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Cynicism: The Number One Threat To Democracy

Privilege And Naivete

For much of my life, I was extremely jaded with the system of politics here in the United States. Coming from a punk rock background, and being at least partially oblivious to my own personal privilege, my own perspective was that both of the major political parties were essentially the same, with only minor differences.

Like the Roman emperors giving out bread and circuses to the masses, the Democratic party sometimes gave out trinkets of economic justice and social reform in order to keep people voting for them, but the way I saw it, without a revolution, there wouldn't be any sort of meaningful reform. Perhaps I can be forgiven for having this viewpoint, considering that Bill Clinton was the first President to take advantage of new technologies and recently developed political strategies that allowed his administration to see whether a potential stance on a particular issue would be popular with voters or not. In other words, he didn't really seem to stand for anything other than staying in power, which was a pattern I would soon recognize over and over again with national and international politics.

While I was jaded with what I saw, I was also acutely aware of how badly in need of reform the system was. Wealth inequality was dramatically on the rise (although nowhere near as dramatic as it is today), and I saw that only a select few benefited from the way the system was rigged. I felt powerless to make any sort of meaningful change, at least if I was going to be operating within the system they had set up. Who were they? I wasn't really 100% sure, but I was certain that I wanted change, and I was sure I wanted it right now.

But Nothing's Changing!

Should you find yourself falling into the trap of cynicism, as I once did, it may be helpful to consider how much of a position of privilege this point of view is. If you're fortunate enough to be among the many Americans who have the luxury of feeling that there's no difference between Joe Biden's and Donald Trump's leadership or GOP control of congress, it's even more important to recognize that tens of millions of people are far, far better off right now.

  • Since Biden has taken office, child poverty is currently in the process of being cut in half. This affects millions of kids, and some parents now won't have to choose between lunch for their kids or rent
  • Covid deaths have been cut down from an all time high in January 2021 to less than one tenth of what they were only five months later. In large part, this is a direct result of simply taking the pandemic seriously
  • Over 500 arrests from the January 6th insurrection, including many white nationalists and terrorist organizations' leaders, have been made so far
  • The Department of Justice has openly stated that white nationalism is the number one threat to national security, and is acting accordingly
  • The US has rejoined the Paris Accord, sending a loud message to the rest of the world that we're actually making an effort to reduce carbon emissions and that we care about the environment
  • The EPA has been restored to a much more effective organization, with regulations that were removed under Trump being restored
  • Children being detained at the border dropped by a staggering 88% in a very short period of time

All of this change has happened in an insanely short amount of time, and it's tough to imagine democracy hanging on for much longer if Trump was still President, even without a majority in the Senate or House. If you find yourself pointing out all of the flaws in the administration, you are certainly entitled to do so, but it's vastly more important to point out how much better things are right now. Ask yourself who it benefits whenever you're tempted to be critical without adding the proper perspective of how much progress has already happened, and don't forget about the power of incremental change.

The slowly rolling snowball of human rights improvements will pick up momentum over time, but only if we help make sure that happens. As Martin Luther King Jr famously said, "We shall overcome because the arc of a moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." On the other hand, we have to make sure it actually continues to bend in that direction, and we need to participate in order to make sure we keep things moving in that direction.

The Power Of Incremental Change

There were two crucial points I completely missed with this perspective, and it simply may be a function of time passing for these things to be internalized in my mind. The first was the concept of incremental change, something I wasn't ready for at 19 or 20 years old. Over the last two and a half centuries, the United States has come an incredibly long way, and while there's plenty of work still ahead of us, from racial justice to economic opportunity for everyone and more, it is undeniable that life is vastly better for almost everyone, even though there are more than 330 million of us now.

While Clinton's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy seemed like a woefully inadequate slap in the face for my homosexual friends at the time, and only seemed to affect a tiny sliver of the gay population, in retrospect it was a part of a tiny legislative and cultural snowball that was already building steam in popular culture. Within three years, "Will and Grace" debuted on NBC, showcasing and normalizing a gay lead character. Ultimately, the dynamic duo of cultural iconography and legislation led us to protections for LGBTQ people all over the country, and to a growing perception of normalcy and acceptance. Again, we have a long way to go on this front, and the struggle is ongoing, but for anyone who grew up in the 70s and 80s, this is an undeniable fact: things are moving in the right direction, broadly speaking, for human rights.

Sure, there are orange blips on the radar from time to time, but over a span of decades, we are surely moving in the right direction. I've seen meaningful change take place for people of color, women, and other disaffected and disadvantaged groups of human beings who deserve to have the one thing nearly all Americans seem to agree is a good thing: equality of opportunity. I have to stress again that the work is far from done, and there are new battlefronts being uncovered all the time, but the change that I have seen is profound and undeniable. I've been alive long enough to have seen how much can change over time.

Other areas of incremental social change that had enormous payoffs and which improved the quality of life for millions of people include

  • Women's Suffrage, a multigenerational struggle that culminated in women being granted the right to vote in 1919
  • the Labor movement, which led to vast improvements in worker conditions and standards over time
  • correcting the perception that Europeans discovered America

Cynicism, the End of Democracy

While complacency has long been cited as an enemy of justice—back to the idea of bread and circuses—there is another much darker, more destructive force out there threatening to destroy our democracy: cynicism. Believing that "both sides are the same" or that your vote doesn't matter? This falls right into the hands of those who would favor autocracy, as long as it means they get to stay in power. This is absolutely crucial to understand.

