This Election Day presents a decision we may never have the opportunity to make again, a choice between democracy and authoritarianism.
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Today, we face an unavoidable inflection point in the American experiment: a simple choice between democracy and authoritarianism. This singular decision is the product of untold others we have already made, declared and secret, quick or ponderous, as individuals or as a country. But whether the current moment is the result of decades of predictable partisan collapse or the unique dark alchemy produced at the crossroads of Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump, one fundamental truth remains: We are not prepared.
This election is unprecedented. Never before have we had such a stark contrast between the two candidates and the parties they represent, held in the midst of a lethal pandemic and all the logistics therein; never before have we had so many voters participate by mail, resulting in the most extraordinary tally of votes cast before Election Day. And never before have we wondered whether any of that matters.
Republicans have sabotaged every lever of electoral sovereignty, and we have no way of knowing whether they have successfully prevented certain votes from being cast, fatally damaged the systems designed to count them, or if they have gained such arbitrary power over election law that there is more value in the tally of Republicans in a given state legislature than there is in the number of ballots in the box for Democrats. While there is no telling what results Election Day will bring, the GOP is clearly planning pandemonium.
This was not a strategy hatched overnight, born of opportunism and desperation. At every turn, the Republican Party has rejected the legitimacy of shared government, dismantled and dismissed every mechanism of accountability, and constructed an infinite web of lies and distortions to cover their crimes against the republic. At every turn, we chose to watch and wait.
We waited for Electoral College defections, for special prosecutors, for Senators Susan Collins or Mitt Romney or Lisa Murkowski to take a stand, for midterm victories, for grownups in the room. We waited for civility and the rule of law and for our distinguished and disciplined military to recoil in disgust. We have waited so long to choose action that we are now confronted by chaos.
Those who warned were turned away; those who interrogated, exiled to the fringes. To effect change, truth has to be centered, given gravitas, offered space. Instead, questioning the margins or legitimacy of the 2016 elections was practically a conspiracy theory, and suggesting a looming coup was hysterical. The collective decision of the polity was to salvage norms, engage in good faith, and hope for a pivot at best and manage the drama at worst. Those of us pushed to the margins expressed what could not be accepted: We are not in a battle of ideology, or principle, or vision; we are in a fight for power.
In a contest of power, there are those who seize it and those who wait for it to be gifted. For weeks before the 2016 election, Donald Trump called it “rigged,” in anticipation of a loss; in the weeks and months after the election, we conferred legitimacy upon the resulting win. We wavered in seeking out a public and comprehensive understanding of what Russian intelligence operations did within American election systems, and our opponents took advantage by keeping all of the information behind security clearances and redaction. We don’t know how vulnerable this election is, because, in effect, we never asked.
Instead, we have relied on systems that were pushed to their limits and beyond. We put stock in Robert Mueller, impeachment, tax revelations, and super-spreader events, expecting that surely, something would purge him from office. In return, corruption in our opposition became not merely common, but expected. There was no question that Republicans in the House and Senate would defend the lies and crimes of the executive, undermine or ignore the enforcement of Congressional subpoenas, and even violate laws themselves in coordination with the White House if it would prevent accountability. With the nomination and confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, Republicans have demonstrated that any norm, any rule, any check or balance, can be forsaken for their political fortunes—and any resulting protest is cast with partisanship.
The effort to craft partisan reality is where our polity has been the most permissive, and at the greatest cost. What started as opinion shows on primetime cable has evolved into a massive propaganda system that is so thoroughly constructed that millions of people are entirely consumed within an alternate existence: What Republicans do is always good; what Democrats demand is always a threat to America as they know it. On the ground, regular voters insist that there are widespread human trafficking operations behind the Democratic Party structure, paid for in cash from a shadowy cabal of elites, all to facilitate the ANTIFA takeover of cities. Within the party, conspiracy theorists are elevated to federal and state offices, and a Supreme Court nominee promoted crackpot theories on Twitter and insisted that their credible accusation of sexual assault was the product of elaborate Clintonian revenge schemes.
We have been complicit by denying the deliberate construction of propaganda and pretending that those who imbibed it were misled or misguided. Leaving unchallenged the warped perspectives of regular people inside the information bubble transformed into an act of political comity. Attacks on media outlets for bias were normalized as “working the refs,” and access journalism rewarded and lauded despite often offering deliberately fabricated falsehoods. They have told us, again and again, who they are, and we deny the little truth they offer us. In this election, they may force us to accept the lie.
The uncertainty and chaos of the election today represents a failure of imagination, an inability to seize the power embedded in popular representation and defend the very same from autocratic impulse. Fascism came for us, and too many of us froze. We wanted to believe that the system was strong enough to withstand our worst impulses, that it could save us from ourselves.
In this contest, we will know if we are now ready to stand in defense of ourselves, our ideal, our grand experiment. We will know if we will accept the forced unreality of authoritarianism or chart a new path forward in representative government. We will succumb to power, or we will wield it.
In Latin, they say, “Sic vis pacem, para bellum”: “If you desire peace, prepare for war.” After today’s election, we will discover what we are prepared for.
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