candidate if we value our freedom in this contentious time. Given his commitment to the principles of democracy and the protection of the Constitution and his years of experience and achievement domestically and internationally, there is no other choice.

That story needs to be told often and powerfully.

The fact is, you don't have to like him or always agree with him, but you do need to realize that our future depends on his re-election, because once democracy disappears, you never get it back - at least not for decades and then, only if you're lucky.

Every other issue, from the economy, taxes, gun control, reproductive-health care, First Amendment rights, education, a free press, and our stature in the world depends on saving our democracy.

It's that simple - and that urgent.

* * *

Americans are lucky. We haven't lived under an autocracy or a dictatorship. We have no idea what that's like in real terms, but it's never pretty.

There are many examples of how bad it is. To be clear, autocratic governments and dictatorships are similar, but there is a distinction between them, as the Carnegie Corporation of New York and others have noted.

As Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman point out in their article "How Do Dictatorships Survive in the 21st Century?," there are two important differences: An autocracy focuses power on a single person, while single-party dictatorships can share power through a small group of people who are appointed by the dictator.

Dictatorships always include inherent abuse of power, while some autocrats relying on centralized power can sometimes effect positive change for their citizens. Both autocrats and dictators, however, exercise total control.

It's important to realize that dictators have absolute power (think Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler). Human rights are suppressed, and any sign of opposition is quickly shut down with intimidation, imprisonment, physical violence, or assassination.

Citizens have virtually no freedom or agency over their lives and democracy is no longer the governing system. People can lose their religion, and they can see sexual orientation and same-sex marriage outlawed while security police become ubiquitous and surveillance prevalent. Over time, no one dares to trust anyone.

According to the Carnegie Corporation, democracies flourished in the 20th century but, by 2019, dictatorships outnumbered democracies and shared features - including repressed opposition, control of communications, punishment of critics, imposed ideology, and frequent attacks on democratic ideals. Cross-border travel stopped, and fear prevailed as information becomes propaganda.

* * *

In the course of my international work, I became aware of the reality of autocratic and dictatorial countries. Even knowing I could leave if I behaved myself, I sensed the oppression. A Kenyan woman advised me to be cautious about the kind of questions I asked.

In 1960s Greece, when the political future there was bleak, I naively remarked to a man sitting next to me on an airplane that I didn't think much of his government. He interrogated me for the rest of the journey about who I'd been speaking with.

In Romania - where the deceased dictator Ceaușescu had mandated monthly pelvic exams for female students and workers to ensure pregnancies were carried to term - I saw scores of children in an orphanage as a result. The visit shook me to the core.

In Burma, someone whispered her oppression, and in China, at the 1995 United Nations women's conference, as a journalist I was barred from opening ceremonies, and I suspected I was surveilled and tapped in my hotel room. My relief on the plane as we departed was palpable.

We need to think about what life was like in the Franco, Marcos, or Pinochet regimes in Spain, the Philippines, or Chile, respectively. Today, we must think about what life is like in Hungary under the control of Viktor Orbán. In power for years, he has "chipped away at the foundations of Hungarian democracy," as put it.

There, journalism requires permits, propaganda prevails, and refugees and Muslims are seen as an existential threat. Dissent is silenced or disappears if it occurs in public or on blogs. Books vanish from libraries and shops.

It didn't happen overnight. It was achieved gradually in subtle ways.

* * *

Nationalism, right-wing religion, militarism, anti-liberalism, and the silencing of citizens are deeply destructive forces that result in devastation and despair.

We cannot - we must not - ignore the signs of autocracy and fascism that already exist, or the dangerous pledges of Donald Trump. Nor can we think it can't happen here.

Our challenge is to ensure that autocracy or dictatorship not surprise us because we ignored its signals or couldn't envision such systems.

To protect ourselves and our country, we must exercise the strongest sign of resistance to oppression. That is our vote.

It is incumbent upon each of us to keep that focus as we head to local, state, and national polling stations.

We must be prepared to save our democracy.

This Voices column was submitted to The Commons.

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