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The second concept that took me some time to fully grasp—and, to be honest, I'm still coming to terms with it—is the idea that democracy is the form of government that requires the most work of its citizens. This might seem counterintuitive, since one of the goals of a form of government could be to reduce overall strife and reduce the amount of work required, but the fact is that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, as Jefferson never said.

To use an actual quote from someone who may not necessarily be the best representative of democracy and human rights, Winston Churchill, "democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." This means that it's messy, and the outcome we think should happen doesn't always happen; democracy can be subject to mob rule and uninformed, emotional opinions and, unfortunately, outcomes; and the path to progress is often lumpy and unpredictable. However, all you need to do is study history, which is replete with examples of other types of administrative structure in order to see nearly all of the most retrogressive and repressive regimes in all of human history.

However, democracy isn't an auto-pilot form of government, and this means that we need to pay attention to things that are going on. Because there are hundreds of millions of us now, things are a lot more complicated and nuanced than they were just a few decades ago, and that's not changing any time soon. And, since the American experiment has increasingly insisted on we the people governing ourselves, starting with a small handful of rich white landowners in the beginning and gradually increasing to include more and more groups of us, this means that the onus is on us to choose our leaders carefully.

In other words, research and understanding is a prerequisite for a successful democracy, and while the price of doing research about how things work and how they're run might not be terribly appealing, it is far, far better than all of the other alternatives. All of the alternatives involve taking power away from the people who are to be governed. .

Winston Churchill, an unlikely ally of democracy

Winston Churchill, an unlikely ally of democracy

The Power Of Using The System

Given that we find ourselves here in a vastly unfair system, where gerrymandering and voter suppression have been extremely effective tools allowing for minority rule in many instances, where does that leave us? Operating within the confines of the system is our only viable option, and nihilistic cynicism only benefits those seeking to cling to power while ruling. Mitch McConnell is certainly cold blooded, and not someone whose values I share in almost any sense, but he's also an absolute master politician, the type of Senator who comes along once in a generation or two.

There hasn't been as effective a leader in the senate since Lyndon B Johnson, whom Robert Caro writes brilliantly about in Master of the Senate (seriously, this is one of the best political books of all time, and the LBJ series is an absolute must-read for anyone seeking to understand how the power structure works in the US). LBJ was a paradox: a monster for much of his political career, helping to suppress the vote in order to retain power, and (by nearly all accounts) abrasive, narcissistic, and positively domineering in person; but when he had the reigns of the most powerful office on earth, he pushed through meaningful civil rights legislation. Does anyone see McConnell ever redeeming any of his past retrogressions?

Mitch McConnell, the 21st century's Master of the Senate

Mitch McConnell, the 21st century's Master of the Senate

McConnell has maintained his role as leader of the Republican Senate for more than a decade, in spite of an incredibly low approval rating. While it might not be very palatable for a progressive person to admire McConnell's tactics, it would be throwing out the baby with the bathwater not to study and learn from how he has been able to overcome the increasing unpopularity of the GOP's positions to maintain an effective strategy of stonewalling legislation overwhelmingly supported by Americans. To this point, Mitch has learned from history as very, very few others have, most infamously using the nuclear option in order to confirm 3 Supreme Court Justices in just four short years under the Trump administration. In other words, he has learned from his adversaries, and that's exactly what we need to be doing. In fact, this is already happening at a grassroots level: our version of McConnell is potentially even more effective and impressive, since she's a double threat.

Stacey Abrams, a generational leader

Stacey Abrams, a generational leader

In 2020, on-the-ground activism led to the unthinkable, as the state of Georgia, long considered a reliably Republican state, flipped blue (at least in terms of the Senate), as John Ossoff and Reverend Raphael Warnock won Senate seats to represent their state. While a very slim Democratic majority in the Senate makes passing legislation frustratingly challenging, it is difficult to understate how much worse things would be with power still in the hands of the GOP. Like McConnell, Stacey Abrams is a once-in-a-generation strategist and tactician who is single-mindedly focused on results. Unlike McConnell, Abrams is an impressive and inspiring speaker as well, with her vast intelligence and passion emanating naturally whenever she takes the podium. Ultimately, it took someone like Abrams to take the keys of power away from Mitch, and it will take us following her lead in order to preserve our fragile democracy.

Action Over Autocracy

Instead of falling into the trap of cynicism, which clearly benefits the existing power structure, follow Stacey's lead and channel all of your frustration into action. If you feel that your leaders don't represent your point of view, do the only thing that matters: get other like minded people to register to vote. And then make sure they vote, in both local and national elections. The GOP have openly spoken of making Biden a half term president, and to think they don't have the power to make it happen might be naive on our part. Let's not take that chance. Instead, let's build on everything this administration has accomplished so far, and work to widen what has turned out to be the slimmest of margins at the national level. Take only the actions that lead to preserving democracy. Think about how to win, as the enemies of democracy certainly are doing as you read this. Save democracy and vastly improve it over the next few short years.

2016 and 2020 brought a lot of privileged heads up out of the ground, including my own, and that should absolutely be celebrated. But 2022 may be the most important battle of this century, with the Republican party currently completely controlled by those who would take away our ability to decide how we are governed. Will we drive a stake through the vampire's heart by electing Senators and Representatives who will pass voter rights' protections, or will we walk away until nighttime, allowing control of the House and Senate to slip away forever? If we walk away now, we might never have a chance to drive the stake again. Gerrymandering and voter suppression will make sure that authoritarianism is the law of the land. Right now is this century's battlefront. Get out the vote, and get your friends and family registered to vote today.

© 2021 Andrew Smith

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