Reeducate The Liberals

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13 mins read

One of my followers on Twitter suggested that Trump supporters don’t understand that he poses a danger to democracy. 

I disagree. 

There may be a few Trump supporters who don’t understand the danger posed by a president who openly says that the way for him to stay in power is to “get rid of the ballots.” There may be single-issue voters who support Trump because he promises to enact their issue, so they overlook his obvious authoritarianism.

But I believe a good portion of the gung-ho diehard MAGA people get it. They want an authoritarian president. They find a strongman appealing. 

Richard Hofstadter talked about such people in his classic work:

Because on the whole, Trump voters tend to be less educated than those who support moderate or liberal candidates, people have the idea that the way to prevent another authoritarian president is to re-educate Trump voters.

I have a different idea: Re-educate those who favor liberal democracy so that they understand what it takes to keep democracy working. 

(For regular readers, some of what follows will be repetitive, but to make my argument that the people who need to be re-educated are liberals and Democrats, I have to cover some familiar ground.)

Many liberals and Trump critics have the idea that the United States has always been a liberal democracy—and then along came Trump, pulling the wool over his followers’ eyes and battering our democratic institutions. 

In fact, America didn’t move toward a true liberal democracy until Brown v. Board, the 1954 Supreme Court case that declared racial segregation unconstitutional. Brown sparked the modern Civil Rights Movement, which in turn gave rise to the women’s rights movement. Liberals cheered these changes. Many did not.

Trump is riding the backlash from those changes.

For most of U.S. history, Americans lived in a hierarchy. Think of slavery, Jim Crow, and women’s place in the home. Until the modern Civil Rights movement, what we now call voter suppression was legal. For most of our history, only white men voted. 

A person on Twitter told me, “Things have never been this bad.” People who think, “Things have never been this bad,” have probably never imagined what life was like for an African American woman in 1850. She didn’t even own her own body. Literally. So yeah, for a lot of Americans, things have been much, much worse. 

If you’re like me, before Trump, you had an idea of American history that went something like this: The founders had some good ideas, but they left too many people out of “we the people.” We started out with ‘we the people’ limited to white, mostly land-owning men. As more people came to be included in we the people, we came closer to realizing the ideals of the founders. I imagined the arc of history like this:

slope

There are other people who have the opposite view of American history. They look back nostalgically to a bygone era when America was more orderly. They pine for the good old days. Hoftstader, writing after the McCarthy era, says that those embracing the paranoid style of politics believe that unseen satanic forces are trying to destroy something larger in which they belong. The “something larger” to which they belong is  generally phrased as “the American way of life.” They “feel dispossessed” and that “America has been largely taken away from them and their kind.” They are “determined to repossess it and prevent the final act of subversion.”  They, therefore, adopt extreme measures. They will stop at nothing to prevent what they see as an impending calamity. Hofstader describes them as having a “paranoid style” in politics, but the usual political label is reactionary or regressive.

The “again” in “Make America Great Again” signifies reactionist politics. For them, the arc of history looks like this:

They think America is losing what is great. They feel a nostalgic longing to return to the past. 

The fact is that not everyone wants democracy. Some people prefer a hierarchy. They think nature naturally forms a hierarchy. They don’t think democracy is possible or desirable because they think it robs the people who are naturally at the top of the hierarchy and gives to the unworthy.

Moreover, democracy is grinding work requiring compromise. Purists who cannot compromise will never be comfortable in a democracy. Checks and balances naturally slow things down. Change doesn’t happen quickly. People who want Change Right Now will also not feel comfortable in a democracy. They prefer a strongman who promises to break rules and break through the red tape to get things done.

There are also single issue voter who feel so passionately about their issue that they will vote for the strongman who promises to enact their agenda. 

“My way or the highway,” isn’t democratic. It’s authoritarian.

When my son was three he came home from preschool and told me, “Today we learned about taking turns.” He added, “I don’t like taking turns. I want all the turns.” (Don’t worry; he grew up to be a nice young man.) Some people still want all the turns. Wanting all the turns may come more naturally than a willingness to compromise. 

Now, back to liberals. We learned in school that the heroes—Martin Luther King, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Susan B. Anthony, the early abolitionists, and others—did the hard work. These heroes battled racism and sexism and made democracy safe for all people.

