The rule of Vladimir Putin is instructive in relation to how a democracy dies, albeit a nascent democracy in the case of post-Soviet Russia. When the autocrat successfully creates a context in which the vast majority of people have given up on democratic processes to remove the autocrat from power, autocracy has won and democracy is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to recover. In the case of Putin, this was done with often violent and sometimes murderous suppression of his political opposition, collaborating with Russian oligarchs to consolidate their political support and control the Russian economy, eradicating a free press, appealing to Christian nationalism and religious prejudices to gain support of religious institutions and their adherents, removing any time limits on holding the highest office in the land, and eliminating through force any meaningful expression of opposition in the media or in the public at large.
Autocrats like Putin would like for their citizenry to believe that there is no way to change society through their political participation, unless of course it is change that is desired by the autocrats. Autocrats want their citizens to believe that they do not have the ability to remove them from power and to believe it is hopeless to improve things beyond the status quo through which autocrats maintain and expand their power.
In the United States, we have seen autocrats use a similar playbook as they systematically attempt to create a sense of hopelessness among progressives seeking a more vibrant democracy. Autocrats have implemented a series of measures making it more difficult to move the social needle in a more democratic direction. One of the keys to creating an increasing sense of hopelessness for a pro-democracy progressive electorate in the United States has been the capturing of the Supreme Court by Republicans, a capture which was solidified for a generation by blocking the appointment of Merrick Garland as a justice.
An autocracy friendly Supreme Court has allowed nearly unlimited amounts of money from individuals and corporations into politics through its Citizens United decision, it has upheld extreme gerrymandering throughout the country that creates a lack of political competition and an under representation of persons of color, and it gutted the Voting Rights Act through the removal of federal pre-clearance of new voting provisions in historically discriminatory contexts – a move that has allowed many states to pass voter suppression legislation that disproportionately negatively affects persons of color.
And now with the spread of former President Trump’s big lie about election fraud in 2020, autocrats are attempting to capture election processes not only through voter suppression legislation but also through the placement of corrupt election officials and Secretaries of State who are amenable to dismantling the protection of free and fair elections.
The propaganda used by autocratic forces is full of disinformation, much of which is meant to bolster the Republican base, but it is also used to cultivate hopelessness among pro-democracy citizens. The autocratic propaganda misleads progressives to believe that both political parties are the same, that no one running is worth voting for, that there is is no way to defeat the autocrats through voting, and that resistance in general in futile.
You may have noticed that Hungary has become a model for many American autocrats. This is because autocrats in Hungary have been successful over the past ten years in more fully implementing many of measures American autocrats have been attempting to implement in the United States. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has been extremely successful in using gerrymandering to maintain and expand his political power, creating something akin to an almost permanent minority rule. He has also been successful in using racism and religion to strengthen and make use of Christian nationalism as a political force in Hungary. Instead of seeing this as a danger to democracy that should be condemned, American autocrats see Hungary as a blueprint for expansion of their power in the United States.
What can be done to keep progressive pro-democracy persons in the United States from falling into a state of despair and hopelessness in which autocrats would like them to wallow? Here are some potential responses to fight back against the autocratic agenda and propaganda:
- Vote in every election (from local to national)- every single one! Autocrats do not want you to vote. Even if your candidate loses, by voting you are resisting the will of the autocrats and modeling political participation for other pro-democracy persons and groups. Sometimes an election loss can be a kind of victory if it can be shown that progress is being made through greater voter turnout and narrowing the gap of the election loss. Momentum can be built over time that can lead to election breakthroughs – see Arizona and Georgia as two recent examples.
- Support election and voting reforms that will enhance voter participation such as ranked choice instant runoff voting where voters can rank their preferences and can always vote their first choice without harming their second choice or helping their least favorite choice. Work for proportional representation as opposed to our current winner take all election format so that more persons can be more fairly represented in government. Organize and press for the use of the national popular vote for the presidency and work tirelessly for reforms that will end gerrymandering and implement independent redistricting for a more just and representative democracy.
- Press for reform of the U.S. Senate so that states like Wyoming don’t have the same number of senators as the state of California. Such reform may take time and effort, and it may never happen, but pro-democracy forces should be on the offense against such undemocratic institutions rather than simply accepting them as a given.
- Press for codifying reproductive choice, voting rights, climate justice, rights to access to contraception, and marriage equality into federal law. Autocratic forces are working to use the Supreme Court to remove all of these rights, and pro-democracy forces should be on offense to protect all of these rights by federal law.
- Work for judicial reform, including term limits for justices on the Supreme Court of the United States. Require the U.S. Senate to hold hearings and votes on judicial nominees in a timely manner.
In summary, the autocrats want pro-democracy persons to give up, to feel hopeless, to stop believing in democratic political processes. The best way to resist the autocrats is by redoubling our enthusiasm for and commitment to democracy and to use every non-violent democratic tool at our disposal to keep hope in democracy alive because we know from the evidence in other countries that the more democratic and participatory we are; the more healthy, more happy, more educated, more sustainable, more free, more just, and less corrupt we will be as a nation.
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