Are We Too Far Gone?

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11 mins read

Part 1 of 2

This post started as a YouTube video. You can see it here.

Today I plan to talk about a question I often get: “Is it too late to save democracy?” 

I’ve observed what seems to be a state of almost constant panic or despair among people who follow news and politics. I’m talking about concerned people who are engaged and follow closely. I’ve wondered if it’s a social media thing or a Twitter thing. It’s definitely a Democratic or left-of-center feeling. 

What I want to do now is give a thorough answer, including an analysis of the question itself.

First, a few truths:

Yes, we’re at a crucial time. I believe later historians will look back on this moment as crucial.

Panic doesn’t help. Panic never helps.

Among other things, I suggest that the question “Is it too late?” comes from exhaustion, despair, and panic. I also believe that social media, particularly Twitter, is a panic-creating machine. Finally, I think that “Is it too late to save democracy?” is the wrong question. The historically correct question is: Is it possible for the United States to achieve a functioning multiracial democracy?” — because we’ve never actually had one. We’ve come close over the past 50 years, but the pushback has been intense.

One reason people (well, Democrats and people left of center) feel exhausted all the time is because the Republicans need to create constant crises and spectacle. Their economic policies are not only unpopular but their policies actually hurt their constituents — if the discussion is policy-based, the Republicans will lose support.

So they stir up cultural wars. The idea is to get the fighters fighting and keep them fighting because if everyone is fighting, nobody has time or energy to talk about economic policies. Also, these cultural wars trigger so much fear in their own supporters that economic policies seem less important to them. They’re so fired up over the latest manufactured cultural war that they don’t care (and maybe they don’t even notice) that the economic agenda pushed by their leaders actually hurts them.

Keeping everyone busy fighting and dealing with manufactured crises is how leaders with unpopular economic policies “govern.” 

Remember the nonsense about how the Democrats wanted to cancel Dr. Seuss? Or how Democrats were waging a war on Christmas? Well, the manufactured critical race theory “crisis” is much more effective because it triggers fears of white replacement in the Fox-viewing crowd.

In February, the month after Biden took office, right-wing media suddenly started talking about critical race theory.

What a coincidence, right? Of course, it’s not a coincidence. It’s a way not to talk about economic policies and the science surrounding controlling Covid.

Another reason you feel despair is because part of the right-wing strategy is to do outrageous things right out there in public. They don’t hide what they are doing. They lie outrageously — and it’s demoralizing to see it. In fact, sometimes I think someone like Ted Cruz sits there designing his tweets for maximum outrage. Just to take an example (and not even one of the more outrageous examples but a recent one), Ted Cruz tweeted this:

I want to pause to point out what this tweet is doing. Yale professor and historian Timothy Snyder coined a word: sadopopulism. The formula goes like this. 

  • Enact policies that cause pain in your own constituents (in this case, discourage vaccinations)
  • Identify an “enemy”
  • Blame the pain on the “enemy” 
  • Present yourself as the strongman able to fight the “enemy”

I’ve observed that when Republicans select an “enemy,” they prefer a harmless one like homeless migrant families. Remember the caravan “scare” just before the 2018 midterm elections? When people not caught up in the right-wing media bubble are confronted with such an obvious distortion, it’s natural to have a strong reaction: horror, anger, a desire to mock Ted Cruz, a desire to point out the lies. It’s alarming to see elected officials tell such brazen, ugly, destructive lies. It’s also exhausting, particularly when it happens repeatedly in rapid succession. And that’s the goal. If we’re all worn out and fatigued, we can’t do the work we need to do. Right-wing leaders have to keep their supporters scared and keep you outraged, which creates a feedback loop. When the left is outraged, the right gets stoked.

Other factors causing people to feel despair and exhaustion are social media behavior and algorithms. If I tweet: “Democracy is hanging by a thread! We don’t have much time! This is a crisis!” Or if I come up with a plausible hair-on-fire, democracy-will-be-destroyed-unless-x-happens-quickly scenario, I’m likely to get a lot of attention. I’ve seen it happen repeatedly over the past few years.

Some people just want to be popular. There are also some scholars and serious journalists who believe that if they don’t state very strongly that democracy is in trouble, people won’t pay attention. But the people who are paying attention get bombarded and worn out. Headlines are designed to get clicks. Social media, which is click-driven and focuses on headlines, not substance, is literally a panic-creating machine.

How many headlines like this can you see before you feel overwhelmed:

In a headline-driven, clickbait world, there isn’t enough perspective or context. For example, there’s a theory that sort of goes like this: “Over the past 50 years or so, the Republicans turned to corruption and lawbreaking and started trying to create an oligarchy.”

That statement isn’t false, but it ignores the rest of our history, which provides context and perspective. The statement gives you the sense that we once had (or we now have) a lovely democracy and the Republicans are trying to undermine it.

Since the modern civil rights and women’s rights movements, we’ve been trying to create — for the first time in America — a multiracial democracy, and Republicans are trying to prevent that from happening. 

Before the civil rights movement, we had a functioning representative democracy in which the leaders generally acted in the best interests of their constituents. But the constituents were white and before 1920, they were white men. Democratic institutions worked only for them.

One of the many themes from Heather Cox Richardson’s books is that American history has been a constant struggle between the forces trying to create an oligarchy and the forces trying to create and expand democracy. 

By “expand democracy” I mean “include more people.”

This is the important part: the struggle isn’t new. It didn’t suddenly start in the past 50 years. Also — and this is from Richardson — we have had two oligarchies in our history. Before the Civil War, 1% of the population, southern slave owners, controlled all three branches of government. We had our second oligarchy during the age of robber barons, from the late 19th century until the New Deal. Power was concentrated in the hands of few wealthy white men, mostly business tycoons but also families that had accumulated wealth.

I have had people tell me, “Things have never been as bad as they are now.” One answer is: Let me tell you about the 1920s. Racial segregation was legal. There was no social security, minimum wage, or worker protections. People couldn’t climb out of the poverty cycle.

We got out of our second oligarchy, the age of robber barons and industry tycoons, with the New Deal. But Black Americans were still mostly left out. Then we come to the civil rights movement, which was (among other things) an attempt to include them. 

The pushback since the civil rights movement has been intense, and we’re still riding the backlash.  

I’ve often said that the outrageous and destructive behavior you’re seeing now among Republicans is happening because their constituents are Proud Boys and other white supremacist groups — and they know they are losing. They can see we’re moving from a country in which whites controlled all of our institutions (courts, government, universities) into a multiracial democracy, and they’re afraid they are being replaced.


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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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