Liberals and progressives born after the modern Civil Rights movement inherited an expanding liberal democracy. Sometimes people who inherit something feel entitled to their inheritance. They don’t think they have to work for it. They believe the future is set. They imagine themselves in a boat drifting naturally toward a more diverse and inclusive future.

Then, to use Timothy Snyder’s phrase, “Trump broke the story.” 

People were shocked. Snyder also explains that “shock is pre-helpless.” If you think “this wasn’t supposed to ever happen!” you are taken by surprise. You don’t know what to do. You think nothing can be done. When Trump acts like a strongman, breaks rules, and threatens democracy, you become paralyzed with panic. 

People on Twitter tell me that the very fact that Trump breaks laws and isn’t in jail means that rule of law has failed. For them, it’s all or nothing: We are either a democracy or an autocracy. Trump is acting like an autocrat, therefore, democracy has failed. In fact, there is a thing called “competitive authoritarianism,” which is what happens when a democracy leans toward authoritarianism: The government has both democratic and authoritarian elements. In other words, there exist shades of gray. 

Wouldn’t it have been helpful in your high school civics class if you had been taught that democracies are never completely stable and are always in danger of slipping toward oligarchy and authoritarianism?

People who argue that “Trump breaks laws, therefore rule of law is dead” have never been taught that democratic institutions are imperfect. Fairness and justice are goals we work toward, but like a mathematical limit, we can never arrive. Because institutions are made up of mortals, perfection is impossible. 

Too many progressives and liberals don’t actually understand how to build democratic institutions, so when someone like Trump batters them, they don’t know how to rebuild them. They think battered is destroyed forever. We need to teach liberals how to build democratic institutions so that when democratic institutions become battered and bruised and maybe even torn down, they’ll know how to build them back up. 

People who prefer democracy must understand that there will always be people and forces working against democracy. I now understand that the graph of history looks like this:

Liberals and progressives push forward. Reactionaries and regressive push backward. It’s a constant struggle and never ends unless the liberals give up (because the reactionaries never will).

People who prefer democracy must understand that if they want a democracy, they can’t drift along in the boat. They have to take responsibility and paddle. (If you’re wondering “How do I do that?” click here for ideas.) Autocracy is for the lazy. You get up, go to work, don’t think about politics, wear blinders, and do what you’re told to do.

People who want democracy need to learn the most effective ways to reach people who think they’re better off in a hierarchy. People who want democracy need to stop falling for the Strongman Con.

Here’s the thing about democracy: At any time, if a majority of voters decide they no longer want it and get behind a strongman, democracy will cease to exist. It can be built back, of course, but building something back is much harder than preserving it.

People who want democracy need to learn to have reasonable expectations.

Comments like the one above make me wonder how the the checks and balances have failed. Trump has been in office more than 3.5 years. We still have meaningful elections. You can say anything you want without worrying about being arrested. We have a free press. The GOP lost the midterms and elections since. Operation Ukraine Shakedown failed. Courts have rebuked Trump repeatedly.

The above comment comes from from one of these ways of thinking

  • we are already an autocracy” (we are not)
  • it’s all Nancy Pelosi’s fault for not Doing Something” (she is not an all-powerful strongman and her power is limited), or
  • unreasonable expectations: “The president hasn’t been frogmarched from the White House in handcuffs, so rule of law has failed.”

After we get through this, we need to re-educate liberals so they understand better how to prevent (and how to respond to) a would-be autocrat.


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Teri has written novels, short stories, nonfiction for both young readers and adults, and lots of legal briefs. She is currently working on a book on disinformation to be published by Macmillan Publishers. Her political commentary has appeared on the NBC Think Blog and CNN.com. Her articles and essays have appeared in publications as diverse as Education Week, Slate Magazine, and Scope Magazine. Her short fiction has appeared in the American Literary View, The Iowa Review, and others. For twelve years she maintained a private appellate law practice limited to representing indigents on appeal from adverse rulings. She believes with the ACLU that when the rights of society's most vulnerable members are denied, everybody's rights are imperiled. She also believe with John Updike that the purpose of literature is to expand our sympathies. Teri lives with her family on the beautiful central coast in California.

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